Working With Costume: Theory, Method, Practice

a close up image of a needle against a black backdrop

14 Mar 2018

5.30pm to 7.30pm


This panel, chaired by Pamela Church-Gibson, will explore three active research projects that focus, in different ways, on the subject of screen costume. There will be three papers.

Lisa Colpaert: Screen-to-measure: Notes on a practice-based and textual analysis of Edith Head’s film costume design for Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity (1944.) 

My presentation will focus on one aspect of my PhD project, namely a shot-by-shot analysis of a film costume designed by Edith Head and for Barbara Stanwyck in the closing scene of Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944). First, I will explain the close textual analysis, which explores to what extent this film costume was designed for specific gestures, moments, and camera angles and how it interacts with the mise-en-scene, the lighting and the framing. This particular scene will thus be analysed through the film costume. Via this analysis, I will decipher how this specific film costume relates to the film’s overall plot and character development and discuss its place within the costume plot. In addition, I will explain how this particular costume relates to Stanwyck’s personal wardrobe, so as to explain how film costumes contributed to the construction of the “star image” in the studio system. Secondly, I will clarify the phenomenological analysis of the film costume, in which I describe the bodily movements and the interaction between the body and the dress, as well as a breakdown of the construction of the dress. This breakdown informs the reconstruction of the paper pattern of the costume, which is to visualize the film-specificity of drawing patterns for film costumes. In this part of the talk, I will go deeper into my interaction with the screened costumes from my position as a fashion designer and pattern cutter. The focus of my presentation will be the ways in which the paper pattern, which is a blueprint of the film costume, envisions the dialectical relation between the costume’s to-be-looked-at-ness (i.e. how it is designed to be seen) and its embodiment (i.e. how it is designed to be worn –made-to-measure–) for a performance). 

Liza Betts: Subject Position - Positioning the Subject 

In his ‘Search for a Method’ (Sartre, 1959) Sartre writes that each of us is both subject and object and that a constant give and go of modifications exists within this position (p128). This presentation will use Sartre’s ‘search’ in two ways; firstly, to examine the tension that exists within the methodology in production of my own work - identifying as a working-class female with extensive experience of the costume industry - my work is an examination of the representation of class and the everyday in television drama focusing on the costumes used. Is it possible to negotiate the unease that exists around my own subject position as author whilst accurately positioning the subject? How does this impact on the formations and interpretations of the empirical and theoretical material produced? Does it affect my own methodology practically or philosophically? If so how and what are the repercussions of this? Secondly as he comments, we are externalised in the materiality of language (p116) - here specifically, the language of clothing. In order to discover subjective signification and objective realisation he claims that we need to examine every possible step the individual takes or has taken historically (p116). Can this ever be possible within the language of TV? Rather, as costume designers are tasked with reducing and interpreting appearance to a certain ‘truth’, are we not actually defining the reducers subjective concept of reality - thus designers can only define themselves and I in my interpretation of their designs define myself (p49). As Sartre states; ‘the subjective turns in on itself and becomes objective. This new objectivity externalises the internal - therefore the lived finds its place and ‘the projected meaning of an action appears in reality’ (p98). So, has this particular search for a method rendered this a project in crisis? 

 NJ Stevenson: Researching the intersection between period film costume and fashion from 1967 to 1975 to construct an exhibition narrative 

This paper details my researching for an exhibition that explores the synergistic relationship between fashion and period film costume. The exhibition, with a working title of, ‘Retrovision’, looks at the timeframe of 1967-1975.  This is identified by historian Elizabeth Wilson as a point when a ‘nostalgia mode’ prevailed in fashion and in popular culture more widely (Wilson 2003).
 Fashion curators are interested in the stories that we can tell with clothes. Ken Russell’s The Boyfriend (1971)  and Bob Fosse’s Cabaret (1972) are cogent examples of a re-imagining of earlier historic periods that came to inform and construct a visual style in its own right. Fashion’s relationship with period film costume is an important clue to the narrative of patterns of temporality in fashion and an indication of the wider popular cultural atmosphere of the time.

Considering the concept of ‘retrochic’, developed by historian Raphael Samuel to trace emerging modes of, ‘alternative consumption’ in the 1960s (Samuel 1996), this paper will seek to make explicit The Boyfriend and Cabaret’s significant intersection with fashion and their role in the wider dissemination of the nostalgia mode of the early 1970s.

Organised by:
The Cultural and Historical Studies Hub, based at London College of Fashion, is a supportive space for the discussion of current research into fashion and popular culture within the broader subject area of Cultural Studies. For further information, please visit our website.