A film’s believability hinges on its costumes

This past weekend, I finally saw Quentin Tarantino’s latest flick, Django Unchained. And though the other moviegoers probably sat transfixed by the incredible amount of violence or horrified at the frantic use of the N-word doing the three-hour epic, I sat wondering if anyone else noticed that Jamie Foxx’s titular character was donning a pair of sunglasses.

Sunglasses. I’m not a historian, but after some simple research and a small amount of common sense, I realized that cowboys in the South, especially freed slaves, didn’t rock a pair of John Lennon-shaded specs while horseback riding.

Now, though, some have been angry over Tarantino’s obvious distortions of history, it’s imperative to realize that Tarantino knows exactly what he is doing. He’s not trying to educate our young — he’s trying to entertain them.

And I get that, I really do. But I can’t help but get a bit annoyed over Django’s sunglasses. For me, it gave me a hard slap in the face, dragging me out of the magic of the film and into the epiphany that I was simply watching a movie. I go to the cinema to be entertained, to escape into a magical world of wonder and it seemed as if Tarantino wanted to force me out of it.

It seems like such a small thing, but costumes — especially those in period pieces can make or break a film. Often, the costumes are the film. Remember Atonement? It was a decent movie with decent performances. Remember Keira Knightley’s stunner of a green dress in the film? Now that was a showstopper.

The same goes for Emma Stone’s red gown from the dud Gangster Squad. Ryan Gosling’s Jerry Wooter asks “Who’s the tomato?” and our eyes turn to the drop-dead gorgeous siren on the screen. Red hair dyed to match the cherry color of a chiffon masterpiece, high slits on both sides and a tasteful neckline.

Though a film’s costumes might elevate it from yawn-inducing to somewhat intriguing, the main purpose of the costume is to help actors get into character. It was probably difficult for the cast of Lincoln to completely immerse themselves in the time period, but donning the clothes of the day helped. As Lincoln’s wife Mary Todd, Sally Field was dressed in historically accurate clothes that attempted to transform the petite two-time Oscar winner into the rather plain-looking wife.

Joanna Johnston, the costume designer of the film, and current Oscar nominee, told Vanity Fair that Mary Todd “wasn’t a great looker … but I think the over-trussing of her, her adornments, clothes, headdresses and bonnets, helped her look great in a way.”

To the naked eye, Sally Field was just traversing around in big fancy dresses, but put in context, these fancy frocks, which were extremely difficult to walk or sit in, added layers to the character — she was in a constant state of trying to prove herself.

So now it’s easier to see why Django’s sunglasses got me so up in arms. Instead of adding to the story, instead of further immersing the actors and the audience into this imaginary world, we were distracted by the sunglasses. Leonardo DiCaprio as slave master Calvin Candie, could have pulled out a cell phone in the next scene.

Honestly, costumes might be the most important part of a film. No matter how great your actress is, if the wardrobe does not match her part, then all of that hard work is thrown out of the window. Total immersion into a character from the inside out comes from the help of a wardrobe and makeup department. Jennifer Lawrence was magnificent in Silver Linings Playbook, and one of the reasons why is because her character Tiffany actually looked like the girl-next-door in Philly. Director David O. Russell didn’t try to make her look like the Hollywood starlet she is. She wore her hair in a messy bun. She wore cheap clothes but tried to make them look sexy in the way that we all do. There was no Dolce & Gabbana, no Armani. Just Tiffany.

And as the Oscars approach, the top costume designers of the year will go head-to-head — or stitch-to-stitch — for the honor. As the Academy typically honors rather grandiose period films, the costume designers of Anna Karenina (Jacqueline Durran), Les Misérables (Paco Delgado), Lincoln (Joanna Johnston), Mirror Mirror (the infamous Eiko Ishioka) and Snow White and the Huntsman (another legend, Colleen Atwood) are all nominated. All five films are feats of costuming and any of them could win. The true winner, however, is the audience, for getting the chance to be lost once again in the magic of filmmaking, with a little help from a sewing machine and the imagination of a costume designer.


Sheridan Watson is a junior majoring in critical studies. Her column “A Stitch in Time” runs Tuesdays.