Costume design, vintage sewing machines, painting

My Favorite Costume Films

The Oscars are tonight, and as a Costume Designer I’m frequently asked about my favorite films from a costume perspective.  In general, I’d say I prefer a combination of creatively anachronistic period pieces and science fiction. Keep in mind; these are MY favorites, and I have my reasons. You are welcome to your own opinions.


On the “period piece” side, my hands-down absolute favorite is Gangs of New York (2002) Costume Design by Sandy Powell.  Set in 1863, the very deliberate use of color sets it apart from what I usually expect in a period drama.  Taken at face value, it seems like “Costuming 101” to identify the various groups by color, but in Powell’s capable hands (The Tempest and Velvet Goldmine are other favs) it really works to make the story relatable to an audience more familiar with graphic novels and modern street gangs. Every character, every detail is picture perfect. Also, the copious use of plaid makes me very happy.


Similarly, I love Plunkett & Macleane (1999) Costume Design by Janty Yates (American Gangster, Gladiator). I do have an unhealthy obsession with dirty tricorn hats and high collared coats with many buttons, and this film does not disappoint.  Alan Cumming’s turn as a dandy/incroyable is full of standout fabulousness.  And yeah, I’ll watch anything with Jonny Lee Miller and Robert Carlyle.


Also in the same vein, Brotherhood of the Wolf (2001) Costume Design by Dominique Borg (I Am Dina, Les Miserables). Also set in the 18th Century, with many gorgeous coats and tricorn hats (on the ladies too!).  Bonus point for werewolves and Vincent Cassel.

I also include a few favorite television shows (because I’m NOT a purist): Deadwood (2004-06) Costume Design by Katherine Jane Bryant (Mad Men, The Last House on the Left ) This has a similar feel to Gangs of New York, but much more subtle.  Bonus points for Ian McShane’s Al Swearengen: amazing character and natty in pinstripes! Also Carnivale (2003-05) Costume Design by Terry Dresbach and Chrisi Karvonides-Dushenko.  By far the most realistic period piece in my roster; for the way that each character is fully represented (but not hindered by) their costume. It’s real, it’s dirty, occasionally flamboyant, but always perfect. I love the gritty circus feel. Bonus points? Clancy Brown, definitely. Transitioning into a bit o’ sci-fi: Firefly (2002-03) Costume Design by Shawna Trpcic.  A beautiful combination of practical western-wear, militaria and modern flair.  It just works. Yay Browncoats!


Moving a little further from period and into . . . I dunno, dystopic pseudo-period fantasy? We have City of Lost Children (1995) Costume Design by Jean-Paul Gaultier (The Fifth Element, The Cook the Thief his Wife & her Lover).  With this film, I love the way that the costumes are both appropriate and outlandish.  Gaultier really turns up the dial when necessary, but also knows when to dial it down a bit for the more approachable “everyman” characters.  He incorporates some of his fashion signatures (nautical stripes) into the world of the film, showing his hand but also moving beyond it with the “twin” sisters and doctor characters.


I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Star Wars (1977+) Costume Design by John Mollo (Alien, The Three Musketeers) It really established a completely new world, incorporating elements from everything from Roman, Medieval, Renaissance, Steampunk & beyond. I had the pleasure of seeing many of my favorite Star Wars costumes at the Museum of Science & Industry – Chicago a couple years ago and truly appreciated the convergence of detail and simplicity.  The Tusken Raiders were a clear favorite; I love anything that incorporates mechanicals into a costume.


The Mad Max/Road Warrior franchise (1977) Costume Design by Clare Griffin, Norma Moriceau has also been very inspirational, specifically for the use of ‘found objects’ and creative interpretations of body coverings in a post-apocalypic world, as well as the extensive use of leather, studs & cool boots.


This film should really be at the top of the list: Barbarella (1968) Costume Design by Paco Rabanne, if only because it is the FIRST time I even noticed costuming in a film above anything else (even nudity).  There’s a story behind it: For whatever reason, my brother and I stayed with my (cool) uncle George for a couple days when I was probably . . . 9 or 10 years old.  He let us watch ANYTHING.  I remember watching The Exorcist and Barbarella.  The costumes in Barbarella were so awesome that I barely noticed all the nudity & innuendo.  I believe it was at that moment that I first realized there was a job called “Costume Designer” and that I wanted to be one.  Thank you Paco, George, and Jane.


I believe I watched Flash Gordon (1980) at roughly the same time as Barbarella, after all, I was 8 in 1980. Rewatching it recently (with my 7 yr-old son) I was struck by the amazing costume design by Danilo Donati (Life is Beautiful, Caligula)  This is the one film I would LOVE to remake, keeping the same essential design, but updating in with modern techniques and materials. (If you’re game, PLEASE call me).


Our 2nd entry in the Jean-Paul Gaultier category; The Fifth Element (1997) again showcases all of Gaultier’s strengths as a fashion designer as well as his understanding of character and the world of the film. This film could be an entire blog post on its own; Chris Tucker’s flamboyance, Bruce Willis’ re-entry into the world of sexy, the Diva Plavalaguna, Gary Oldman’s Zorg, Milla Jovovich being . . . Milla Jovovich. Gaultier’s references run the gamut, and culminate in a grand ode to futurism.


Speaking of a wide range, The Fall (2006) Costume Design by Eiko Ishioka (The Cell, Bram Stoker’s Dracula).  I was deeply saddened to hear of Eiko Ishioka’s passing last month, the world of costume design will be sorely lacking without her.  Her vision for The Fall was grand, to say the least. I will admit, I wasn’t completely on-board with all of the choices, but respected and accepted them nonetheless.  This film was deep fantasy, anything goes, there was so much beauty & craftmanship evident that I didn’t care if it made sense. My jaw drops when I see her work.


Probably the most recent of my selections, Tron; Legacy (2010) surprises me with each viewing. Costumes were designed by Michael Wilkinson (Watchmen, 300).  It’s easy for critics to discount this film, but I really love it.  The EL technology (whether practical or CG) really serves the world of ‘The Grid’ versus reality. A more comprehensive analysis can be found at Chris Laverty’s Clothes on Film here.  Quorra is my favorite character; she’s strong without being mean, feminine without being vapid, her design is tough, sensible and cool. The Sirens are also lovely. Bonus points for Jeff Bridges and Daft Punk!

I’m sure I will think of a million other favorites after I post this, so keep an eye out for part II!


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