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Essay: Explore the Role and Significance of Fashion in Film Narrative Through Historical and Artistic Analysis

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  • Published: 23 March 2023*
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With fashion within film being originally seen as a way to gratify Mulvey’s ‘male gaze’ theory (Mulvey, 1975), it is only in the last decade that scholars have begun to regard film costuming as a tool of narrative, allowing it to participate as a form of mise-en-scene in its own right. Having always been a complex phenomenon that has its own history and theories, fashion can be thought of as a cultural and political form, as well as a social phenomenon that encompasses multiple and contradictory interpretations. As suggested by Adrienne Munich, these layers of social and political magnitude can be adhered to status and class (Munich, 2011). And although clothes can often be merely seen as such, they in fact carry much more weight, as they are complex signifiers and help an audience understand the character that wears them, in a way of a “visual text” (Britton, 1999). Reading films through clothes does not make other elements insignificant, which is why it is important to reference its use combined with performance and setting. Referencing other elements alongside costume helps us to see that clothes can be read on many levels as instruments of character and plot development, not forgetting class and social status. The films chosen as case studies provide examples of how we can analyse the role of costume in terms of identity and class, and help to illustrate that fashion can form a crucial function and can “impose themselves onto the character they adorn” (Bruzzi, 1997). As summarised by Edith Head, a costume designers work is a “cross between magic and camouflage” (Head, 1978) therefore reading into and uncovering the mystery of a narrative told by material and shape, go to show that its purpose and meaning reaches much further than just being an item of clothing.

To firstly understand why class distinction exhibited through fashion holds significance, we must acknowledge its power in real historical events and the influence it therefore has within film costuming. It must also be noted that the term ‘fashion’ must be understood to mean clothing worn by a certain group in a particular way, much like a uniform, and not as a popularised convention for dressing. For many years we have identified that clothing can truly speak for a person, as proven by a quote from the 1603 play ‘King Lear’ – “Through tattered clothes great vices do appear; Robes and furred gowns hide all. Plate sin with gold and the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks. Arm it in rags, a pigmy’s straw does pierce it” (Shakespeare, 1860, p.47). Shakespeare tries to capture and convey the power of clothing through unveiling their true personality, in comparing their clothes to their virtues and vices. From this, we can see that an outfit is not always just a practical cover-up, but can hold much more power and significance and can in fact display character and even political positions.

This notion can be applied to that of the political group the ‘sans-culottes’ that existed during the French Revolution. The sans-culottes were a group of tradesmen within the radical Parisian districts during the ‘Terror’ and eschewed culottes as a symbol of inequality within the ancien régime, instead wearing the trousers worn by workers and the carmagnole (red jacket) as worn by revolutionaries in Marseille (Chenoune, 1993). In rejecting the clothing choices of the bourgeoisie, the sans-culottes turned slatternly dress and unkemptness into political weapons, exhibiting a purposeful divide. Defined by what they did not wear, the sans-culottes were able to stress their differences and disdain of the upper classes of French society, turning an item of poverty into a badge of honour and dressing in a way that became a visual expression of loyalty to the Revolution. Now it can be understood that the choices made in our clothing have magnitude in a historical context, it is now clear to see how this can be exemplified in historical film and period dramas. With fashion being able to establish a person’s character and beliefs it is evident as to why these statements are often made within film costuming as “costume speaks to the audience with words of silence” (Paterek, 1959). Being able to differentiate between different political groups is not only important for film, as to allow audiences to clearly see who belongs to what party, it was also clearly necessary in history, as seen by the outfits worn by the sans-culottes. The film ‘Un Peuple et Son Roi’ (A People and Their King) released in 2018 is widely considered to be a very accurate filmic representation of the events of the French Revolution. With the film being constantly praised by many experts and historians for its impressively realistic costumes, we can also identify that they used the outfits of these different political groups to their advantage. With the rebels wearing the red carmagnole, the revolutionary cockade and workers trousers, the costume designer was able to create a distinct separation between the French rebels and the culotte wearing upper-class monarchists, that the audience could easily and immediately recognise.

