How Costume Design Influences The Way You Watch Movies

How Costume Design Influences The Way You Watch Movies

Josh Fonseca

Your favorite characters’ outfits have a story to tell.

Costume designers are often overlooked. But their craft is as essential as any other aspect of film making. It expresses a character’s style and personality, but it also serves a deeper purpose: to reinforce the film’s themes without the audience even realizing.

“The Breakfast Club”

In John Hughes’ classic, the characters’ wardrobes visually depict the differences between the five teens stuck in detention. We see these characters “in the simplest terms.” Costume design is used against the audience, to trick us into regarding the ensemble by merely their archetypes, giving them the chance to prove us wrong.

These characters go into detention early in the morning, dressed in heavy winter layers. Over the course of the film, they take off their layers as they open up to each other about their lives.

This use of visual storytelling might not be as memorable as the banter or dance sequence, but it continually reminds the audience that these teens are, for the first time in their lives, exposing who they truly are.

“Amadeus”

You don’t need to watch the movie to know Mozart was a musical genius. “Amadeus” is a masterful period piece with incredible attention to detail in costume design. The film’s costume designer, Theodore Pistek, recreated the styles of the 18th century and won an Oscar for his work.

Amidst all the frilly shirts, stockings and powdered wigs, Mozart sticks out like a sore thumb. His feathered, pink wig is painfully 80s in style. It wordlessly expresses that Mozart was different from his peers: he was ahead of his time.

“Gone With The Wind”

‘Gone With The Wind’

Asking a grieving widow to dance may not always be socially acceptable, but it sure makes for a iconic dance scene. Scarlet O’Hara and Rhett Butler step onto the dance floor in all black, a stark contrast to the pastel dresses and uniforms that surround them.

Not only does this contrast depict Scarlet and Rhett’s unorthodox relationship, it serves as a foreboding symbol that this is not a traditional love story.

“Raging Bull”

‘Raging Bull’

This Scorsese classic tells the story of boxer Jake La Motta, as his unhealthy obsession with fighting ruins all the important relationships in his life. Jake is more of a beast than a person and if the title wasn’t a big enough hint to his lack of humanity, he sports a leopard-skin robe to further drive the point home.

“Star Wars Trilogy”

‘A New Hope’ (left) ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ (center) and ‘Return Of The Jedi’ (right)

Star Wars has some of the most creative costume designs in cinema history, but the franchise’s most brilliant work is a concept three films in the making.

We first meet Luke in “A New Hope,” stuck on Tatooine, wearing his iconic white garb. The white suggests that he’s innocent and sheltered from the turmoil of the galaxy. He discards his white outfit when he joins the Rebellion.

In “The Empire Strikes Back,” Luke wears all gray as he trains with Yoda on Dagobah. At this point he’s no longer sheltered; he’s now the center of the conflict. His gray outfit symbolizes that he’s caught between two extremes: Obiwan and Yoda want him to stay in the light. Darth Vader and the Emperor want to turn him to the dark side.

This monochromatic trend continues in “Return Of The Jedi.” Luke wears all black as the saga reaches its culmination. He’s lost both Obiwan and Yoda. He is now alone in his fight against the dark side. After resisting the temptation of the dark side, defeating the Emperor and saving his father, it’s revealed that underneath his black exterior, Luke has been wearing white all along.

Costume design is so much more than dressing an actor: it’s a subtle but powerful extension of the movie’s central themes. Take a closer look at the costumes in your favorite movies and you might be surprised by their deeper meanings.