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
Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer in Call Me by Your Name
At the start of Call Me by Your Name, 24-year-old Oliver (Armie Hammer) is nothing more than an object of desire to 17-year-old Elio (Timothée Chalamet). Elio can’t touch Oliver, and he doesn’t yet have the courage to engage in anything more than small talk: his obsession begins as purely visual.
Costume designer Giulia Piersanti chooses outfits that ensure the image of Oliver is vividly imprinted in Elio’s mind and the audience’s — ready to obsess over. Oliver’s short shorts reveal as much skin as possible, emphasising his towering, statuesque physique. The closest Elio can get to Oliver is through his clothes; Elio sneaks into Oliver’s room and puts his head in Oliver’s pair of red shorts. In André Aciman’s novel, Elio even names one of Oliver’s shirts: “billowy”, a floaty, button-down number that Oliver wears when he first arrives that summer. It’s always at least partially open, revealing some chest hair, seducing onlookers with the thought that there’s more just underneath the light, thin fabric.
As a young man still growing into himself, Elio is not yet able to fill out his own clothes, particularly noticeable when he wears oversized shirts or sweaters. Placed in contrast to Oliver, such as when they’re side by side wearing only shorts, Elio stands out as scrawnier, bare-chested, and less comfortable in his own body. Like many angsty teenagers who are insecure and unsure of themselves, Elio adorns himself with signifiers of his personality: bracelets made of different coloured strings, patterned shirts and trunks, or his ‘Talking Heads’ t-shirt, branded to suggest his taste.
As Elio’s and Oliver’s relationship deepens, Oliver’s clothing starts to hold emotional significance for Elio, too. “Billowy” now symbolises the start of his and Elio’s relationship, and its romantic development. That’s why Elio asks to keep the shirt when Oliver goes, to remember him by. Similarly, Oliver’s green shirt becomes haunted by the memories of the most intimate, passionate moments of their relationship. Oliver wears it the night they first have sex, on their last night together, and on the morning after, when they say their final goodbyes. The shirt comes to represent Oliver at his happiest; he wears it the last time we see him, a reminder of what he and Elio had, and what they are about to lose.'In CALL ME BY YOUR NAME, wearing Oliver’s clothes is the closest Elio can get to inhabiting Oliver’s skin.'Click To Tweet
When they have sex, Oliver asks Elio, “call me by your name, and I’ll call you by mine”, expressing their desire for intimacy so strong that their beings become interchangeable. Earlier, Elio simply wanted to be like Oliver; he mimics Oliver’s clothing, puts on similar shoes to those Oliver wears on the dance floor, and starts wearing a Star of David necklace after seeing Oliver proudly wear his own. As they become more intimate, though, Elio doesn’t just dress in clothes like Oliver’s; he wears the real thing, walking around the villa in “billowy”. Wearing Oliver’s clothes is the closest he can get to inhabiting Oliver’s skin. He keeps the shirt on when Oliver leaves, crying in the car on the way home. This piece of clothing is the last reminder of the physical closeness to Oliver he once felt.
Oliver uses sunglasses to hide his vulnerabilities, putting up a suave front that Elio tries to replicate. At the start of their relationship, when Oliver is still an enigma, he wears sunglasses frequently, making his expression unreadable. The backrub Oliver gives Elio was an attempted advance, but Elio misreads this, partially because Oliver’s shades hide his eyes — he’s too afraid to open himself to scrutiny, preferring to maintain a façade of cool. Elio interprets this as indifference, and tries to mirror it by wearing sunglasses himself, only removing them when he finds the courage to reach out and make himself vulnerable. The morning after they have sex, it’s Oliver who keeps his face unguarded while Elio closes off and hides his eyes. But after they reconcile later that day, you never see sunglasses again; they have reached peak intimacy, and no longer need to use clothing to hide.
