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Dressing for Excess

Costume designer Arianne Phillips has indulged her fascination with thrift-store castoffs and rock-glam chic in creating the over-the-top outfits in 'Hedwig and the Angry Inch.'

July 16, 2001|VALLI HERMAN-COHEN | TIMES SENIOR FASHION WRITER

If it weren't for the many references to the falling of the Berlin Wall, the clothes alone in the new movie "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" might make style watchers think they're looking at a hyper-glammed version of fashion for this fall.

Fashion's ongoing fascination with the tricked-up denims, glittery metallic fabrics and the acid colors of the 1980s makes the costumes in "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" seem oddly contemporary. When the movie hits theaters Friday, costume designer Arianne Phillips' handiwork could serve as a lesson to musicians and costumers alike that yesterday's thrift-store castoffs can become today's knockout clothes.

"It makes sense to do this film because it's aesthetically up my alley," said Phillips in between fielding dozens of phone calls in her simply decorated Los Angeles duplex apartment. In her other role as a fashion stylist, Phillips has dressed such icons of fashion excess as Courtney Love for magazine covers, Madonna for fashion shoots and her Drowned World tour, and Lenny Kravitz for his many album covers. Phillips seemed almost destined to one day outfit a rock musical. As a 12-year-old she saw "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" on stage in Westwood.

"That had a profound impact on me," she recalled. Her eye for rock-musician chic and theatrical glamour proved to be good background for dressing Hedwig, the fashion-loving quasi-punk musician whose life story redefines "boy-meets-girl."

Born as the boy Hansel in communist East Germany, Hedwig underwent a sex-change operation to marry an American GI. The botched surgery left Hedwig with an "angry inch" but yards of determination. Soon, she embraces American rock music, wild clothes and forms the Angry Inch band that lands gigs in seafood restaurants.

Clearly, simple separates from Talbots just won't do. In the film, Hedwig's many hyper-feminine looks swing from a mini-dress and elbow gloves cut from swaths of hair, to laughably prim pink plaids, to a rabbit fur jacket spattered with a protester's red paint.

The movie is an adaptation of the off-Broadway hit musical of the same name created by playwright John Cameron Mitchell and lyricist and composer Stephen Trask. The team returned to the movie production, with Mitchell directing and starring as Hedwig, and Trask as guitarist Skszp. As she got to know Mitchell, Phillips, 38, found that they were born days apart and shared similar experiences growing up. Though she was the daughter of West Coast "liberal, hippie, politically active parents," and he was an Army brat, they found common ground in the story's theme of finding your true self.

Mitchell describes the work variously as "an anatomically incorrect rock odyssey" or as a "post-punk neo-glam rock musical," the latter of which comes close to describing the fashion influences. There are punk's high-top tennis shoes, glam-rock's fishnet hose and new wave's acid-washed denim.

Though some costume designers might have used the wardrobe to amplify the movie's theme of the divided self, Phillips was more literal. For example, when she put Hedwig in a pair of pants with one leg slashed off at the thigh, they were not symbolic of the character's mutilation but, she said, an homage to her friend fashion designer Jeremy Scott's first collection of uneven pant legs.

Phillips pictured a wardrobe that might have resulted from Hedwig's circumstances.

"The thing about Hedwig is she is real scrappy and doesn't have a lot of money," said Phillips, who scoured thrift stores outside of designer-saturated Los Angeles to find lesser known, middle-American fashion. She then re-created the clothes, just as Hedwig also was forced to reinvent herself.

"Nothing is as it was off the rack," she said. "It was all hands-on for me. I was like my own sweat shop," Phillips said. "Call me Kathie Lee Gifford." She re-cut necklines on T-shirts and even crafted a chrysalis-like dress of wadded clear plastic sheeting and adhesive tape. She was inspired by the over-the-top hairstyles and makeup created by Mike Potter, the play's original wig maker who designed the exaggerated Farrah Fawcett winged wig. To understand his approach better, Phillips flew Potter to L.A. for a week to collaborate. The movie required 41 costume changes, compared to the stage play's two. Hedwig's wig repertoire ballooned to 30, each blonder and more outrageous than the last.

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