Film costume design is a profession that has been dominated by women since the industry's beginning and, although it is an influential cinematic art, it is one of the least recognized. One reason is that although a film costume is a highly constructed garment made, fundamentally, to support the narrative, it is often, in culture and in scholarship, blurred with fashion (as branding or shopping versus creative design) and typically referred to as “fashion in film.” That these separate skills need to be redefined makes film costume a compelling, even frontier subject for feminist scholars, and in the last fifteen or so years it has gained greater status as more information emerges about how women influenced cinema.
Cinema's roots lie with the nineteenth-century stage giants. Costume, in this world, was important and openly discussed as a performance tool until the early 1900s.1 In 1906 fashion writer Eliza Davis Aria wrote the popular Costume: Fanciful, Historical, and Theatrical, with input and illustrations by Percy Anderson, one of theater's most publicly lauded costume designers, who had a formative influence on twentieth-century artists such as Léon Bakst.2 An analysis of this vibrant bridge between costume on stage and costume in cinema has developed in multiple new directions in the last twenty years, mostly led by women. Patrizia Calefato's The Clothed Body (2004) conflates clothing and costume, at one level, in theorizing that clothing was perceived by the wearer as a performance, something through which the wearer became self-aware.3 Aoife Monks in The Actor in Costume (2010) emphasizes that the costume on the body is layered with meaning for the viewer, representing both personal and historical attachments, which form the lure of star quality, a sensate relationship between viewer and actor, even if the actor is on-screen, with a depth of feeling that Richard Dyer underscores in Stars (1998) and other writings.4 I argued in 2016 that the public's intimate attraction to the costuming of nineteenth-century superstars like Sarah Bernhardt and Henry Irving helped the viewer transition from stage to film, during the onset of cinema, by way of the tactile memory of the dressed actor.5
The essays in Fabrications: Costume and the Female Body (1990), edited by Jane Gaines and Charlotte Herzog, address costume's relationship to the female body as a key field for feminist scholarship.6 Gaines's examination of the work of MGM's head of costume, Adrian, was vital in opening theoretical explorations of material costume, a line of inquiry that has continued in work like Giuliana Bruno's analysis of costume, dress, and editing in Wong Kar-wai's The Hand (2011).7 Stella Bruzzi broke ground with Undressing Cinema: Clothing and Identity in the Movies (1997), not only in its scholarship on costume's place in multiple aspects of women's (and men's) roles in cinema but also by referencing designers by name.8
In the 1970s and 1980s notable reference books emerged. Elizabeth Leese's Costume Design in the Movies (1972) was the first detailed filmography of many costume careers.9 David Chierichetti's Hollywood Costume Design (1976) and biographies of director and designer Mitchell Leisen and costume designer Edith Head, as well as W. Robert LaVine's In a Glamorous Fashion: The Fabulous Years of Hollywood Costume Design (1980) and Edward Maeder's Hollywood and History: Costume Design in Film (1987), gave a historical range to film costume.10 Michael Morris's Natacha Rambova biography brought unprecedented consideration to one of cinema's great (neglected) costume and set designers, but it wasn't until almost three decades later that substantial new interest appeared.11 In 1981, Susan Perez Prichard compiled the invaluable Film Costume: An Annotated Bibliography, covering the 1910s to 1980.12 Studies that gave background to film costume, such as Sara Maitland's 1986 profile of music hall entertainer Vesta Tilley, who appeared in male dress, were important foundations to understanding cinematic costume's full meaning and its part in gender performance, especially as a means for women (and audiences) to complicate their assigned social roles.13 The online Women Film Pioneers Project (inaugurated in 2012), about women working in the silent screen era, includes profiles of (often little-known) costume designers.
