Fashion and the movies have a mutually rewarding relationship. Historical movies, however authentically costumed, almost always have a little something of the period in which they are made – think of the poofy, quintessentially sixties hair in Doctor Zhivago, or the 1935 version of Anna Karenina, starring Greta Garbo as Anna, in which the female characters attend balls in sequinned strapless vamp dresses more suited to 1930s Hollywood than to late nineteenth century Petersburg. But it goes the other way too – Dr Zhivago sparked a brief craze for fur hats and long Russian coats, and Gone with the Wind inspired a short-lived fashion for romantic full-skirted evening dresses before the fabric restrictions of the Second World War put an end to such frivolous wastefulness.
Evidence for this symbiosis is sprinkled throughout the V&A’s new exhibition of Hollywood costume, five years in preparation, which assembles some of the most memorable and iconic costumes from the last century of Hollywood film. Witness the costume in which Claudette Colbert played Cleopatra in 1934, which to modern eyes looks like nothing so much as a particularly elegant 1930s evening gown. Next to it, one of Elizabeth Taylor’s outfits for her portrayal of the Egyptian queen is a reminder of the fashion for gilded embellishment and weighty jewellery which followed the success of the 1963 film. Since the exhibition is at the V&A, it’s an interesting exercise to visit the fashion galleries down the corridor and compare the authentic period clothing with the versions produced for film – how far do cinema versions stray from the authentic? How are the shapes and silhouettes exaggerated or minimised? When a costume is made to be filmed, what effect does that have on the detailing or on the colours used?
In the first of a two-part series Viv Wilby looks at the way Gone With The Wind tells its story through costume
I first saw Gone With The Wind when I was young and impressionable and I’ve loved it ever since: the spectacle, the melodrama and, yes, the frocks. Watch a movie as often as I’ve watched the Wind and you start to notice things, little patterns and parallels. I’m no fashion historian, but it seems to me that Gone With The Wind tells its story as much through costume as through action and dialogue.
Scarlett O’Hara’s story is one of riches to rags to riches again, and of course what she wears throughout the film reflects this. Clothing is a signifier of social status and wealth in any film but in Gone With The Wind this fact has particular resonance. The wealth of the South came from cotton. Strict dress codes apply, particularly for women. At key points in the story, items of clothing are given as gifts or rewards or tokens of affection. They are the means through which a woman can recreate herself, the key to a better future, badges of success, markers of disgrace. They can oppress or liberate.
With all this is mind, I thought it would be fun to take a closer look at some of Walter Plunkett’s stunning costumes for the film, chiefly those worn by Vivien Leigh as Scarlett, what they say about the character at different points in the story, how they link her to or set her apart from other characters.
Trailer for this week? How about Takashi Miike’s Hara-Kiri?
Because there’s nothing like a bit of the ol’ ritual disembowelling to set you up for a Friday. This being Miike, I expect if the suicide does go through we won’t be spared the detail.
Link of the week is this Vanity Fair oral history of The Sopranos a set of screen tests for Gone With the Wind. You may consider yourself forewarned of future MostlyFilm content with that, too. Oh, yes.
Existing MostlyFilm content, which you may have missed: