The Clothes of Cronenberg

There are two kinds of David Cronenberg movies: the ones that disturb and horrify you, and the ones you haven’t seen yet. In November 2013, I wrote a review of Cronenberg: Evolution, the exhibition showcasing David Cronenberg’s prolific film career at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. In the process I realized I had seen a total of three Cronenberg films; pitiful, considering that he’s made almost forty. In the name of research, I watched 15 Cronenberg films in the span of five days (with one particularly trying Saturday Cronenberg marathon—six films in a row, not recommended for the faint of heart).

Cronenberg: Evolution showcases the artifacts of Cronenberg’s prominent and prolific film career within three loosely defined themes or stages. The first stage asks, “Who Is My Creator?” and features films like Stereo, The Brood, and Videodrome, films in which the heroes and heroines have to live with the results of a scientific experiment gone wrong. The second stage, “Who Am I?” deals with protagonists who are often the scientists—The Fly and Dead Ringers, for example—and their own test subjects. Finally, there’s “Who Are We?”, the current stage in Cronenberg’s career where his films look outward at society and communities, with films like A History of Violence, A Dangerous Method, and Cosmopolis.

At every stage, Cronenberg: Evolution makes a point to include notable costumes and other important sartorial artifacts, like the makeup and wardrobe sketches for Videodrome. David Cronenberg works primarily with his sister, Denise Cronenberg, who has created some of the most iconic wardrobes seen in his films. Denise has worked on thirteen of David’s films, as well as Dawn of the Dead, The Incredible Hulk, and Resident Evil, among others.

Denise did not formally study costume design. “I’m completely self taught,” she tells me over email, adding that she comes from a family who worked in clothing—her grandmother was a dressmaker and her grandfathers were tailors. The family connection is clearly not just between David and Denise—she adds that “being a mother of three has given me the best tool in working with actors. Psychology!”

Before film, Denise was a dancer who specialized in ballet. “If I disliked [my costumes], I found it affected my performance. I always remember that when I’m creating costumes for actors. They must feel good in their costume; it must help them become the character they are playing.”

In the video above, you can see a few costumes and accessories from our visit to opening day. The clothes of a Cronenberg film are, like the protagonists who wear them, ill-fated. They’re fabric casualties in the making. From the moment I saw Jeff Goldblum proudly display his one-outfit closet to Geena Davis in The Fly (“Learned from Einstein,” he boasts), I knew he would soon lose any human appendages with which to wear those five identical pants, shirts, and blazers. If The Brood‘s Nola goes to her psychoanalysis in flowing white robes that we only see from the neck up, you can bet those robes are hiding something truly grotesque from the neck down. By the end of most Cronenberg movies they’re either covered in bodily fluids or disintegrating to dust.

On the other hand, the fashion of David Cronenberg’s films isn’t exclusively blood-soaked or ripped to shreds. Often they’re incredibly beautiful and intricate period pieces, like the opera costumes for M. Butterfly and the true-to-life wardrobes for Cronenberg’s fictional versions of Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and Sabina Spielrein in A Dangerous Method. My personal favourites are the leg braces from Crash, which evoke an iconic Helmut Newton photograph, and Debbie Harry’s red dress in Videodrome.

Cronenberg: Evolution is open until January 19, 2014. I’d highly recommend a visit for Toronto Wornettes. For Wornettes everywhere else, I have a suggestion for a really dark Saturday afternoon.

Video // Daniel Reis
Music // Love Like This by Human Egg (h/t Alex Molotkow)

A Game of Clothes

A sartorial examination of the differences between the first season of Game of Thrones, and the first novel in the A Song of Ice and Fire series

Confession that will shock absolutely nobody that knows me: I am a huge fantasy nerd. When I heard four and a half years ago that HBO was adapting George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, I became so excited about the idea of a weekly cable fantasy show, despite never having actually read the books. I tracked down the first four titles in the series, finishing them in record time to become well-versed enough in this fictional universe by the time the pilot episode of Game of Thrones premiered.

When turning x-thousand pages of text into a TV show, there are going to be some changes. Having had these books occupy my headspace before the show aired, I had very clear ideas of how things should look—specifically, the clothes. Martin describes a lot of elaborate doublets and gowns covered in jewels, which brought to my mind Elizabethan fashions. The show’s costume designer Michele Clapton made a conscious decision to mix influences and silhouettes in way that didn’t exist in the books. The showrunners wanted to make a world that was rooted in reality, so different eras were combined in such a way as to create something completely unique. But it wasn’t enough for me to just watch these costumes on the screen—oh, no. As an obsessed fan that loves overanalyzing clothes, I had to pull out my books and figure out what a few differences in costume choices can mean for these characters.

“They dressed [Danaerys] in the wisps that Magister Ilyrio had brought up, and then the gown, a deep plum silk to bring out the violet in her eyes. The girls slid the gilded sandals onto her feet, while the old woman fixed a tiara in her hair, and slid golden bracelets encrusted with amethysts on her wrists. Last of all came the collar, a heavy golden torc emblazoned with ancient Vallyrian glyphs.”

Martin’s costume descriptions are typically pretty brief, so an outsider to the fandom would be forgiven for assuming he isn’t a stickler to detail. (They would be proven wrong by his extensive depictions of meals alone—squirrel stew, anyone?). One thing he does manage to include, however, is references to jewels. Most of these are absent in the TV version, probably because the show spent all their budget on weapons and fake bloods, leaving little for realistic looking baubles. (Seriously, whoever had stock in Fake Blood Enterprises Inc. would be loaded off this show alone.) With little to go on regarding the silhouette, Clapton went with a style she called “Grecian,” evident by the cut and draping. I’m mostly impressed that she was able to find a way to make a dress out of wisps. While plum it ain’t, Danaerys looks like she could float away in a fog.

“Sansa was dressed beautifully that day, in a green gown that brought out the auburn of her hair, and she knew they were looking at her and smiling.”

Sansa wears this dress for most of the show’s first season. The coarseness of the fabric and details on the neck tend to be typical dress of the North of the Westeros (where she is from) compared to the South (the new home to which she is trying to adapt). Her season one wardrobe is, to me, a huge missed opportunity—Sansa is one of the few characters who cares about her clothes a lot, so her lack of costume changes, especially during major events, probably wouldn’t fly with the character. A High Lord’s daughter would absolutely have the money to get a few new fancy duds. In other words: way to cheat us out of some costume porn, TV show.

You’ll notice that Sansa’s sister Arya is also wearing her casual dress, pretty much the only dress she ever wears in the show beyond the pilot. Arya’s clothing is rarely described in the first book, as she’s usually dirty and dressed like a boy. Yet in this dress, her neck detailing is messier and more haphazard than her sister’s, and she has cut off her dress’s elaborate dagged sleeves, making it easier to run around and wield a sword. The girl’s priorities are clear.

“[Ser Loras’s] plate was intricately fashioned and enameled as a bouquet of a thousand different flowers, and his snow-white stallion was draped in a blanket of red and white roses. After each victory, Ser Loras would remove his helm and ride slowly around the fence, and finally pluck a single white rose from his blanket and toss it to some fair maid in the crowd.”

This interpretation was not what I was expecting, though I say that not as a criticism. The flower motifs are still there, but they’re way more elaborate than I had imagined, especially that helmet. When I watched this episode, I had to know: did real knights wear armour this elaborate and crazy for tournaments? Research tells me that yep, they absolutely did.

“The queen wore a high collared black silk gown, with a hundred red rubies sewn into her bodice, covering her from neck to bosom. They were cut in the shape of teardrops, as if the queen were weeping blood.”

The show made a conscious decision not to have black be the colour of mourning in Westeros, despite it being so in the books. My theory is that they didn’t want to confuse viewers with the Night’s Watch, a military order that are only allowed to wear black. Sadly, the viewer got cheated out of seeing bloody teardrop rubies (which, not to be morbid, but DREAM FUNERAL ATTIRE).

Clapton has described Cersei’s gowns as kimono-inspired, with a medieval cut, creating a sartorial fusion unique to this character. She is usually the only one who has her sleeves slashed in a way so that her arms are visible. The necklace here is interesting, because it’s almost a Jazz Age-inspired piece, and wouldn’t look out of place on a flapper.

“By the time he was dressed, his squire had laid out his armour, such that it was. Tyrion owned a fine suit of heavy plate, expertly crafted to fit his misshapen body. Alas, it was safe at Casterly Rock, and he was not. He had to make do with some oddments from Lord Lefford’s wagons: mail hauberk and coif, a dead knight’s gorget, lobstered greaves and gauntlets and pointed steel boots. Some of it was ornate, some plain; not a bit of it matched, or fit as it should. His breastplate was meant for a bigger man; for his oversize head, they found a huge bucket-shaped greathelm topped with a foot long triangular spike.”

It doesn’t really make sense that Tywin Lannister would have had Tyrion’s suit of armour with him on the battlefield, since he had no way to know that Tyrion was going to meet him there, and that Tyrion would actually be forced to fight in any battles, but I’m willing to suspend my belief a little bit there. (Even though come on. Am I the only one paying attention?) My guess is that they couldn’t find a way to make realistic, obviously mismatching armour work in a way that wouldn’t suck for the actor to wear. Let’s just pretend that Tywin Lannister was a Boy Scout back in his younger days and taught to “always be prepared,” keeping a spare suit of armour in his travel bag.

“Lord Eddard stood on the High Septon’s pulpit outside the doors of the sept, supported between two of the gold cloaks. He was dressed in a rich grey velvet doublet with a white wolf sewn in the front in beads, and a grey wool cloak trimmed with fur, but he was thinner than Arya had ever seen him before…Clustered around the doors of the sept, in front of the raised marble pulpit, were a knot of knights and high lords. Joffrey was prominent among them, his raiment all crimson, silk and satin patterned with dancing stags and roaring lions, a gold crown on his head. His queen mother stood beside him in a black mourning gown slashed with crimson, a veil of black diamonds in her hair…”

They don’t bother dressing Ned Stark in any finery in the show; this outfit is the one he gets arrested in. What Joffrey is wearing interests me more. What the TV adaptation lacks in coat-stags, it makes up for in his cloak/doublet hybrid. The costume designers finally throw us a bone, as Cersei is also wearing what I like to call her “I’m a Lannister, bitches” dress.

Sansa is in her southern gown. The silk is finer than her other dress, and the wrap style cut with the huge dagged sleeves is one that is only seen in south of The Neck or in King’s Landing. Her hair is also now worn in the southern style, which is reminiscent of Roman hairstyles. However, unlike other instances when she wears this dress, they have added a metal belt to the ensemble. Metal belts tend to be worn by Cersei (she also has one here). Clapton has said she likes to put her in them because they remind her of armour.

“Dany braised [Khal Drogo’s] hair and slid the silver rings onto his mustache and hung his bells one by one. So many bells, gold and silver and bronze. Bells so his enemies would hear him coming and grow weak with fear. She dressed him in horsehair leggings and high boots, buckling a belt heavy with gold and silver medallions about his waist. Over his scarred chest she slipped a painted vest, old and faded, the one Drogo had loved best. For herself she chose loose sandsilk trousers, sandals that laced halfway up her legs, and a vest like Drogo’s.”

Dany dresses in the Dothraki style in the books to show solidarity with her dead husband—they’re a matching pair. In the show, she’s dressed in another Grecian-inspired gown similar to the one that she wears on her wedding day, which brings us full circle. Her choice of a gown also makes her look more like a queen, and less like a Khaleesi (the title referring to the wife of the khal, which is—oh, go watch the show already). But what I find most compelling is the way her dress evokes Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus” in the closing shot, with Danaerys naked in the ashes of the pyre and the dragons hanging in strategic places. It’s a lovely visual treat that reminds the viewers that sometimes watching a filmed adaptation can be worth it. Even if there is a sorry lack of rubies.

illustration // Emily Taylor

Birth of a Costume Designer

How Clare West revolutionized film fashions forever

There’s a mythical quality to the costumes worn in silent films. Maybe it’s the way the lighting hits them. Maybe it’s the Edwardian and flapper-esque cuts. Or maybe it’s just me, but the clothing always adds a special touch to the filmic experience. It’s surprising then that in the silent film era, costumes weren’t that important. Actors often wore their own clothing, a trend that continued well into the 1930s, and it was common for actors with better personal wardrobes to win better roles (a prime example: Lilian Gish had most of her costumes made by her mother). Things remained pretty much the same until Birth of a Nation, when director D.W. Griffith created Hollywood’s first costume department and hired film’s first-ever costume designer: Clare West.

Along with Birth of a Nation, Griffith later hired West to design for Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages. After making her name, she was hired by the great Cecil B. DeMille and created some of the most memorable costumes of the era. Despite working with the big names, West’s role as costume designer was less than glamorous. She received no credit for her work on Griffith’s films, and was left off the end credits in a few of Demille’s. Still, her costumes helped characters transcend the silent medium, allowing them to communicate through costume. Here are three of our favourite examples of her work:

1 // Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages, dir. D.W Griffith, 1916
An apologetic sequel to Birth of a Nation, Intolerance is a mighty long epic spanning four eras, each hundreds of years apart. It was West’s second and final film with Griffith, and while many of the ancient costumes West designed weren’t historically accurate, they left a lasting impression in both their evocative charm and complexity. Particularly striking were the scenes in ancient Babylon, where the Queen was decked out in ensembles that looked more Josephine Baker than anything ancient. The decadence worked perfectly with the over-the-top and complex scenery that Griffith employed, making everything appear larger than life.

My favourite character in Intolerance is the Mountain Girl. She is both jovial and brave, and takes shit from no one. She fights and dies for her city and doesn’t get plopped in to the role of helpless love interest (like most female characters of the era). West perfectly defines who Mountain Girl is through her spunky fruit head dress and leather armour, which is totally reminiscent of Xena: Warrior Princess—only 70-plus years ahead of Lucy Lawless’s time. Plus, she fights in a tin cone helmet. How can you not love her style?

2 // Male and Female, dir. Cecil B. DeMille, 1919

DeMille is famous for one quote: “Creativity is a drug I cannot live without.” True to form, his films never lacked outside-of-the-box flair. Many of his movies were popular because of their costumes, which were regularly designed by West. Male and Female was the first film they worked on, and West’s costumes were as over-the-top as the characters in the film. The outfits, particularly those of Gloria Swanson, epitomize the beginnings of the jazz age and the era’s obsession with luxury. The headpiece Swanson wears, and the beautiful silks she rocks, make you want to jump into this film and live like a 1920s aristocrat.

3 // The Affairs of Anatol, dir. Cecil B. DeMille, 1921

For this film, West created one of her most iconic costumes for actress Bebe Daniels: a dress in the shape of an octopus. The outfit’s whimsy flawlessly captures the unique visual creativity of Demille’s films. Daniels plays the cool Satan Synne, a high-class prostitute with a chilly demeanor, armed with a bat-shaped dressing table in her sensual boudoir. Despite not getting a lot of screen time, she is totally eligible for the title of “Grandmother of Goths.”