Clothes make Characters: Year’s Finest in Costume Design
The 12 Best Fashion Looks from the films of 2016.
When I compiled my “Top 10 Fashion Looks” list last year, I didn’t quite think I would turn it into an annual tradition. But the richness of costume design I have witnessed and indulged in throughout 2016 convinced me to put together another one. And why stop at 10? This time, I give you 12 looks among my favorite film fashion and costume design of the year. A reminder: only films that were released in the US within the calendar year are eligible. (So yes, there is a reason why the body harness from Personal Shopper isn’t included.)
It was hard work to cut this list down. Café Society and Blake Lively’s lamé gown was especially tough to eliminate. (I can say the same about a pair of open-torso outfits Kristen Stewart wears during the first half of the film.) Other costumes that crossed my mind were worn by Kate McKinnon in Ghostbusters, Jessica Chastain in Miss Sloane, Zoey Deutsh in Everybody Wants Some!! and Julianne Moore in Maggie’s Plan. Also, while I admired the look of La La Land collectively, I noticed the individual outfits weren’t necessarily jumping out at me. And Jackie…while impeccably made, it didn’t quite make the cut through costumes that mimicked and re-created the well-archived wardrobe of Jackie Kennedy.
So, without further ado…
12. Sing Street
Costume Designer: Tiziana Corvisieri
Memorable Fashion: “Riddle of the Model” Music Video.
Boy meets girl. Boy forms a band to impress a girl. The only slight problem is…boy doesn’t quite know how. Oh, but he figures it out. In writer-director John Carney’s boisterous Sing Street, Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) and Mark McKenna (Eamon) lead a group of misfit band mates who draw their inspirations from the likes of Duran Duran and wear their new identities on their sleeves and backs with pride. The above image is their first attempt at performing a song ‐ The Riddle of the Model ‐ while shooting a hysterical DIY-style video to go with it. In fact, the ‘beg and borrow’ costumes that range from wild west to far east and glam rock go hand in hand with the essence of the video and the sounds captured in the song. In a Film Journal International interview I did with John Carney earlier in the year, he noted that he was on the same page with Tiziana Corvisieri, his costume designer and longtime collaborator, in wanting to create outrageous but plausible looks. “If you look at the costumes closely, you realize that a lot of the guys are often wearing a lot of women’s clothing,” he said. “The idea behind that was they’d stolen or borrowed clothes from their sisters or their mother or their grandmother.” This scene perfectly encapsulates what Carney is talking about. I mean, look at Ferdia Walsh-Peelo’s neck-tie shirt!
11. Nocturnal Animals
Costume Designer: Arianne Phillips
Memorable Fashion: Susan Morrow’s green key-hole dress in the end scene.
If American Hustle has taught us anything, it’s that no one can pull off décolleté quite like Amy Adams can. Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals is naturally far from the low necklines and big hairs of Hustle, but this key-hole dress asserts the same conclusion. Here, Amy Adams plays a contemporary, successful LA gallerist, with a gloomy emotional world and distressing romantic past. With few, subtle exceptions, her looks until the end don’t show traces of bright colors. She is head-to-toe high-end, composed and streamlined. She has, in a lot of ways, become her socialite mother whom she used to despise (as we get to learn in a flashback scene.) With this green dress she slips into, she perhaps looks for a little bit of her old self, while on her way to meet with her ex husband at a restaurant. In a conversation we had back in November, costume designer Arianne Phillips told me that the green dress came from Tom Ford’s vision (important note: none of Adams’ wardrobe is Tom Ford brand. They all have been custom-made.) Phillips said Ford loves that color green and she does as well. “Especially on a red head,” she adds. “The fabric we made that dress with was dyed specifically that color. It actually took us a couple of tries to get it right. It was straight from Tom’s direction and was the most cinematic color, appropriate for that scene and the way it was going to be photographed.” It’s a true showstopper, especially when it’s juxtaposed against the restaurant wall, full of colorful graphics and artwork.
10. The Nice Guys
Costume Designer: Kym Barrett
Memorable Fashion: Tally’s salmon-colored dress and platform heels.
