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A tip of the hat to the men and women of the cloth

September 19, 2004|Susan King | Times Staff Writer

It's not easy being a costume designer in today's Hollywood. In addition to the traditional challenge of translating character into clothing, contemporary costume designers must negotiate a world of budget constraints, shortened pre-production time and cast uncertainties.

"It's more corporate now," says Judianna Makovsky, a three-time Oscar nominee for "Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone," "Seabiscuit" and "Pleasantville." "You don't have the studio system behind you."

"You are fighting an uphill battle, especially when you are doing a contemporary piece," adds Jeffrey Kurland, an Oscar nominee for "Bullets Over Broadway." "As a designer you walk into a piece, no matter if it is contemporary or period, reading the script and formulating characters in your head and how they would appear on screen. Studios these days have a tendency to look at contemporary designs as 'clothing.' You just don't go to a store to create a [contemporary] character."

The new exhibit "50 Designers/50 Costumes: Concept to Character" at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Grand Lobby and Fourth Floor galleries illuminates the costume designer's process. The exhibit features 50 original costumes and costume sketches selected by the exhibiting designers from their recent work.

Among the costumes featured are Deena Appel's orange herringbone chenille suit from "Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery"; Jenny Beavan's blue evening robe of silk velvet from "Possession"; Sophie de Rakoff Carbonell's fuchsia-pink suit and matching pillbox hat from "Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde"; Ngila Dickson's 1860s-style silk and leather, red and black samurai armor with chain mail from "The Last Samurai"; Gloria Gresham's off-white cashmere sport jacket with gray flannel trousers and custom-made cotton shirt and silk tie from "Bandits"; Kurland's gold bead halter dress of sheer, changeable silk chiffon with bugle beads and mirrors, along with a gold leather knee-length coat from "Ocean's Eleven"; and Makovsky's lush, dark-burgundy changeable silk wizard's robe, appliqued with velvet Celtic motifs, and a faux-beaver-fur collar and cuffs stamped with square Renaissance designs for the character of Professor Dumbledore in "Harry Potter."

The exhibition, says Deborah Nadoolman Landis ("Coming to America," "Raiders of the Lost Ark"), the Oscar-nominated president of the Costume Designers Guild, "is a snapshot of the craft."

Building character

In the golden days of Hollywood, says Kurland, "the studios would know [in advance] Gary Cooper is starring in this and Bette Davis is starring in that. These days it's 'So-and-so hasn't signed their deal.' And then it's 'Yep, they are doing it, and get the costume made.' They shoot on Tuesday and it's Friday afternoon. Designs often need to be changed once the actor is signed."

"You can have a discussion about it," says Makovsky. "But they are the ones in front of the camera. It is our job to facilitate their job and make it right. You have to be very clever and come up with something even better on the spur of the moment. That is what makes good designers."

"Dustin Hoffman has said that by the time you get into a fitting room, the costume designer has thought longer and harder about his costume than he has," Landis says. "You are a storyteller, and we are telling this story with the costume. Actors become the characters, so you need to collaborate."

There's no question that time is a key factor, says Landis. "It's part of the process. You think about it driving, think about it sketching and think about it in fabric stores." But collapsing budgets mean collapsing schedules for production and imagination. "Sometimes," Landis adds, "you would come up with a different design had you been given more time."

Makovsky's process begins with reading the script and having a discussion with the director. "Then you go away and do your research and get your thoughts together and talk to the production designer and the cinematographer about color and you start designing."

Or, she says, you wing it. "With 'Harry Potter,' we didn't have a script. We worked from the book the first two months.... J.K. Rowling came in and I met with her for 10 minutes just to discuss who these people were. We didn't know who the actors were at that point, so you are really taking generalizations of the characters."

Certain directors realize the importance of costume design more than others, Makovsky says. When she asked for about six months to prepare for "Seabiscuit," "they listened to what I had to say and said OK. It really took writing a prospectus and going to the studio."

In conjunction with the exhibition, the academy will be offering seminars, "Character Comes First: Costume Design in the 21st Century," moderated by Landis, at 7 p.m. They will be held Tuesday and Sept. 28 and Oct. 5 at the academy's Linwood Dunn Theater at the Pickford Center for Motion Picture Study, 1313 N. Vine St. in Hollywood.


'50 Designers/ 50 Costumes: Concept to Character'

Where: Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Grand Lobby and Fourth Floor galleries, 8949 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills

When: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays to Fridays; noon to 6 p.m. weekends

Ends: Dec. 5

Price: Admission is free.

Contact: (310) 247-3600 or

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