Looking further into the art of film, it can be clearly seen that costume can create a visual discourse that illustrates how a character fares in a story. Physical iconography can represent a character’s transformation, all whilst speaking these “words of silence”. For example, the character of Lena in the 1986 film ‘Caravaggio’ goes through a dramatic transformation from peasant girl to a “cosmopolitan pragmatist” (de Perthuis, 2018). The emotional discourse of Lena can be tracked through her transformation and her costuming, for example, during the early part of the narrative Lena is happy, in love and an open emotional book as she is unable to hide her jealous feelings towards Ranuccio and Caravaggio’s blossoming relationship. During this she sports a peasant dress and headscarf, a simple costume for someone expressing very clear transparent feelings. With a lack of layers and complexity, we understand Lena’s character in a very simple way. It is only when her emotional transparency shifts at the costume ball, when she begins to question her love for Ranuccio and ultimately sells herself to a richer member of society, that we see her wearing more complex attire that essentially covers up the old sentiments of her original character. Wearing a magnificent gown, she “throws away her virtue” (de Perthuis, 2018). The ball gown has been described to be “larger than life” (Aebischer, 2013) and therefore literally increasing Lena’s visual presence. An important point to comprehend is that costume can be combined with other facets to strengthen a narrative and put across meaning. In this scene, costume and performance is perfectly blended together to state a multitude of emotions and to assert Lena’s character as one to be looked at. After receiving this glorious dress from Caravaggio, Lena dares to look at the camera, silently announcing that Caravaggio is not the creator of this image, but a choice she dares to make herself. The significance of this moment combines performance and costume beautifully, as Lena practically demands that we view her fully-dressed form as pleasurable, yet on her own terms. This is further strengthened directly after this scene, as we see Lena begin to see and present herself as an object of visual pleasure and splendour. The transformation of Lena reinforces Munich’s idea of costume containing layers of meaning, as we can see the direct correlation between her change in emotion and the variety of clothing she later wears. With her costumes identifying with her emotional transparency and the way she chooses to present herself, almost tantalisingly daring Caravaggio and Ranuccio to try and win her back, and yet making herself obviously unavailable to both men, it is evident that costuming, in this context, carries great meaning and importance.

As quoted by Drake Stutesman “film clothes disclose who someone is […] how that person feels [and] where s/he’s going” (Stutesman, 2005). Reflecting on this quote, it is pertinent to consider it in comparison to costume and how it reflects on class and a character’s personal attitude towards their current class and/or status. This notion can be applied to both ‘A Night To Remember’ (1958) and it’s later romanticised version, ‘Titanic’ (1997). Within these two films it is clearly evident that class mobility is unthinkable, and the classes are all separated by costume. When looking at ‘A Night To Remember’, we are suddenly inundated with expensive and excessively large hats. The sheer size and absurdness of these hats immediately makes them much more obvious and almost larger than those of the lower class, that are literally overshadowed in their drab and practical clothing. Although these hats alone display an obvious distinction between the two classes, it is very interesting when the hats are used as a way to unite the two classes and act as a beacon of hope and rescue. As the ship sinks and both classes are forced onto life boats and therefore forced to mix for the first time since stepping on board, the hats turn into a tool, as they are grasped from the lady’s heads and lit to attract the attention of an approaching rescue boat. The burning of these hats signifies a sudden change in interaction between the different classes as they club together in order to try and get help. Furthermore, when disaster strikes, all aboard must wear life jackets, which causes class identity to be momentarily lost, as everyone must don this ‘uniform’ of disaster. This uniform brings everyone aboard together, as we see the jackets cover up their original clothing. On closer inspection, many of the upper class are in nightshirts and nightdresses, similar to the clothes also worn by the lower class. Although there are the additions of expensive jackets and hats, it can be said that underneath they are all the same. A further emphasis of distinction in class is shown in both films through the same character of Benjamin Guggenheim. In both films, Benjamin refuses to wear a life jacket, as if he’d be robbed of the easily identifiable uniform of the upper class, stating “We are dressed in our best and we are prepared to go down like gentlemen” (A Night To Remember, 1958).

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