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For 'Les Miz' and more, the color red makes a statement

It's a strong color. Costume designers tend to use it sparingly. But sometimes the situation just calls for it.

November 29, 2012|By Randee Dawn
  • In "Les Miserables," a sign of Fantine's (Anne Hathaway) fall is her red dress.
In "Les Miserables," a sign of Fantine's (Anne Hathaway)… (Laurie Sparham, Universal…)

For most of "Les Misérables," things do not go well for Fantine. Abandoned by the father of her child, she goes on a long spiral down the economic ladder and winds up working in a brothel. And although she's always featured with a splash of color in the film, by the time she's selling her body there's only one color left for her to wear: red.

"In 'Les Misérables,' one thing [director Tom Hooper] wanted to have was color. Fantine always had to have reds and pinks in her outfit," says costume designer Paco Delgado. "I love to think in terms of color for characters and in moments of the movie. Color really connects with emotions that shape the psyche of the audience."

Color is naturally part of the decision-making process for costume designers, who must consult with production designers and the director to make sure whatever the actor wears in a given scene complements or contrasts with the scenery around them. But beneath that initial decision making, the ultimate color choice carries with it a lot of other meaning, meaning that usually just brushes past the audience the way foreshadowing does in a book. But when the color is red, everything goes out the window. Shown on an actress (or an actor), red makes a statement: This is an important moment, this character needs to come front and center.

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"Red's a very attention-drawing color," says "Django Unchained" costume designer Sharen Davis. "You put a red outfit on the female lead, and she's usually going to be turning a corner or trying to be very sexy — it's a pivoting point where they're trying to be bold and aggressive."

Although Quentin Tarantino's "Django" itself isn't covered in red (outside of the blood), splashes do pop up — a burgundy suit, for example. Davis, who earned an Oscar nomination for her "Dreamgirls" work, notes, however, that when the lead actresses in that film stepped into a dream sequence, over to the bad side, they were in red beaded dresses. "It does have a meaning," she says. "But you use it sparingly."

Sparingly, primarily, because no one wants to jerk the audience out of the fantasy experience of the story and into the mechanics of how the strings are being pulled. Some directors don't shy from "on the nose" use of bold colors — Jacqueline Durran, costume designer for Joe Wright's "Anna Karenina," earned an Oscar nomination for her work with him on "Atonement" and recalls, "He specifically wanted Benedict Cumberbatch's character to wear yellow in that film ['Atonement'], because it is the color of cowardice."

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But for the most part, it's about knowing the right time and place to deploy the red bomb. "You have to decide: Do you want it spot on?" asks Deborah Nadoolman Landis, former president of the Costume Designers Guild, now the director of the David C. Copley Center for Costume Design. "Is this costume going to sabotage the scene? Because if we're looking at the dress, we're not listening to what the actress is saying."

Color choice can be a tug of war between a costume designer who knows the power of red and a director who wants to pull it out for great effect — and gratuitous use of the color isn't necessarily the fault of the designer. Notes Landis, "Costume designers don't have the final decision on anything. The decider may have changed from producer to director over the years, but the costume designer has always been just one piece of the visual context of the frame."

"Certain directors — none that I worked for — that's their big idea and how they've always envisioned it and they have a crush on the leading lady and she has to be in red," says Mark Bridges, costume designer for "The Master" and "Silver Linings Playbook."

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Fortunately that wasn't an issue in "The Master," where red is brought out in subtle, careful spots: The first time Philip Seymour Hoffman's title character is seen, he's in red patterned pajamas. "We did that to catch [Joaquin Phoenix's character] Freddy's attention," Bridges says. "We wanted to compel his mind."

In the occasional instance in which a director might be more demanding in his use for that red flag color, "Lincoln's" costume designer JoAnna Johnston suggests there are ways to get around it, like toning the brightness down. "You do sometimes hear directors saying, 'I see her in red,' because it's classically sexy and hot and all of those things, but what's interesting with red is when you drop the color around a little bit — a bit more orange, a bit more blue — then it can send out an entirely different signal."

In "Lincoln," the nearly overwhelming need for earth tones and black suits made red almost impossible, but Johnston found the right spot: as the character Elizabeth Blair (Julie White) is bundling her father into a carriage. "I gave her a very strong red shawl," she says. "I wanted her to have strength in that scene — she's quite fiery and strong and a modernist. That's the only time I felt it would be right to use it."

But for Johnston — who used red to great effect in highlighting the "clues" in "The Sixth Sense," prudency with red is warranted in any film; costume designers shouldn't fear being obvious: "Whether it's a sexy silk dress or a man in a red cloak, it's got drama, and people love seeing red. It may be a cliché sometimes, but that's good too."

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