In Shane Black’s The Nice Guys, the scene that the badass double-crosser Tally (Ya Ya DaCosta) walks into a hotel room and points a gun out to the tough, I mean, “nice” guys Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) and Holland March (Ryan Gosling), is both a reveal and comedic gold. So far fully trusted by the private-eye duo and platonically admired by March, DaCosta for the first time shows her real chops, lets her hair down, puts on spectacular make-up and makes a bold fashion statement fit for the late 70s. She might have a gun in her hand, but thanks to this dress, she still can’t escape innocent compliments from March, who insists she isn’t serious with this bossy killing business. In a Costume Designers Guild article, Barrett says she was inspired by a collision of styles, cultures and transitional times to create the 1977 Los Angeles and grounded her looks in reality, while avoiding high fashion. This look captures both the style and reality Barrett refers to. Barrett also says, “In comedy, costumes can add a little flourish to the humor. But until you see the joke you don’t have the whole picture.” I am willing to bet the role of this glamorous design in the overall comedic package was planned down to the final detail. Too bad it gets ruined by cold coffee in the end.
9. The Love Witch
Costume Designer: Anna Biller
Memorable Fashion: Elaine at the Tea Room.
In case you missed it, the multi-talented Anna Biller did pretty much everything for The Love Witch. She is the writer, director, costume designer, editor, and production designer of this unapologetically feminist comedy/horror/satire and ultimately, tragedy. Samantha Robinson plays Elaine, a love-struck witch styled to perfection in bold make up and various retro outfits. In the above image, Elaine visits a Victorian Tea Room in her new Californian home-base and dresses the part (as she continually does throughout the film.) Filmmaker Biller told me that she created this look, because she wanted Elaine to perfectly fit into the ladies-only tea room she had designed, the way they used to match the clothes and sets in the old Technicolor films. “I was inspired by the 1975 The Stepford Wives, by big-eye Bradley dolls from the early ’70s and by gothic British horror movies from the ’60s and early ’70s,” she says, noting that those also render Victorian style both as feminine and creepy. She found this Gunne Sax, circa 1970 vintage dress after giving up on making something from scratch (because the fabrics and trims weren’t right for it.) “The hat was just a plain hat I picked up in the garment district and trimmed with fake flowers,” she adds. “The jewelry was costume jewelry I’ve collected over the years.” Lucky coincidence that this is also Anna Biller’s favorite look in the entire film.
8. Love and Friendship
Costume Designer: Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh
Memorable Fashion: Lady Susan Vernon’s purple dress with black lace overlay.
Many looks stand out in this exquisitely costume designed period piece. Spectacular, noble 18th century dresses and matching hair ribbons almost have a dizzying effect in their richness. But the above stands out from the crowd. When the grieving Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale) puts on this purple dress with black lace overlay in Whit Stillman’s Love & Friendship, we hear her matter-of-factly say “too old to be governable, too young to die” to Alicia Johnson (Chloë Sevigny) regarding her choice of husband in her signature dry wittiness. A widow looking for a new husband (both for herself and one for her daughter), she initially wears a lot of black in the film. But as the story progresses, we start seeing her show more and more color, symbolically leaving her grief behind with every step of the way. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh identifies the above look as one of Lady Susan’s transitions. “When she goes to London, the colors change,” she says. “That’s when Lady Susan starts to embrace brighter hues, wearing corseted gowns in light pink, scarlet, and purple (with black lace), [but] she’s very slowly discarding her widow’s weeds, getting rid of her mourning colors.”
7. Live by Night
Costume Designer: Jacqueline West
Memorable Fashion: Graciella’s striped low-back nightclub dress.
Ben Affleck’s Live by Night overflows with dapper men’s fashion of ‘20s and ‘30s. As the story moves from ice-cold Boston to the hot temperatures of Tampa, heavy wool gives way to lighter linen, even though fedoras stay put. But the film’s breathtaking fashion is surely the above silk-velvet striped number Zoe Saldana’s character Graciella puts on in a nightclub scene in Tampa. Unfortunately, a photo of its back is currently unavailable, and that’s where the real magic happens with long, velvet V-straps that create structure and an easy “slip on” look and feel that is both sexy and practical. Playing a well-traveled, educated, intelligent woman, Graciella’s entire wardrobe carries an unmistakable personal touch, and this garment is no exception. Costume Designer Jacqueline West says the fabric is a French silk velvet that she had hand-printed and then draped on the bias on Saldana’s body. “That dress does everything it’s supposed to: it gets danced in and made love to.” And might I add, it fits her body and sophisticated character like a glove.
