Words | Randy Lai
Even when you can’t quite put your finger on it, it’s virtually impossible to deny the transfigurative role that clothes play in conjuring the magic of cinema.
In her foreword to the 2013 exhibition Hollywood Costume, Deborah Nadoolman Landis (Senior Curator, V&A Museum) propounded that clothing is an essential “channel by which a character is transformed from the written page to a multi-dimensional [person]”.
Even the most middling survey of legendary on-screen actors themselves - your Robert De Niros and Meryl Streeps - all but confirms that, as it turns out, clothes do indeed make (or break) characterisation. They’d know.
As indispensable to a filmmaker’s unique aesthetic vision as the actors they’re directing; we thought we’d mark the recent conclusion of The 95th Academy Awards with a trio of incredible motion pictures - all of them Oscar-nominated - which do justice to their respective costume departments.
From bleakly beautiful Aran jumpers to decadent, 1920s-inspired suiting, there’s plenty of inspiration to be gleaned here as we saunter into the cooler months of the year.
Reuniting director Martin McDonagh with his two In Bruges leads Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, The Banshees of Inisherin is a by turns tar-black and side-splittingly funny tragicomedy set on the fictional isle of Inisherin, towards the conclusion of the 1928 Civil War.
As simple as your man can tell it: the plot revolves around two lifelong friends who suddenly find themselves at a fatal impasse, when one (Brendan Gleeson) insists on dissolving his relationship with the other - and goes to extreme lengths to do so.
Filmed on-location amid the coastal expanses of Inishmore (largest of the Aran Islands) Banshees derives its sartorial explosiveness from costume designer Eimer Ní Mhaldomhnaigh’s knitwear - a patchwork of uniformly satisfying “provincial craft by way of Margaret Howell” that celebrates the ruggedness of Irish linen and the Aran Islands’ famed heritage of jumper making.
Filmic style buffs have already been dissecting the voluminous Donegal overcoats worn by Gleeson and the red, seemingly childlike Peter Pan collars of Farrell’s character for months. However, it’d be a real donkey kick to the solar plexus to ignore the insane fisherman’s knit Barry Keoghan (Oscar-nominated for ‘Best Supporting Actor’) wears through most of the second act.
As Ní Mhaldomhnaigh herself attests, all three male leads “loved” the film’s use of knitwear, and its subcutaneous purpose as a form of “insulation” - against the harshness of male ego, and of the natural environment - is bound to strike a chord.
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A great big cocaine-addled, projectile-vomiting rollercoaster of a film (worth seeing for its 30-minute pre-title sequence alone) Babylon is the latest love letter to ‘Golden Age’ Hollywood, penned by Academy Award winning filmmaker Damian Chazelle.
Set during the era in Hollywood when studios were transitioning from silent film into ‘talkies’ (i.e. movies shot with synchronised sound) Babylon follows four protagonists - an upstart actress, burgeoning studio exec, young jazz musician, and leading actor - as they navigate the shifting landscape of American cinema in the 1920s.
Described by costume designer Mary Zophres as a production that took a lot of deliberate liberties with historical accuracy, Babylon nonetheless gets a lot of the broad strokes of that era correct, with pendulous low-slung lapels; pinstripe-clad gangsters; and the prevalence of wool and silk fibres in an age before cheap synthetics.
For MANUAL readers, the wardrobe of Jack Conrad - Brad Pitt’s film star character - offers a kind of heightened glimpse into the archetypal ‘leading man’ uniform of the 1920s. When he isn’t clad in bespoke black tie downing Champagne bottles by the dozen (easily amongst Zophres’ best looks), Conrad spends most of the film’s length in raffish leather bikers and shawl collar sweaters - certified menswear classics sure to find a place in any discerning man’s wardrobe. Even if he doesn’t look like ol’ William Bradley.
Yet another Academy Award winner - this time, from the far-flung year of 2013 - The Great Beauty (known as La grande bellezza in its native Italian) was made almost exactly at the mid-way point of Paolo Sorrentino’s career.
Often hand-waved away by critics as one of the Italian auteur’s more frivolous works, The Great Beauty lives up, in devastating fashion, to its title; with the film’s narrative - something about a soigne art critic afflicted by writer’s block - mainly serving to propel protagonist Jep Gambardella (played by the erudite Toni Servillo) through space and time.
And what propulsion! Clad in Tod’s moccasins and the softly sensual sportcoats of Neapolitan tailor Cesare Attolini, Gambardella floats through the gestalt of Rome’s “chattering classes”, dispensing bitter life truths and profundities - about how man’s great loves so often exact a ruinous toll on his creativity. Uplifting stuff.
You’d be hard-pressed to get any of this from costume designer Daniela Ciancio’s wardrobe. Despite his unshakable melancholy, Gambardella dresses for the film’s duration in an array of capital-S statement jackets: a move that we think men (even in 2023) could majorly benefit from, if embraced with sufficient conviction.
An unstructured sportcoat in canary yellow? That’s a ‘power move’ if ever we saw one.
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