Gilbey on Film: Dressing to impress

Hollywood Costume - review.

Top of most cinemagoers’ to-do list over the coming months should be to catch the V&A’s Hollywood Costume exhibition, which opens on Saturday and runs until 27 January next year. (Get there before 18 November if you consider yourself any sort of friend of Dorothy’s: that’s the day her ruby slippers will be spiriting themselves back to the Smithsonian in time for Thanksgiving.) This collection of more than 100 costumes from cinema history incorporates the work of the most visionary practitioners in their field, from Edith Head (All About Eve, Sunset Boulevard, Rear Window, Vertigo) to Sandy Powell (Orlando, Shakespeare in Love, Gangs of New York, Far From Heaven).

I’m especially glad that the great Eiko Ishioka, who died last year aged 73, is represented. It was said during an item about the exhibition on Front Row this week that the work of a costume designer should be invisible - that if the viewer notices it, then it probably isn’t serving its function. Ishioka’s costumes, in their chilled flamboyance and geometric opulence, were always eye-catching, but then the films to which she contributed were hardly kitchen-sink dramas; her work was an expression in fabric of the themes and ideas that permeated on every level the films in question. She collaborated four times with Tarsem Singh (The Cell, The Fall, Immortals and Mirror, Mirror) and also did extraordinary work on Paul Schrader’s Mishima: a Life in Four Chapters; she won an Oscar for Francis Ford Coppola’s film of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, two costumes from which are included in the exhibition. You can read an interview with her here, and see a brief slideshow of some of her work here.

I had occasion recently to interview the brilliant costume designer Mary Zophres, whose credits include everything from glossy superhero blockbusters (Iron Man 2) to elegant period pieces (such as Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can and the forthcoming Gangster Squad). She has also worked regularly with the Coen brothers since The Hudsucker Proxy in 1994; a friend reports enthusiastically that the V&A exhibition features the distinctive dressing gown which Zophres came up with for the Dude (played by Jeff Bridges) in the Coen brothers’ finest film, The Bjg Lebowski. Below she explains to me her working process, and specifically her collaborations with Bridges and the Coens on The Big Lebowski and the 2010 version of True Grit.

The first thing I did for The Big Lebowski was talk to Joel and Ethan [Coen] and to do sketches and research, then to talk with Jeff. The first fitting was at his house in Santa Barbara. For a contemporary movie like that, we did a lot of pulling stuff in, thrift store shopping, shopping in surf stores and vintage stores in Venice Beach and Santa Monica, looking for different things; I felt the Dude’s clothes should be things he’d owned for at least 10 years.

Jeff tried on a lot of different clothes until we felt we’d nailed some really good looks, we took some 35mm photos and showed those to Joel and Ethan, and we plotted out the arc of the character in costume changes. There’s a line of description in the script which says that the Dude had made a whole career out of being relaxed; those kinds of cues really help me. The fact that he lives in Venice Beach, doesn’t have a job, likes White Russians—all that gives a strong idea of how he might dress.

Over the years, there’s been quite a bit of controversy over the Dude’s cardigan. I can’t even remember where that famous cardigan came from. I think we found it in a thrift store. We ended up having to make six because it was going to be used in scenes where there were stunts, so it could get ripped or damaged. The original one was always in the long scenes but we ended up with those six; I think there was one that was going to fetch quite a bit of money at a costumes auction, only there was some question over its authenticity, and whether it was actually the original…

Jeff is one of the most fun actors I’ve ever dressed. He’s the definition of a character actor. Not all actors are helped by their costume, and he’s an example of someone who is. Because the costume fitting happens so early on in the process, we’re sort of the first information he gets about the character. On True Grit, he was the first person cast, and my method is to design the lead character—that’s who I figure out first—and then the second lead, then it all fans out like a blooming flower. He was doing press for Crazy Heart while he was preparing for True Grit, but I had done all this research, so I had all this information that I was sharing with him about the historical period. He took it in like a sponge. He loves the costume fitting because it helps put him in that era. On the fittings for both True Grit and The Big Lebowski, there was a distinct moment where his posture changed and he went into character right before my eyes. That is such a thrill for a costume designer—it’s why I do movies, to contribute to the story by helping an actor find his character.