6. The Handmaiden
Costume Designer: Sang-gyeong Jo
Memorable Fashion: Lady Hideko’s blue skirt, purple silk blouse and brown leather gloves.
The Handmaiden is perhaps the most sumptuously designed film I have seen in 2016. Silk, satin, shelves and drawers full of luxury items and jaw-dropping costume design is on every corner of the latest Park Chan-wook. This luscious, suspenseful and erotic film follows an heiress in 1930s Korea, raised and enslaved by his mean uncle. Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim) is the heiress in question, who’s one day joined by a handmaiden named Sook-Hee (Tae-ri Kim) aiming to pull a massively complex con on her. This is a twisty story of liberation, where one is often fooled into assuming innocence. There are several pale, flowing, luxuriously designed robes and dresses in Lady Hideko’s wardrobe, but the above casual look she pulls off, complete with long, commanding brown leather glows, summarizes both her innocence and hidden hungers for me. It perhaps is no coincidence that she wears this ensemble right before a key development in the story, where she takes a step towards her liberation, perhaps unaware of what truly lies ahead.
5. Hidden Figures
Costume Designer: Renee Ehrlich Kalfus
Memorable Fashion: Mary Jackson’s first work dress and casual off-duty outfit.
Hidden Figures follows three female NASA engineers and computers in early 1960s, and the most memorable style among them is worn by Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), who desires to become an engineer despite laws, rules and expectations constantly working against her as a woman of color. The above looks, one off-duty and one at work, are my favorites among her wardrobe. Costume designer Renee Ehrlich Kalfus also identifies the first look as her “away from work” outfit. “Her style here shows a kind of defiance and freedom to be who she was: smart, individual and not afraid to show it in a very segregated, and conservative south of 1961–62,” she says. “The high-waisted capri pants help with that attitude. The scarf and short sleeve blouse adds to her stature, and poise.” Regarding her form-fitting professional look, Kalfus says she is in a very typical rich madras plaid sheath dress in this scene. “A close fit to the body, which was clad in pointy bra, corset and stockings, was the norm in the early 60s and part of NASA regulations, with dresses hitting just mid knee. She played by the rules while still expressing her defiant character. That look is conservative while still being sexy, it’s powerful.” And indeed it is, with rich colors and textures, and matching lipstick shade.
4. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Costume Designer: Colleen Atwood
Memorable Fashion: Where do I begin?
Perhaps it’s Newt Scamander’s (Eddie Redmayne) slightly dusty, worn-off looking petrol-blue coat. Or Tina’s (Katherine Waterston) flapper dress while she visits a speakeasy. Or her sister Queenie’s swoon-worthy lounge wear. Or Colin Farrell’s black coat with shiny and smooth beige silk lining. You can pick a look, any look, from any scene of the Colleen Atwood-dressed Fantastic Beasts, which spectacularly brings the pre-depression 1920s New York City to life with a wizarding twist. If I must pick a moment of fashion, I would probably go with Tina’s above speakeasy look (which also includes the sketches), as we witness a transformation in the character whom we’ve thus far seen in (again, spectacular) menswear-inspired clothing. In this scene, she pulls off something unexpectedly feminine and casually steals the scene. Closely behind Tina’s dress is Scamander’s coat, in which he pulls off an endless amount of action in that “slightly shy and awkward, gentlemanly British lad” kind of way. In an interview with Pottermore, Atwood revealed that she made the coat from fabric she had around for years, that was leftover from a play she did. “I’d been hoarding it and I dyed it that color for Newt.”
Costume Designer: Joanna Johnston
Memorable Fashion: Tie between Marianne Beauséjour’s green gown and Max Vatan’s target practice ensemble.
