Features and Columns · Movies

Culture Warrior: Dressing Up the Twentieth Century

By  · Published on February 2nd, 2010

It’s easy to suspend disbelief with a costume drama. To watch films about European aristocrats of previous centuries gussied up in elegant dresses, suits, and wigs provides a feast for the filmgoing eye. The camera is naturally drawn to this spectacle of fashion, whether in the illustrious photographic scene-painting of Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon or the latest Jane Austen adaptation. More importantly, only the knowlegeble historian will be able to point out any inconsistencies or anachronisms in period dress. The rest of us go into such films with the assumption that the clothes worn are contemporaneous to the time depicted.

Yet costume drama is a misleading of a generic term if there was one, as most decent films, no matter where in time and space they take place, require intricate and thoughtful costuming. The assumption, however, is that the costumes of costume dramas are front-and-center, an attention-grabbing and self-aware centerpiece of the film itself, while costuming in other films remain invisible in the sense that we as audiences are meant to focus on the story being told, not the clothes it is told within.

But this process doesn’t always work the way it intends to. Some costumes are hard to make invisible. Of particular difficulty is portraying accurately through period dress recent decades in the twentieth century, decades that some audiences have lived through and whose accuracy in depiction can be evidentially weighed based on watching actual films made in that era.

Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones, amongst its other shortcomings, suffers in part by its depiction of 1973. Everything, from cars to costumes to haircuts to architecture to wallpaper to specific emblems of popular culture, screams at its loudest decibel a reminder that the film we are watching takes place in that particular year. Despite not greeting this blue planet until the mid-1980s, I couldn’t help but think while watching the film that 1973 was never this 1973 in the respect that if I walked on the suburban streetcorners on which this film takes place, I wouldn’t see every square inch of the neighborhood littered with reminders that I was in 1973. I wouldn’t walk into one of these houses and see Nixon on the television announcing a peace accord with Vietnam while The Dark Side of the Moon plays on a nearby record player and a newspaper on the table announces the death of LBJ and the Supreme Court ruling of Roe v. Wade next to a half-read copy of Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (thank you, Wikipedia). What I would see on any given American street in 1973 are emblems of previous years and decades interacting with contemporaneous ones. I would see cars and haircuts from the 1960s, or older people wearing clothes they’d possessed since the 50s.

Yet, via costume, the only impression I get through Jackson’s vision of 1973 in The Lovely Bones is that 1973 was, wholly and homogenously, 1973. The costumes that the Salmon family wear are illustrious, beautifully colorful, and immediately achieve a tenable iconography of their own (as the 70s yellow of Susie Salmon’s clothes become, like every last detail in the film, a saturated if overused symbol), but they come across as unbelievable and artificial because of the very fact that Jackson tries so hard to illustrate an era.

In some ways, though, there are insurmountable obstacles in making a film that takes place in a recent time period, like the actors themselves. It’s sometimes difficult to watch a movie with the likes of Mark Wahlberg and Rachel Weisz, who remain so apparent in our present-day, and trick ourselves into thinking that they are adults occupying a world thirty-seven years’ past. It’s much easier to convince ourselves of this when we watch period pieces featuring relative unknowns. Think back to when Mad Men first started, before John Hamm was a household name, and how easy it was for us to believe that these actors occupied only the world of the 1960s Manhattan and all its well-tailored suits and pointy brassieres. For me it was shocking to later see real-life red carpet publicity photos of Pete Campbell with facial hair or Don Draper with his hair combed forward instead of back.

But a television show taking place in the recent past has the luxury of establishing and reinforcing the intricacies of its time period over many episodes (and the minds behind Mad Men are indeed sticklers for the varieties of period detail – look at Peggy’s dated, 1950s demeanor versus Joan’s hip and up-to-fashion appearance in the first two seasons), while a film must establish its interpretation of the past immediately, or risk emanating a lack of authenticity.

One of the most successful and fascinating ways films do this through combining the past and present through costume. In his debut as director, Tom Ford, not surprisingly, translates his eye for fashion onto the silver screen for A Single Man in a manner that – pun indulgently intended – reveals layers beyond the fabric of his characters. Following the tradition in films like Bonnie and Clyde and The Great Gatsby of refashioning the fashion of the past to reflect contemporary tastes (which, in turn, renders fashion of the past newly fashionable in a discursive, anachronistic way, and clouds our vision/nostalgia of that past), A Single Man, in its first layer, manufactures the old into something new and hip. In one of the film’s more talked-about scenes, Colin Firth’s suicidal English professor comes in contact with an attractive Spanish gigolo. The gigolo possesses the fabric iconography of James Dean – the small white t-shirt, denim jeans, and unmistakable coif – but at the same time possesses the ultra-thin hipster frame now expected from the metrosexual male, one that has little equivalent regarding the male ideal in 1950s or early 1960s American culture. So this character possesses fashionable qualities exclusive to neither the film’s setting of neither 1962 nor 2009, but a magnetic combination of both.

Additionally, the second layer reveals A Single Man to be a movie that approaches costuming with such an intensity of detail to the point that it makes the character, enabling the immersive extent of Firth’s impressive performance. Ford allegedly inscribed a 1957 label from a London tailor inside the jacket Firth wore for the film – not something witnessed by audiences, but something that informed Firth’s character and performance. Ford understands that garmets of one era carry over to another and still remain fashionable – one does not need to possess the dress of the exact year of the film’s setting to exist contemporaneously with it. Thirdly, as A Single Man seems to take place on an alternate plane of reality where only pretty people exist, especially at the college in which Firth’s character is employed. Yet this doesn’t come across as typical cinematic promotion of the unattainable ideal of the movie star. Instead, Ford uses appearances thematically, showing how apparel become not just a means for attractive presentation, but a shield of armor one uses to not reveal their true, vulnerable self. With the context of waning 1950s conformism and Firth’s character having to ‘play straight’ for mainstream society, clothes operating dually as a protective suit of armor – a grotesque costume if there ever was one – unlike the insistence of Jackson over the significance of Susie Salmon’s hat, hardly exists as a symbol or a cinematic metaphor, but resonates profoundly, acting as a revelation of how we continue to costume ourselves every day, no matter the decade.

Culture Warrior is our weekly walk on the wild side with actual film school graduate Landon Palmer. To read more from Landon, you can follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/landon_speak

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