Piersanti uses costumes to show how other characters reveal and conceal their vulnerabilities, too, such as Elio’s sometimes girlfriend, Marzia (Esther Garrel). During their courtship, she makes herself vulnerable, physically and emotionally, to Elio. Piersanti dresses her in clothes made of pale, thin fabric, or no clothes at all. When she senses rejection from Elio, though, she covers herself in thicker fabric with bold colours — a form of self-protection. – OS
The protagonists of both Hope Dickson Leach’s The Levelling and Francis Lee’s God’s Own Country are heavily defined by growing up in rural England. The Levelling’s Clover (Ellie Kendrick) left the farm she grew up on to go to university, but when she returns it’s evident how much the place still haunts her. Johnny (Josh O’Connor), in God’s Own Country, has lived on a farm all his life, his surly, withdrawn attitude exacerbated by this geographical isolation. Costume design is a big part of why we feel what it’s like to be in these places so strongly: both characters wear many layers of protective clothing when working on their farms, making their frames bulky, and adding weight to their gait. Our sense of hearing is engaged by the crinkle of the fabric as they walk; our sense of touch is stirred by the tactile, textured fabric of knitwear. These thick jumpers are worn frequently, emphasising the harsh cold of the setting.'For both protagonists of GOD'S OWN COUNTRY and THE LEVELLING, a red jumper of their loved one holds huge significance.'Click To Tweet
In both films, the protagonist yearns for someone they have lost: Clover for her recently deceased brother, and Johnny for his romantic partner, Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu), when they are separated. For both characters, a red jumper of their loved one holds huge significance. Gheorghe frequently wears his throughout the film, and leaves it behind when he goes; Johnny finds it and puts it on, longing to be closer to Gheorghe. Clover finds her brother’s jumper and decides to wear it, too. The boldness of red against the typical muted palette of a social realist drama makes these clothes stand out, a reminder of the love and warmth their owners each brought to Clover’s and Johnny’s lives. There’s a rip in the fabric of Clover’s brother’s sweater, a reminder that this piece of clothing has history; he made that rip when he still had life in him. – OS
Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper is a ghost story set in the shadow side of high fashion. Maureen (Kristen Stewart) is a young woman living in Paris, awaiting a sign from the spirit of her recently-deceased twin brother. While she waits, Maureen works as a part-stylist, part-glorified courier, selecting and schlepping exquisite garments from high-end boutiques so her boss, Kyra, can look perfectly styled.
As a personal shopper, Maureen moves through Paris like a ghost: she’s the invisible presence in another person’s life. As the low-wage labour behind Kyra’s immaculate appearance, it’s fitting that Maureen herself is perennially schlubby. Costume designer Jurgen Doering gives Maureen a kind of hipster anonymity. Even when Maureen wears colour, Doering is careful to ensure that she literally blends into the background. Lank-haired and buried in oversized sweaters and jeans, Maureen’s non-style contrasts sharply with the glamorous clothing she fingers longingly but is forbidden to try on. This contrast enhances the magical quality Kyra’s clothes hold for Maureen. In illicitly trying them on, Maureen can fantasize about being a different person leading a different life.
Doering’s costume choices emphasize the sensory experience of these clothes for Maureen, and the way venturing into Kyra’s closet is linked to erotic transgression. Two items in particular are imbued with Maureen’s desire: the silver dress and the harness. Egged on by an anonymous texter, Maureen strides down a hotel hallway in a trench coat and heels, her hair upswept; she looks like a socialite arriving at an assignation. She slips off the coat to gaze at her reflection in a mirror, clad in a silver cocktail dress covered in pailletes. The cut is iconically Chanel; the pailletes give the garment visible luxury, texture, and weight. This near-tangible opulence heightens the charge as Maureen pulls the dress close against her body and snaps a selfie to send to her anonymous correspondent. Wearing this dress, hearing the pailletes crinkle as she moves, is as close as Maureen will get to stepping outside her isolation and grief.'In PERSONAL SHOPPER, wearing the silver dress is as close as Maureen will get to stepping outside her isolation and grief.'Click To Tweet
If the silver dress reeks of luxury, the elastic harness Doering selected represents the collapse of that high-fashion fantasy into Maureen’s real life. We first see the elaborate black harness in an early scene when Maureen arrives at the boutique to pick it up. The assistant encourages Maureen to try it on; at first she demurs, as she’s done before, but she quickly gives in, the first time we see her violate Kyra’s prohibition. Stewart slides a thumb between the harness and her sternum, stretching it and then snapping it back so we see how closely the garment fits against her form. Later, Maureen’s transgressions culminate in a moment of frenzy where she strips down in Kyra’s empty apartment and runs through Kyra’s closet, donning the elastic harness before masturbating in Kyra’s bed.