There are numerous interweavings between costume and fashion, although both have different intentions and skills. Couturière Lucile was one of the few who lucratively worked both worlds, and Caroline Evans's research on early European and American fashion shows in film illustrates other links between cinema and the runway.14 Michelle Tolini Finamore, with Hollywood before Glamour: Fashion in American Silent Film (2013), broke ground in recognizing the sophistication of costume and wardrobe by the 1910s and by naming many heads (some also designers) of these collections, most of them women.15 Her studious focus on how costume affected fashion opens, rather than conflates, their complex relationship, something that Clare M. Wilkinson-Weber's Fashioning Bollywood: The Making and Meaning of Hindi Film Costume (2013) also does in examining India's interrelated systems of couture, dressmaking, and film costume.16 Studies on African American style, performance, and clothing have produced valuable research, such as Monica Miller's analysis of the Black dandy in Slaves to Fashion (2009), delving into both male and female costume and dress.17 Some works on the relationship between fashion and costume have connected theater, film, fashion, and display, such as Marlis Schweitzer's When Broadway Was the Runway (2011) and the Bard Graduate Center's 2012 exhibition catalogue Staging Fashion, 1880–1920: Jane Hading, Lily Elsie, Billie Burke.18 The very recent edited volume Film, Fashion and the 1960s (2017) examines films with fashion in the narrative.19
In 1976, Vogue editor Diana Vreeland's unique New York Metropolitan Museum exhibition Hollywood Costume put costume into what was new at that time: a fashion context.20 By the 1970s, fan interest in stars’ costume and style, active from cinema's beginning, had diminished, but that interconnection again became prevalent in studies and celebrations of film costume for the next few decades. The Fashion in Film Festival, launched in 2006 through London's Central Saint Martins, inventively programs films with unusual costumes and has published two books, If Looks Could Kill: Cinema's Images of Fashion, Crime and Violence (2008) and Birds of Paradise: Costume as Cinematic Spectacle (2014).21 Semi “fashion in film” books such as Hollywood Dressed and Undressed (1998) and The Power of Glamour (1998) predominate in the popular field.22 Though fashion and stardom remained the major themes and often designers were not part of the study, that the range was diversifying shows in books such as Sarah Berry's Screen Style: Fashion and Femininity in 1930s Hollywood (2000), Sarah Street's Costume and Cinema: Dress Codes in Popular Film (2001), Pam Cook's Fashioning the Nation: Costume and Identity in British Cinema (1996), Tamar Jeffers McDonald's Hollywood Catwalk: Exploring Costume and Transformation in American Film (2010), Pamela Church Gibson's Fashion and Celebrity Culture (2012), Jonathan Faiers's Dressing Dangerously: Dysfunctional Fashion in Film (2013), and collections of essays such as Fashioning Film Stars (2005), Fashion in Fiction: Text and Clothing in Literature, Film and Television (2009), and Fashion in Film (2011).23
Short biographies on costume designers emerged in the last decade in the form of coffee table books on Adrian, Irene, William Travilla, Eiko Ishioka, and Lucile, as well as ones on specific films’ costumes. In the early 2000s, more detailed attention was generated by Deborah Nandoolman Landis, costume designer and former head of the Costume Designers Guild, who published histories and interviews, curated international shows, and launched film costume courses and an annual conference at the University of California, Los Angeles.24 Also relevant was, circa 2010, the enormous media attention on designer Janie Bryant thanks to her Mad Men costumes. Her acclaim among fans of the show, and her business success, brought greater public awareness to the costume designer's importance. Bryant was interviewed by many financial news outlets and treated with unusual deference for a woman working in television and design, revealing that her impact has been not only multi-layered but widely considered vital. Another sign of this shift was that 100 Unforgettable Dresses (2011) by television personality Hal Rubenstein notably gave costume designers full credit.25 Jay Jorgensen's Creating the Illusion (2015) broke ground by including chapters on unstudied but important designers.26 More research on other forgotten women, such as Edward Maeder's on Gladys Powell, has raised the profiles of women working in various occupations across film costume.27 Since 2010, “costume” has become increasingly separated from fashion. The ongoing conference Critical Costume, launched in 2013 at Edge Hill University in England and continued in 2015 at Aalto University, Finland, solely examines costume through multiple platforms. In 2014, New York University launched Film Costume/, a recurring film costume conference.
This new diversity in examinations of film costume, and the women who have been and are still its great talents, suggests that film costume design is being recognized as a crucial part of cinema and that this topic will engender more in-depth scholarship.