Saturday, April 16th. 2016
Annual General Meeting and
‘Heroes of the Silver Screen’
FANTASIES OF HISTORIC COSTUME FOR THE MOVIES
by PHILIP WARREN
Venue: St. Peters & Pauls Church Hall, St. George's Way, Standbridge Lane Wakefield WF2 7NR
Following the brief formality of the Society's AGM and a varied and appetizing buffet lunch, members and guests were treated to a talk by one of our favourite speakers, Phillip Warren, Fashion Historian at Leicester museums.
His talk explored the facts and fantasies of historic dress created for the movies and how the heroes and heroines of the silver screen created a fantasy of historic characters, either helped or hindered by their costumes.
Phillip explained how the Film industry, then in its infancy, was drawn to Hollywood in the early 20th Century by the long hours of sunshine, which created favourable lighting. The new medium dictated how garments had to be designed and made, to ensure that the early lens technology picked up the detail necessary to create an immediate impression of the character being portrayed by the Actor. For example, white shirts were actually lavender coloured to make them appear whiter in Black and White.
Accuracy was not always key, the Director being more intent on using Costume to give the largely illiterate audience, immediate visual aids, thus creating the required mood and understanding of the plot in a short space of time.
As a result, a kind of visual shorthand developed, with a character easily being identified as ‘a goodie or baddie’ by the colour of their black or white hat, even at a distance. Phillip illustrated that this stereotyping continues to be used in contemporary films, citing the fact that we immediately assess the character of Bellatrix Lestrange from Helena Bonham Carter’s wild hair and Costume without the actress needing to utter a word.
Phillip told how, as technology developed, Directors became more ambitious, using Costume to show a character’s development throughout a film with Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara first appearing in a fresh, white dress with scarlet sash, running to meet her father, later petulantly being pulled into a tightly laced corset after childbirth and finally, as a ‘scarlet woman’ deserted by Rhett, her character emphasized by the heart-stopping gown made from her red velvet curtains.
Despite the limitations of the 1930’s ‘Hayes Motion Picture Code’, actors such as Clark Gable, Mae West and Marlene Dietrich were promoted as sex symbols and, on and off screen, these heartthrobs had a huge effect on popular fashion. Phillip illustrated the mutually beneficial relationship between 1930’s/1940’s Hollywood and the fashion industry with Bloomingdales pared down version of Joan Crawford’s ‘Letty Lynton’ dress, selling 30,000 copies in the first 3 months release of the film.
Phillip noted the development in the aims of the Director, showing how Laurence Olivier created a stylized land of Mediaeval tapestry in his acclaimed 1944 version of Henry V and how Director Martin Scorsese breaks up the narrative of his 1993 film ‘The Age of Innocence’ by focusing on the, historically accurate, bow on a hem as it moves down a corridor.
Phillip ended this fascinating talk by stating that Hollywood is now old enough to have its own history, turning the cameras on its ‘golden age’ of the 1930’s and 40’s, portraying stars such as Katherine Hepburn and Ava Gardner in ‘The Aviator’, in tongue in cheek fashion in ‘The Artist’ and referencing Hollywood icons such as Marlon Brando’s ‘Wild One’ in ‘The Terminator’. As with all Fashion, he illustrated that film also repeats itself, with Harrison Ford reprising Clarke Gable’s classic Adventurer of 1932’s ‘Red Dust’ in the ‘Indiana Jones’ film franchise and Johnny Depp’s wayward pirate borrowing heavily from Errol Flynn’s ‘dangerous but nice’ heartthrob.
After a short question and answer session with Phillip, members and guests examined and discussed the various 1930’s family photographs and garments brought by our members, rounding off a very enjoyable meeting.