Two good-looking WWII-era spies look even better, thanks to the iconic costumes Joanna Johnston creates for the co-leads Brat Pitt, playing Max Vatan and Marion Cotillard, playing Marianne Beauséjour. The film transitions from glamorous outfits seen in the Casablanca chapter to flawless everyday looks the couple wears in London. I could have picked any of them honestly, but I will go with the two obvious ones. The above mint green gown Marianne wears during a high-wire action scene is an instant classic. Joanna Johnston told me she wanted Marianne to be elegant and able to do all the action effortlessly. “So in the design process, you are always working those two issues parallel. I wanted the opening of her in the dress to be statuesque and to show an epitome of elegance: a strong line with femininity and fluid fabric. Marianne is a spy, so she would have had all that application of straddling the unexpected things she has to do.” Johnston was inspired by many films of the early ’40s, with classic actresses like Barbara Stanwyck, Katherine Hepburn, Lauren Bacall, just to name a few. “All assured, strong, elegant, independent and beautiful women,” she says.
For Max Vatan, whose spy cover includes an appreciation of expensive clothes, Johnston wanted to do a safari jacket for this target practice scene. “It indeed does nod towards his military uniform, which is established in London, so both color and shape lead gently towards that. It’s a casual, clean look based on some French styling and then tropical in fabrics for the heat of the desert.” For this look, a photo of Dirk Bogart was a starting influence. “40s and modern at at the same time. Clean and masculine, ready for all possible action.” She says she likes spies that take their mantle seriously. Well, so do I.
2. A Bigger Splash
Costume Designer: Giulia Piersanti
Memorable Fashion: Marianne Lane’s asymmetrical open-back shirt-dress.
In my love letter to Luca Guadagnino’s A Bigger Splash, I called it “a film for the senses” earlier this year. Here, Tilda Swinton plays a rock star recovering from a throat surgery while vacationing in Italy amid a quartet of misbehaving Americans. Because she can’t speak, she expresses herself through other senses and her clothes are a major part of this expression. The film’s costumes and Swinton’s envy-inducing wardrobe were designed through a collaboration between Guila Piersanti and The House of Dior (while Raf Simons was still the Creative Director.) Piersanti is reportedly a close friend Guadagnino’s, and after working with brands like Fendi, Lanvin and Missoni, she became a consultant for Dior Homme and Balenciaga. So she approached The House, and they found the look for Tilda Swinton together: flowy skirts and trousers, flirty knots & twists, perfect drapes and defined waistlines. Common sense told me I had to go with her luxe white jumpsuit in this list, but I will instead settle on the above asymmetrical shirt-dress with a twist-back. Notice how the camera is intimidatingly stalking her, while capturing an unexpected level of sensual intimacy. The same thing can be said about this Dior dress and its peek-a-boo window at the back.
1. The Dressmaker
Costume Designer: Marion Boyce and Margot Wilson
Memorable Fashion: Gertrude Pratt spreads her wings.
“I am back, you bastards.” Tilly Dunnage
I have several Oscar wishes this year, and among them is seeing Jocelyn Moorhouse’s The Dressmaker land a very-well deserved nomination in Best Costume Design. The film’s gorgeous, playful 50s looks were designed by two names. Key Costumes of Tilly Dunnage (Kate Winslet) were all made by Margot Wilson. Stained with a troubled past, Tilly returns back to her sleepy Australian town in a glamorous, cinched-waist black coat-dress and with a Singer sewing machine in early 1950s. She then transforms the town’s women into glamorous rebels, who avenge their thus-far oppressed lives through some knee-weakening couture. All the costumes for the rest of the town were designed by Marion Boyce. Her finest work is this Rita Hayworth/Gilda-esque wiggle dress with wings, which we see on Gertrude Stein (Sarah Snook); the key character that Tilly transforms into a confident woman ready to spread her wings with an attitude. When I interviewed both costume designers earlier in the year, Boyce referred to this outfit in Gertrude’s makeover journey as “Head Peacock ‐ the eggshell silk organza cape with a black duchess satin wiggle dress.” “30 meters of pleated silk organza went into making this three-tiered cape. We needed to create an invisible under-harness to manage the seamless movement.”
Doesn’t she just look like she is ready to fly away? There perhaps hasn’t been a finer, more humorous yet deeply symbolic costume moment in 2016.