Costumes with character can stitch a capitivating story together seamlessly

Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth and Deborah Nadoolman Landis, below.
Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth and Deborah Nadoolman Landis, below.
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The best movie costume design is completely invisible, says celebrated Hollywood designer Deborah Nadoolman Landis. She talks to Sheena Hastings.

WHAT was the last film you enjoyed at the cinema or were utterly absorbed by when you settled down on the sofa?

Whatever it was, the director would consider their job well done if your abiding memories were of a story well told, with authentic creation of time, place and atmosphere and believable characters.

It says everything about my personal feelings towards Joe Wright’s recent overly theatrical and, in my opinion, mis-cast adaptation of Anna Karenina that what I took away from the film more than anything were images of every frock and piece of jewellery worn by Keira Knightley. They were exquisite, naturally, but they were supposed to be there as a tool for storytelling, not a shop window for me to drool over.

From the point of view of a costume designer, they would think their job had fallen short if – apart from the odd stand-out moment where clothes are used to emphasise plot – you came away remembering, as I did, what the various characters had been wearing more than any other aspect of the piece.

This isn’t a particularly self-effacing or martyred attitude on the part of the professionals. Veteran Hollywood costume designer Deborah Nadoolman Landis says the ethos underpinning her art is that the end result should, with a few exceptions, be invisible.

Professor Landis, who at 60 has 30-odd years’ experience as a costume designer in Hollywood, and is both founding director of the David C Copley Centre for Costume Design at UCLA in California and a professor at the University of the Arts in London, is also co-curator of the current blockbuster Hollywood Costume exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

The smash-hit show, which took five years to put together, features a huge amount of wonderful cinematic magic, including clips and mood boards, interviews with stars cast onto models of themselves wearing the costumes from famous films, and a specially-commissioned soundtrack composed by Julian Scott.

The 130 costumes, divided into the themes of “heroes and villains”, range from Marlene Dietrich’s legendary top hat and tails and Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp costume to Marilyn Monroe’s floaty white chiffon dress from The Seven-Year Itch, Audrey Hepburn’s black Givenchy shift from Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Daniel Craig’s Brioni dinner jacket from Casino Royale.

Various costumes used for film portrayals of Queen Elizabeth I over a century of film can be seen, as can the green dress worn by Keira Knightley in Atonement, Kate Winslet’s elegant white suit from the opening scene of Titanic, another white suit, worn by John Travolta as Tony Manero in Saturday Night Fever, and the kit worn by Harrison Ford’s archaeological action hero Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark – whose costumes were designed by Landis. Also in the mix is the famous red and gold jacket she designed for Michael Jackson’s Thriller video.

Of course there’s glamour, but glamour not so much for the sake of it but as a part of the storytelling, says Landis. Cinderella’s spangly dress and Dorothy’s ruby slippers from The Wizard Of Oz are used as totems of dreams coming true, and can also be emblematic, as in the case of the slippers, of “no place like home”.

“Costume is a very important part of the movie-going experience,” says Landis. “Along with lighting, music and set design they help to evoke emotions and create a believable world, whether in the past, present or future. Every frame of the film is designed to tell the director’s story. The best compliment you can give to a costume designer is that you like the movie. I’m not against costume being given awards, but would much rather hear that you were swept away by the movie as a whole.”

The vision for costumes comes from the director, says Landis, but when it comes down to the nitty gritty, actors also collaborate in what their character should wear.

The famous American costume designer Edith Head (who won eight Oscars) used to tell the tale of working with Alfred Hitchcock on Vertigo, and being told by its female star Kim Novak that she’d wear anything for a particular scene “except grey”. Head then had to keep this to herself when Hitchcock explained later that the actress’s suit could be “...any colour, so long as it’s grey”. The director got his way.

Deborah Landis’s path into costume design started by growing up in New York with a love of history and storytelling and great deal of exposure to film and theatre.

When she was still small her grandmother taught her to knit and sew using an old treadle machine.

She made costumes out of fabric swatches and designed for many school shows.

As a history major at university she saw all the stage shows she could and started in theatrical design with summer stock and Shakespeare festivals while taking a masters degree at Colombia.

She managed to break into costume design with an assistant job at TV network NBC, working on some of the greatest variety shows of the 1970s. Along the way she married her college boyfriend, the would-be director John Landis, on whose movies she has costume designed since 1977’s Kentucky Fried Movie.

Getting the costumes right as part of the texture and feel of the whole movie is not affected by the size of the film’s budget, says Landis. What matters is successful collaboration and shared vision.

“I read the screenplay, then meet the director and hear what the world is that they want to create, I go away and think of ideas, and then the actors walk into the room from some other project they want you to help them to answer the question ‘Who am I in this film?’ They have to separate from themselves, which is very difficult, as they play hundreds of characters in their career, and each film requires a new invention entirely separate from their own personality. Costume helps them to achieve this.”

With period pieces, while historical accuracy obviously comes into play, it is overriden by the mission to entertain, says Landis. “The most important thing isn’t whether a collar or eyebrow is wrong, but whether the viewer is engaged.”

Despite what she says about the mission being one of making costume “invisible” to the viewer, designers must revel in those moments when the script requires a “plot point”, where a costume is making an important statement that moves the narrative forward.

Such outfits have included Eliza Doolittle’s appearance at the top of the steps in the ball scene of My Fair Lady. Another is the emerald green gown Scarlett O’Hara makes from curtains in Gone With the Wind, as does the immaculate suit Rose wears when we first see her in Titanic.

“The first we see of Rose is the tip of that hat, then the outfit, which is deliberately a complete contrast to how she leaves the ship at the end.

“With Scarlett’s gown, she is actually penniless and the plantation is in ruins, but she is determined to put on a front to ask Rhett Butler for the money to rebuild – which she knows she won’t succeed in if she looks terrible.

“And in My Fair Lady you are meant to behold Eliza from the feet upwards and say ‘Wow, what a woman’. Which designer would not enjoy those big moments?”

An Evening In Conversation With Deborah Nadoolman Landis is at the Pennine Theatre, Sheffield Hallam University, City Campus, Sheffield S1 1WB at 6.30pm on Tuesday, December 11. Tickets are free and must be booked in advance from or 0114 225 4526.

Hollywood Costume is at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum until January 27. Info:

Deborah Landis’s film credits

Burke and Hare (2010)

Susan’s Plan (1998)

Blues Brothers 2000 (1998)

Mad City (1997)

The Stupids (1996)

Innocent Blood (1992)

Nothing But Trouble (1991)

Coming to America (1988) Academy Award nomination

¡Three Amigos! (1986)

Spies Like Us (1985)

Into the Night (1985/I)

Crackers (1984)

Michael Jackson’s Thriller (1983)

Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983) (segment 1)

Trading Places (1983)

An American Werewolf in London (1981)

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

The Blues Brothers (1980)

1941 (1979)

Animal House (1978)

The Kentucky Fried Movie (1977)