By Claire Graman
Whenever I teach a film class, I make sure to question students’ ideas of what a filmmaker is. We’re all familiar with auteur theory – the idea that the director controls what the film looks like. And there’s an element of truth to that. Directors oversee everything, and they have the final say (with a lot of asterisks, mainly from producers). However, it takes hundreds of people to make a film and they all contribute to the final product. Each role contains an incredible art form of its own, from set design to sound-mixing.
People who often weren’t allowed to direct due to their gender, race, etc. still made amazing contributions to film. In honor of Halloween, I want to talk about one of my favorite cinematic art forms, costume design. Let’s look at three of the best practitioners of the art, who just happen to be women.
We must, of course, start with the legend. Edith Head (1897-1981) won eight Academy Awards for Costume Design over the course of her long career. This is still the standing record for most Oscars won by a woman. Even kids today know her legacy from a character inspired by her in The Incredibles series, Edna Mode, who designs costumes for superheroes. Head worked with the biggest stars and directors in Hollywood from the mid-1920s until her death in the 80s. Known for her versatility and her costumes’ timeless beauty, Head made a wide range of costumes, from the simple to the elegant.
You may not know her name, but you’ve probably seen her unique imagery at some point. Eiko Ishioka’s (1938-2012) work extended beyond film to art design for the advertising, theatre, fashion, and even an Olympics opening ceremony. Her often surreal works blended cultures and questioned ideals of female beauty. She helped performers Bjork and Grace Jones push boundaries. For her work with Miles Davis on Tutu (1996), she was awarded a Grammy, and an Oscar for her costumes for Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula (1992). She was nominated for two Tonys for her work on both sets and costumes for a Broadway production of M Butterfly in 1988.
Where to start: Despite all the amazing works above, I actually recommend her work with Tarsem Singh, a director whose sumptuous, surreal imagination matched her own. One of my favorite films, The Fall (2006), follows the imagination of a little girl as she recovers in a hospital. Ishioka’s costumes make her fantasy characters at once epic heroes and relatable characters.
Ruth E. Carter
Carter’s career started off with a bang—collaborating with Spike Lee on his second feature for the School Daze (1987)—and only grew from there. She’s been an integral part of representing the black experience in modern cinema, working on films like Do the Right Thing (1989), Malcom X (1992), Amistad (1997), and Selma (2014). Known for her careful research, Carter once paused a VHS tape of Tina Turner performing to count the layers of beading on her dress in order to design a dress for Angela Bassett to wear in the Turner biopic What’s Love Got to Do With It? (1993).
Carter believes that costumes shouldn’t look like costumes. In a recent interview, she explained: “Sometimes the costume needs to subside and be a part of the whole entire scene, not just on the wearer. It’s not fashion. It’s more of a character.” This focus on realism and characterization has made her one of the best costume designers in the business and helped bring African-American history to life on screen.
Where to start: When you think “fantasy,” you’re probably imagining the same old medieval-England-inspired capes and tunics. We’ve been stuck with a rather limited aesthetic for such an imaginative genre. True fantasy should build on what’s incredible and real in our own world. Carter did just that with Black Panther (2018), blending and accentuating art and costume from African cultures and Afrofuturist fashion. This brought Wakanda and its people to life.