By Janice Rosen
This Sunday night, February 26th Hollywood celebrates its biggest event of the year. Once again, the Academy Awards will be handed out to the winners, and we get to see the losers smile and pretend they’re down with that. Popcorn machine ready, and we settle in to applaud, shriek, guffaw and sneer at the real winners and losers … she who has the best dress on the Red Carpet wins! Let the games begin …
The circus of who wears what has become the most talked about water-cooler conversation where anyone can jump in with their opinion, style-challenged or not. Photos go across the globe in minutes and careers can take a beating (not to mention stylists), or even get a boost. Remember Catherine Zeta Jones, an unknown actress at the time showing up in a hot, little red number and the next day everyone knew her name. Months before the big night, hairdressers and makeup artists are booked and the choice of gown, shoes and jewelry is painstakingly thought about, agonized over and finally, sometimes hours before, the decisions are made. And they still manage to get it wrong. I can’t help feeling that I miss the old days when we could see fewer mistakes because almost every actress wore something from their own closets (before stylists), and Elizabeth Taylor would show up in gigantic diamonds (also her own). And the one “mistake” we could count on was Cher showing up in some outrageous Bob Mackie creation on purpose. All things considered, the circus was rather tame back then. I’ve come to the sorry conclusion that actors and actresses only look great in the movies, and costume designers are the real stylists.
This year we have My Week with Marilyn, starring Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe in which the year 1956 comes to life through costume designer Jill Taylor. To bring the ultimate visual translation of the director’s vision of the characters to the screen, hundreds of photographs are studied, vintage shops scoured and clothes are purchased or sketched and made from scratch. Fabrics, silhouettes and colours are selected to best re-create the time period and help to fuel the fantasy we will watch unfold. Actors will tell you all the time that getting dressed in the character every working day is what can ultimately bring them to the authenticity they need. In other words, clothes make the man. I’ve been told that Williams contributed photo references and was involved in the design process in the early stages of pre-production on “Marilyn” By taking care of details like this an actor gets deeper into a character.
Collaboration between costume designer and star is most successful when it’s built on trust. An actor needs to feel safe and protected when creativity is what they’re being paid for. By the time they step on set for the first shot, clothes are the last thing on their minds. The importance of the designer is never taken for granted; if it’s a contemporary film, in 20 years it will be seen as history and reference to that time and place. The care it takes to put together a look in 2012 is no easier than an outfit from 1956. Grace Kelly didn’t make many films, but when she teamed up with the great Edith Head in Hitchcock’s Rear Window and To Catch a Thief, we can’t forget how fabulous her clothes were. In fact, look at those films today, and they still hold up. When Givenchy worked with Audrey Hepburn on almost all of her films, the result was what we now consider her to be: a style icon.
As for the guys, when Archibald Leach re-invented himself as Cary Grant, the world saw what an elegant man looked like (on the screen and off). Who can forget THAT suit in North by Northwest? Rumour has it that Hitchcock trusted Grant to put himself together for the film, so off he went to the Savile Row bespoke tailors Kilgour and French. Still today, Mr. Grant is considered at the top of the list of well-dressed men. And nobody could come close to him for a very long time. Enter George Clooney. Not much of a “who’s that guy?” kind of guy when he started in the ‘80’s, he really stepped up his game in the late ‘90’s. When he realized he wasn’t getting any younger, he cut his long hair into a classic cut, donned a colour palette of black, grey and white and showed us what a man in Hollywood (or anywhere) should dress like, while surrounded by a sea of boys who still thought it was cool to wear jeans everywhere. I believe Clooney is responsible for bringing back the suit. By the time Ocean’s Eleven was released in 2001, with the help of costume designer Jeffrey Kurland, he was swoon-worthy. He is our modern day Cary Grant, it all looks easy and relaxed; with a wink they pretend not to know how dapper they look, making them even more appealing.
So get ready for Sunday and the walk of fame (or shame), right on into Monday’s headlines; actresses will be sweating and worrying about what we think of them, and who should fire their stylist. For a few hours at least we can pretend this is the most important thing in the world … just like they do.
Janice Rosen is a freelance writer, blogger and fashion consultant based in Toronto.