Shades of Grey: The Brilliance of Understated Costuming

by Camiele White on October 18, 2011
The hazy fog of autumn reminds me that there are some things that you must see beyond to truly understand their beauty. Much in the same way, sometimes there are aspects of a spectacular film that can be lost in the grandiosity of it all if we fail to take in the subtleties. Of these subtle nuances of cinematic style, none is often times more neglected than the art costuming. While the most heralded films tend towards the more extravagant, there’s a contingent of filmmakers intent on creating a masterpiece based solely on the atmosphere of the film. That is to say, while sets and technology have pushed films to heights never before imagined, there is a small pocket of Hollywood that reserves the extravagance for the story and the connection of the players with the audience.
That being said, sometimes the costuming that fades into the background can be the most jarring pieces of artwork on the set itself. The undertones of a film inform the necessity for imagery. After all, what is pressed into celluloid is literally poetry in motion. The visual impact of a film gives shape and form to the way in which members of the audience think about the world around them. Some of the most visceral forms of understatement come in films whose story is complex and multi-layered. In this way, the skin of the character is meant to support, not distract. For instance, the most violent films can be absolutely Pollock in execution, allowing the costume to perform as a blank canvas on which the artists (namely, the actors and their director) paint their story.
The film Equilibrium is in the same breath grandiose and riddled with understatement. The entire point of the film is combating one’s emotions –that is to say that the emotional landscape of the film is grey, completely devoid of the subtleties in emotion that define us as human. The costumes are all monotone, a chromic depiction of the futuristic sameness of humanity. No one stands out, nor is anyone meant to. It’s this stark contrast between the ballet of violence and the uniformity of the characters that give the film its depth. The costumes come to define and contradict the characters as they begin to develop. Christian Bale’s character begins soft, almost blending into the dreariness of his environment until a chance meeting with a woman who reminds him of the giggle in his late wife’s smile smashes his built-in understanding of emotion and the irreparable harm it can cause. As his world becomes streaked in blood reds and bruised blues, the tone of his uniform takes on a different hue. Though still grey, there’s something distinctly unique about it –the wearer’s transformation boring slight wrinkles, misplaced splotches of imperfection into the clothing itself. Of course, sometimes uniformity can cause a significant rip in the imagery, creating a visual palette that can be hard to swallow. In GATTACA, the uniformity is quite striking, considering the elegant colours that provide the overwhelming essence of the film. It’s a film focused on individual DNA.
While similar in its helix shape in every human being, the raw material doesn’t define the being in the human. In the same way that the material of each grey and black suit is similar in fibre and texture, the actual living, breathing creature inside has his own thoughts, his own emotions, his own understanding of who he is –despite the constant push for humanity to become one individual. Insomuch as one’s DNA doesn’t define him, it has the power to create him. For instance, Ethan Hawke’s character is enticed by the very idea of touching the moon; however, his DNA would suggest that he isn’t fit to do so in this new society in which only those with the genetic mapping of perfection are allowed to reach for it. He learns of a way in which he can mask his DNA for that of another, thus giving the physical visualisation of the film scope: our interior doesn’t necessarily definer our exterior. In this same way, the brilliant colours of the film and the dullness of the attire push and pull to create a tension in the audience, forcing our subconscious to reconcile with we see with what
As minute a detail as costuming is, it can go on to define and expand the science of a film, give the film texture where there was none originally. With the world constantly at odds with itself –wanting all the extravagance of fantasy but yearning for some sort of silent stability– film allows us to take this contradiction and see for ourselves that one aspect is as important as the other. The costumes in film provide the crag in logic that our eye is forced to process. In this way, we are forced to identify our own internal struggle and regard, if reluctantly, that the quiet is as important as the loud. If you enjoyed this article, please consider bookmarking it on Delicious or sharing it on StumbleUpon. It helps me to reach more readers. Thanks!   Leave a Comment



Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published