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The Importance of Fashion in Film, And The People Behind the Costumes

by Amy Walter

In the year 1949 the Oscars’ ‘Best Costume Design’ category was introduced. Despite this, fashion remains an under-appreciated aspect of cinema. 


Although, with trends of the 90s and early 2000s resurfacing on TikTok and Instagram, many iconic costume designers are finally having their time in the spotlight. From Mona May’s ‘Clueless’ to Jacqueline Durran’s fashion in 2023’s ‘Barbie,’ costume design has become one of the most anticipated parts of film for movie lovers today.


Patricia Field


No one has a legacy quite like Patricia Field. Being the costume designer for all six seasons of ‘Sex and the City,’ as well as the two following movies, the show cemented Field as a fashion genius. 


The look of a tulle tutu skirt and kitten heels now forever associated with Carrie’s iconic look in the opening credits. In the words of Samantha Jones, Patricia Field was so “fabulous” she refused to make a cameo in the spin off show ‘…And Just Like That’ without her, Field eventually designing her anticipated appearance of a silver blazer and orange dress. 


Field went on to be the head for costume design in the beloved 2006 film ‘The Devil Wears Prada’ which wln Field a BAFTA and Academy Award for her work in costume design. Andrea Sachs’ iconic montage of Chanel, coats and heels to Madonna’s ‘Vogue’ justifying the acclaim. With the help of Field, ‘The Devil Wears Prada’ was solidified in fashion history as a golden example of how costume could elevate a movie.



Mona May


For many, Mona May has been proclaimed as the “the Queen of 90s movie fashion.”  May’s rise to fame came after the release of Amy Heckerling’s ‘Clueless.’ The 1995 film used fashion couture to capture the style of 90s youth. 


Cher Horowitz’s yellow plaid suit and knee-high socks trademarking the movie as one of the greatest fashion moments of the 90s decade. 


‘Romy and Michelle’s Highschool Reunion’ was described by Heckerling as the “grown-up version of Clueless” allowing for “higher heels” and “shorter skirts” which May fully embraced. Every scene captures the uniting love Romy and Michelle shared for fashion, whether that’s miniskirts at the launderette or heels on the treadmill. 


Before a dance to Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Time After Time,’ the girls arrive at their reunion in a complimenting set of blue and pink A-line dresses, matched with kitten heels and mini clutches. May’s costume designs never take themselves too seriously but always remain true to 90s femininity.


Jacqueline Durran


Over her twenty-year long career, Jacqueline Durran has been particularly credited for her work in period dramas. For many her most notable work was in Greta Gerwig’s 2019 rendition of ‘Little Women.’ For Gerwig and Durran, they wanted to utilise costume to “capture and represent the spirit and the characters of the girls.” 


Whilst Amy is the most “decorated” even from childhood, Jo’s rebellious nature is reflected in her lack of corset and undergarments. Durran was no stranger to the world of Jane Austen, previously working on the 2005 ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ which marked the first of her Oscar nominations. 


The movie takes the costuming in a softer late-18th century look, allowing a more stripped back vulnerable portrayal of the story, and whilst Durran emphasises the importance of historical accuracy, she puts even higher worth on what emotions clothing can tell. 


More recently, Durran worked again with Greta Gerwig on the summer phenomenon ‘Barbie.’ From the 1959 striped swim look to the 1994 Hot-skatin’ Barbie, Durran drew looks from over sixty years of doll couture. Barbie’s undeniable popularity is destined to add to Durrans existing awards.


Ann Roth


After an appearance in the 2023 blockbuster ‘Barbie,’ the work of Ann Roth has finally been rediscovered. 


Over her six-decade career, she has conquered the world of television, film, and theatre costume design, being the mastermind behind the fashion of beloved films like ‘Mama Mia’ and ‘Working Girl.’ 


For Roth, she firstly looks at the pre-existing script, approaching it as how the “character is written” then creating the costume that suits their personality and the context. 


This can be seen in the 1980 movie ‘9 to 5.’ The film depicts the lives of three women and their fight for workplace equality, Roth using fashion to depict such inequalities. The opening montage shows the men in dull suits and dress shoes whilst the women wear high heels and tight-fitting dresses, something their boss completely objectifies. 


In ‘Mama Mia,’ released in 2008, Roth worked with the script to create a timeless and effortless look in the islands of Greece, Donna’s dungarees, and Sophie’s loose white, beach tops being inspiration for any Greece getaway.

 

Denise Wingate


Another recent success was the TV series ‘Daisy Jones and the Six’ in which Denise Wingate completely indulges the audience in all things 70s. 


Denise used vintage pieces like penny-lane styles coats and bell-bottom jeans to bring the original novel to life. With articles like Glamour’s ‘Where (and How) to Shop the Best Outfits from Daisy Jones & The Six’ the show quickly became another short-lived trend, encapsulating the already popular revival of 70s fashion, resulting in a collaboration with Free People. Wingate also worked on cult-classics like 1999’s ‘Cruel Intentions’ and ‘A Cinderella Story’ in 2004. 


‘Cruel Intentions’ wardrobe reflects the New Yorker elite, with a black colour palette and collared tops. With ‘A Cinderella Story’ the looks reflect the “rags to riches” plot, from jeans to that all special white ball gown. Wingate told Interview magazine the dress was originally meant to be an “iridescent” blue, like the original cartoon, but Wingate opted for a more bridal look. This look elevated the pivotal moment of the film, staying with us almost twenty years later.


Within film, fashion acts as a forefront character, sharing silent words to the audience of what a character’s thinking, feeling, and experiencing. 


Costume design having the ability for a viewer to be on a 70s road trip or the halls of a 90s high school. Whilst Pinterest and TikTok continue to resurface our favourite movie outfits, the art of costume design is finally being recognised.

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