Kissing the Canvas: The Fight Between Costume and Fashion

Costume is expression. Fashion is expression. Many people have their set ideas about the two. When it comes to costume, focus is on the character and you must dress the person accordingly, with jewels if they are rich, rags if they are poor, sharp tailoring if they are powerful or in grey if they are advanced in years. The character that you read about in the script tells you what they should be wearing. Fashion, however, centres on its desire to be different, new and ever flourishing into a fresh bloom. It is ever being reborn, while costume is rooted in tradition. Or so it seems. The divide between costume and fashion appears to be vast. But take a moment with me, and let’s look closer. I vow the two are actually not as entirely different from each other as they seem. Let us see the beauty in the modern morphing of disciplines!

Certainly, in more recent times, the lines distinguishing costume and fashion have begun to blurr, with fashion designers becoming more theatrical in the garments they create and their catwalk shows, notably in the work of the late Alexander McQueen (as well as his successor Sarah Burton) and Vivienne Westwood. These designers seem to be ever branching out and not only pushing the boundaries but breaking entirely out of the box to try and keep ahead of the exploding culture that we in the West now inhabit, a culture that is overrun with such ‘style-icons’ as the controversial and cartoon-like Lada Gaga. As the ‘fashion conscious’ in our society lean more towards a surreal take on what they wear, numerous fashion designers seem to be taking their designs further into a realm akin to theatre. This is a place where attire is over the top, reminiscent of characters and ages from the past with a fantastical exaggerated twist. I say, this is a realm of costume! Just look at Helena Bonham Carter in any of her red-carpet outfits! Do they not hark back to her Burton-directed characters?

As fashion has more and more of a say in our world, with media saturating every aspect of our modern lives, the power of attire is being recognised, and increasingly people are using their clothes to play a part: To show their character, or the character they want to portray. Fashion is about expressing a personality. In that sense, it is costume!

And what of costume? It seems to be becoming a fashion trend in itself! How often in the last few years has a blockbuster film initiated a wave of high street imitations and couture interpretations of the clothes featured? For example, with the prevalence in recent years of early 1900s style in highly successful films and TV dramas such as The King’s Speech and Downton Abbey, it is no surprise that such low-waisted dresses, figure skimming silhoettes, ‘tea dresses’ and light fabrics can now be seen in Ralph Lauren’s Spring/Summer 2012 collection. The public see glamourous people onscreen, they follow their fictional stories and want to embody a little of those characters. Costume informs fashion, and thus is becoming a part of fashion!

And costume is not just a representation of how a character might be. It is style. Costume is not a simple set of clothes for a person. It is stylised to create a stylish, sexy, sophistocated or provocative, and potentially iconic example of what the character might wear. We as human beings respond so fervently to visuals, and any good costumer knows this. Marlon Brando did not simply wear a white t-shirt when playing Stanley in A Streetcar Named Desire because his character was poor and could afford nothing fancier. Look at him in that t-shirt. Up until that moment, the t-shirt had been a slip-on garment worn under the uniform of soldiers. An undergarment. Yet throughout the majority of Streetcar, Brando wears the t-shirt as the sole attire on his torso. Thus he is defined as a rebel. This is not the extent of the force carried by this simple item of attire however. At that time, t-shirts were loose fitting, not intended to be seen. Fitted t-shirts did not exist and so the one for Brando had to be specially made. Instantly, not only is the sexually aggressive and rebellious nature of Stanley Kowalski expressed, but also a style icon is created. The costume designer Lucinda Ballard surely suspected that she was creating such an icon, despite the simplicity of her choice of attire for this male star. He is a stylised thug. A beautified ruffian. That is not how a man in his position would look in real life. It is a stylised, or should I say it is a stylish version of real life. And what is such stylishness if not an aspect of fashion?

Thus, the lines between fashion and costume have blurred: Their respective warp and weft are becoming interwoven. Jean-Paul Gaultier cast aside the dividing line to design the costumes for Luc Besson’s 1997 film The Fifth Element, starring Bruce Willis. And back in 1924, even Coco Chanel made the step over from fashion to design the costumes for the ballet Le Train Bleu. Certainly, the link between fashion and costume cannot be denied. And it is this link that I believe gives costume one of its greatest merits. It has the power to affect a generation, to change the public’s view, to twist tradition into something new. To set a challenge for fashion.

Where we would be without Lucinda Ballard and Brando’s t-shirt? Still in stiff shirts with tall collars.