Hollywood Costume is at the V&A, London SW7 until 27 January 2013.

Exhibits from the Hollywood Costume exhibition at the V&A (Photo: V&A)

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Under lock and key: inside the fairytale world of Helen Oyeyemi

Reading What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours is like settling into a roller coaster.

Gepetta walks into a classroom in “is your blood as red as this? (yes)”, a story at the heart of Helen Oyeyemi’s first collection of tales. And, yes, her name looks familiar: a feminised slant on the creator of Pinocchio in Carlo Collodi’s 19th-century novel. Sure enough, the subject of the class is the history of puppetry; Gepetta is struck by the presence of Rowan Wayland, already settled in the room. There is an “ocean of space” around him; he seems to be either a pariah or a celebrity, maybe both. Gepetta can’t take her eyes off him. “Rowan’s physical effect – godlike jawline, long-lashed eyes, umber skin, rakish quiff of hair – is that of a lightning strike.” An inhuman beauty, one might say, and with good reason, for it becomes apparent that Rowan is a puppet, too, “masterless and entirely alive”.

It is a mark of Oyeyemi’s confidence that she masters such shifts so adeptly – but at the age of just 31 she is an experienced writer. Her first novel, The Icarus Girl, was written while she was still at school; she has since published four more, all of them built from a love of language and a fascination with fairy tales and mythology which have earned her comparisons with Angela Carter – and there are moments in this collection, certainly, which recall The Bloody Chamber. On the surface, Oyeyemi’s “dornička and the st martin’s day goose” looks like a riff on “Red Riding Hood”, an answer to Carter’s “Company of Wolves”, when Dornička meets a wolf on a mountain. Once again, however, things are not as they seem: “. . . let’s try to speak of things as they are: it was not a wolf she met but something that had recently consumed a wolf”. And Dornička is not a little girl but an adult; the story draws not only on what is familiar to us in western Europe but also the tales of the Czech poet Karel Jaromír Erben – it takes its epigraph from his ballad “The Golden Spinning Wheel”, a gruesome slant on a Cinderella tale.

Despite all these influences, the story is absolutely Oyeyemi’s own, set in a world where “speaking of things as they are” might lead the reader in any direction at all. And her arguments, about identity, about sexuality, are more fluid than Carter’s, as is to be expected from a writer of her generation and with her history. Born in Nigeria, Oyeyemi has lived in the UK since the age of four. Writers with a foot in two places often have a keen sense of what it means to belong – or not to belong.

She plays with this idea most directly in “a brief history of the homely wench society”, in which a group of young women push down the doors of an all-male society at Cambridge University (the author’s alma mater; I reckon she knows whereof she speaks). What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours is freighted with ideas of entry, of permission: it is a book full of locks and keys. In the opening story, “books and roses”, a foundling is left in a chapel; the little girl has a golden chain around her neck, and on the chain is a key. As she grows, the girl tries every lock, but no doors open. “. . . what could she call it, a notion, a suggestion, a promise?” She will discover that the key fits the door of a library that smells of leather and roses.

But the path to the door is not direct: like most of the tales in this book, “books and roses” loops and swirls, hooking characters together and then setting them apart, making the reader wait until the next story (or perhaps the one after that) to meet up with them again. Do not be misled by this recurrence; the stories here are linked not by a thread of events, but by a sensibility, one cut free from the constraints of conventional narrative. The tales’ swerving trajectory makes their peaks of emotion – as when a character in “presence” imagines the life of the child she has never had – all the more powerful. Reading What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours is like settling into a roller coaster: you must abandon yourself to the turns and drops. Only then will you enjoy the ride.

What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi is published by Picador (263pp, £14.99)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism