Great costume design furthers the narrative and reveals character. We pick the best costume design of the year, and explain how they enliven films beyond the surface. Read the rest of our best of the year content here.
Great costume design furthers the narrative and reveals character — after all, what could tell you more about a person than how they choose to present themselves to the world every morning? Whether the film is set in 1800 or 2017, costume design is one of the most expressive, and undervalued, tools in a filmmaker’s creative arsenal. We’ve picked our six favourite examples of costume design in 2017, analyzing how they enliven films beyond the surface.
Atomic Blonde’s entertainment value relies entirely on the thrill of watching Charlize Theron’s MI6 agent, Lorraine Broughton, ruthlessly murder her enemies. The plot is nonsensical, an excuse to watch Theron as an action star. The film just about skates by on the ‘cool’ factor, because of Theron: her star charisma and her look.
As a film directed by a man that heavily relies on its audience’s desire to gape at its female lead, there was a danger Atomic Blonde would be another sexist action-thriller shot through the male gaze. However, costume designer Cindy Evans presents Theron’s character as self-possessed and intelligent: her outfits discourage gross objectification and encourage us to instead be awed by her physical strength and command. Lorraine only wears revealing clothing when it makes sense: she tries to seduce French operative Delphine (Sofia Boutella) in skimpy leather, and when she’s alone in her hotel room, she lounges in nothing but her underwear and a loose-fitting, comfortable sweater.'In ATOMIC BLONDE, Theron's outfits discourage gross objectification and encourage us to instead be awed by her physical strength and command.'Click To Tweet
But when Lorraine is on the job, with the sole aim of defeating opponents and retrieving information, her clothes are thoroughly practical (yet still enviably stylish). In the film’s infamous centrepiece — a ten-minute, one-take fight that moves from a stairway to the streets — Lorraine wears boots with an almost flat heel, a turtleneck sweater, and a belted heavy coat.
She’s in Berlin — it’s cold outside! The skimpy tank tops forced on most female action heroes would make no sense. Neither would stilettos; they’re simply no good if your murderous brawls involve trekking up and down multiple flights of stairs. Lorraine seems all the more powerful because her clothes suit her own needs rather than those of an objectifying audience. – Orla Smith
Sofia Coppola’s Civil War thriller, The Beguiled is about a Virginia girls’ school that takes in a strapping Union casualty. Costume designer Stacy Battat deserves plaudits for unobtrusively making the inhabitants of Miss Martha’s academy seem otherworldly, even in the midst of war. Battat dressed all the women in pale tones and pastels, from the young students, to schoolmistress Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), to the formidable Miss Martha herself (Nicole Kidman). The voluminous skirts may be historically accurate, but the colours are hardly realistic: with all the slaves run off, how do they keep their whites so sparkling white while doing chores and tending the garden? These are young ladies not accustomed to ‘doing’ for themselves — their clothing should be grimy, and they should be wearing practical jewel tones rather than cream and floral prints. The unnaturally pristine skirts heighten the air of unreality that pervades the school, the sense that this is a place out of step with worldly events. When reality does intrude, in the form of marauding soldiers or an impromptu amputation, it’s all the more jarring amid the billows of gauzy cotton.'The unnaturally pristine skirts in THE BEGUILED heighten the air of unreality that pervades the school, the sense that this is a place out of step with worldly events.'Click To Tweet
One of the most visually striking moments in the film owes much to Battat’s efforts: after months of toil and boredom, the girls pull out their finest gowns for a dinner to celebrate Corporal McBurney’s ongoing recovery. After dinner, Miss Martha leads her charges in prayer. Apple green, sky blue, and ballet pink skirts billow out like little silken puffballs, as the girls cluster together, heads bowed but smiling slightly, aware that they’re being observed. We see what the handsome Corporal McBurney sees: women performing piety, part-sincerely, part-set piece.
Battat’s achievement is most evident when Coppola’s film is contrasted with Don Siegel’s 1971 film of the same name (both are adaptations of the same novel). Whereas the 1971 film is earthy, the colours vibrant, Battat’s women are delicate in their whites and pastels. One almost imagines that light could pass through them. Battat’s costume design exemplifies what sets Coppola’s remake apart: whereas in 1971, the girls’ school was a sweat-soaked cathouse, in Coppola’s version, Miss Martha’s school is a still-standing relic of a dying age. In their pale dresses, the girls and their schoolmistress are as ghostly and ethereal as the mist that hovers amid the Spanish moss. – Mary Angela Rowe