At the close of the film, Maureen has left Paris for Africa and made peace with the idea that she may never receive a sign from her twin. She’s dressed comfortably and simply, in a pale blue linen shirt and trousers appropriate for the heat, but the outfit is tailored and structured in a way that Maureen’s soft, enveloping Paris clothes were not. She’s neither fading into the background, nor putting on clothes to play a role. Finally, Maureen looks like herself. – MAR
Despite being set in the 1940s, Their Finest is exactly the kind of period film that doesn’t get attention for its costumes. There aren’t lavish gowns or exotic fashions — but costume designer Hannah Walter’s work is no less impressive for it. The clothes are lived in, worn, and often look like relics from another time. It’s the middle of the war, and these middle class characters cannot afford the newest, highest fashions. Sometimes, the characters’ best clothes are from the ‘20s or 30s, when they could have afforded to invest in them. But everything has wear, even newer, cheaper fashions.
Most importantly, though, Walter uses clothes to reveal characters and their development. Catrin (Gemma Arterton) is a Welsh woman who has followed her boyfriend to London. She’s out of her depth in the big city, especially when she gets a screenwriting job from an interview she had assumed was for a secretarial position. Her fashionable hat doesn’t match her sensible clothes, and makes her look as though she’s trying desperately to fit in. It’s only when she starts to come into her own, later in the film, adopting a tam, that she looks thoroughly comfortable and herself.
As a woman learning how to become the protagonist in her own story, Catrin starts the film in plain, washed out colours. Only once she’s in the countryside, shooting her script, does she begin to wear bold colours, like her turquoise jacket. Still, Catrin spends most of the film in outfits that are well put together, if not hugely structured: she favours pastel-coloured knitwear and a beige trenchcoat. The softness of the lines of her clothes mirror her own softness — she’s kind, and she’s learning how to assert herself. The better she gets at making others listen to her, the more her clothes show off her personality. The final ensemble she wears, now that she’s a proper screenwriter, perhaps even the boss, includes a structured blazer in bold colours.'In their THEIR FINEST, Catrin is a woman learning how to become the protagonist in her own story; she starts the film in plain, washed out colours, then begins to wear bold colours.'Click To Tweet
Walter lavishes just as much attention on the film’s secondary and supporting characters. Catrin’s screenwriting colleagues Buckley (Sam Claflin) and Parfitt (Paul Ritter) both wear suits, but they’re slightly out-of-fashion cuts, not quite correctly tailored, and darkly coloured — as if they’re trying to fade into the background. As Catrin’s love interest, Buckley is constantly sparring with her, and he only really softens when he swaps his suits in the city for sweaters in the countryside.
Washed up actor Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy) takes great care with how he dresses, even if it’s in the fashions of yesteryear. For important business occasions, he dons his white sports blazer, and matching slacks, with a brand new silk pocket square — the one luxury he can still afford. Ambrose appears to be very vain about both his appearance and his work, but it’s really just a front for his increasing awareness that his glory days are over. Still, his wardrobe contains the remnants of those days. When he’s yelled at by fellow hotel guests for taking too long to shave in the shared bathroom, while singing loudly, he’s appropriately dressed in a somewhat dilapidated royal blue, silk dressing gown. He looks the part of the diva.
My favourite ensembles are worn by the no-nonsense Sophie Smith (Helen McRory), who unexpectedly finds herself serving as an actor’s agent after her brother’s untimely demise. She’s a woman who knows what she wants and how to get it, so after a day of tears and mourning, she shows up in black to meet her client, Ambrose, but her dress has crisp lines and expensive material — if a bit worse for wear. Her bold black hat completes the ensemble. As she settles into her role, and discovers she’s a natural, she appears in bold reds that make her stand out from the crowd, keeping her an intimidating presence, and emphasizing her strong character. – Alex Heeney