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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Against the Law: Peter Wildeblood must be one of the bravest men who ever lived

BBC2's historical gay rights film evokes bewilderment, fear and agonising pain.

My head told me that Against the Law (26 July, 9pm), the BBC’s film about Peter Wildeblood, the only openly gay man to give evidence to Lord Wolfenden’s committee, wasn’t up to much. Wildeblood was one of the three men who in 1954 were convicted of buggery in the notorious Montagu case (the others being Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and his cousin Michael Pitt-Rivers) – a trial that led, thanks to unease about the verdict, to the inquiry that resulted in the Wolfenden report, which in 1957 recommended the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain.

The film is based on the book Wildeblood published (he was a journalist) after his release from Wormwood Scrubs. Its script, by Brian Fillis, was underpowered and off-puttingly didactic, and I couldn’t understand, at first, the decision to keep interrupting the drama with the spoken-to-camera recollections of a series of elderly gay men. But at some point my heart, which was aching, told my head to shut up. This is… good enough, I thought, watching the film’s last few moments, in which the 89-year-old Roger and the 77-year-old Percy tenderly kissed for the camera. I was mad for Roger. Did he remember Wolfenden? My dear, how could he ever forget it? At the time, he was having an affair with Lord Wolfenden’s son, Jeremy, which certainly added piquancy to the newspaper reports as he read them over breakfast.

If I’d been casting this piece, I might have gone for a floppy-haired Matthew Goode type for Wildeblood, the former public school boy – but that would have been my mistake. It’s hard to imagine a finer performance than the one given by Daniel Mays, an actor who is not even remotely floppy haired.

Here was all of the wit and compassion you find in Wildeblood’s prose, combined with emotions I’d hitherto only been able rather half-heartedly to imagine: bewilderment, fear, agonising pain. As Wildeblood watched his former lover, an RAF corporal called Edward McNally, turn Queen’s evidence during his trial, May’s face grew slack with disbelief. He looked, to me, as if some unknown hand was quietly disembowelling him. By which had he been most betrayed? Love, or the law of the land?

Everyone knows what followed, but it was horrible to see nevertheless. Mailbags were sewn; aversion therapy was discussed (the prison shrink, played with viper-like precision by Mark Gatiss, told Wildeblood he could either receive a series of electric shocks or a drug that would make him vomit for two days). I thought, not for the first time, that Wildeblood must have been one of the bravest men who ever lived – though it’s not as if he wanted for company: the director’s talking heads, silver of hair and soft of jowl, reminded us of this at every turn, and I was glad of the human punctuation they provided. For most of us, this stuff is history. For them, it had been life.

Some people are devoted to newts, and others to hobbits; a few enjoy recreating the battles of the Civil War. The film My Friend Jane (17 July, 7pm) got down and not very dirty with the Austen super-fans, by which I mean not those who have read Sanditon and The Watsons but types who like to dress in full Regency garb and dance to the sound of a spinet come Saturday night. Actually, it’s scarier than this. A former doctor, Joana Starnes, breathlessly described her new career as a writer of “top-tier JAF”. Translated, this means highly superior Jane Austen fan fiction. She’s produced seven JAF novels, which sounds like a lot until you discover that 60 come out every month.

Zack Pinsent, meanwhile, who is 22, makes his living as a period tailor in Hove, where he likes to promenade in fall-front trousers – a flap enables the gentleman thereby to pee – and top hat. I wanted to laugh at him, and all the other empire-line eccentrics in this odd little documentary. But there was something touching about their obsession; at least they didn’t attempt to intellectualise it, unlike those literary fan girls who have lately taken to writing entire books about why their lives would be meaningless without this or that great writer for company. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue