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OSCARS 2000 | COSTUME DESIGN

It's All in the Details

They don't get the $20-million paychecks or credits above the title, but they are major players in determining how movies look.

March 26, 2000|CHRISTOPHER NOXON | Christopher Noxon is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer

Milena Canonero, "Titus" * She admits to throwing out the costumer's playbook in an effort to 'blend and collide time' for the surreal Shakespearean epic.

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There's nary a single pair of tights in Julie Taymor's surreal epic "Titus," in which traditional Shakespearean garb is traded for a wild wardrobe of leather, lame and animal fur. Young noblemen wear red studded trousers, military advisors wear crisp European suits and the Queen of the Goths struts through the action in pillbox hats, form-fitting breast plates and a blue tattoo that curls around her arms and shoulders.

"It's retro-contemporary-futuristic," says costume designer Milena Canonero. "Everything was interpreted, nothing was exact. It's like a comic strip." Equal parts Roman, fascist and futuristic, the costumes were designed to reflect a place and time worlds away from the setting described in Shakespeare's brutal play. Taymor, who directed the Broadway musical adaptation of Disney's "The Lion King," wanted this adaptation to "blend and collide time" rather than re-create it. For Canonero, this meant throwing out the usual costumer's playbook.

"It's much easier to do a movie in a specific period," she says. "Here, all the costumes mean something more than just dress-up. It's a very difficult way of doing a movie."

Canonero worked with Taymor and production designer Dante Ferreti to create costumes that served as symbols as much as dressing. Anthony Hopkins, who plays the Roman general Titus Andronicus, is first seen in a suit of black pounded armor. As his hold on power loosens, his wardrobe lightens and softens, at one point leaving him in baggy corduroy pants and a ratty cardigan. In the final scene, the mighty general is dressed in a white chef's uniform, his transformation complete.

"I like the subtext in costumes," she says. "I don't like to make costumes that only reflect an aesthetic look--I design them to underline their character or situation."

Canonero, an Italian by birth who splits her time between Los Angeles and London, has won Oscars for her work in "Barry Lyndon" and "Chariots of Fire." She has also worked on "Bulworth," "The Cotton Club" and "Out of Africa." Canonero says the costumes for "Titus" are as ambitious as anything she has ever attempted. Supervising a crew of 30 seamstresses and armorers in a workshop in Rome, Canonero helped fashion more than 500 costumes. Every piece, including all the weapons and armor, was created especially for the film.

Many of these costumes weren't exactly user-friendly. Canonero says she felt especially sorry for Jessica Lange, who performed a few scenes in heavy brass armor in subzero temperatures. "This was very uncomfortable for her," says Canonero. "She was very sporty and just went for it."

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