Black Swan and what costumes are

I found out about it late, but I’m interested in this Black Swan costume controversy.  It’s easy to say what side I come down on: I’m with the actual costume designer, Amy Westcott, and think the fashion press has been pretty ridiculous (and mendacious) about the whole thing.  But on the other hand I can understand why there is all this confusion, and it’s because of the fundamental, but poorly understood, difference between clothes and costumes.

For a dressmaker or a fashion designer making clothes is the goal.  Clothes are, in some sense at least, the final product.  Costumes on the other hand are a means to a theatrical end: revealing character & character relationships, helping establish setting and atmosphere, combining with each other and the sets to make a series of moving, three dimensional pictures, and so on.  (Different productions, of course, will put the emphasis on different aspects: a purely interior drama would focus most on character, an abstract dance on pictorial qualities.)  An ugly dress can be a great costume, if it achieves those goals; and a cast entirely decked out in gorgeous clothes can be a total failure.

I very much doubt that an Oscar will ever go to a movie about regular contemporary people.  In movies like that realism is key, and the better the costumes, the more invisible they will be.  They have to act subliminally.  You have to make a conscious effort to notice details like clothes that seem to be slept in, or one character wearing slightly different things than another in a way that communicates subtle differences in class or taste, but these are exactly the things that call for the greatest skill for a costume designer.

But everyone notices wild extravagant costumes, or elaborately distressed and filthified costumes, in period pieces or sci-fi.  And in a movie like Black Swan, everyone notices the ballet costumes.  They’re “pieces”, separated from the world we know, and they announce themselves as costumes.  That’s what people think of when they think of Best Costume Design.  If you asked someone “what did you think of the costumes in Black Swan?” nobody’s thinking about the two dudes that Lily and Nina meet at the bar, or Nina’s mother, or Beth in the hospital; very few will even think of the ballerinas’ backstage wear.  They’ll think of the tutus.  I doubt the fashion press, or even the Mulleavy sisters probably, really even understand that all of those are costumes.  So of course they think “Rodarte was robbed”.

The funny thing is, I think I misunderstood the costumes and thereby the whole film (which I loved) to some extent.  By the time I saw the movie I had forgotten that Rodarte had anything to do with it, and I thought the ballet costumes were an inspired bit of costume design, because frankly I think they kind of suck.  They’re cheesy and cliché and wouldn’t challenge  even the most stodgy conservative audience member.  The sets were the same; to me everything said that for all of Thomas’s big talk about reinventing Swan Lake, nobody was ever actually going to challenge convention and the moneyed bigwigs to make anything but an imitation of an imitation.  Nina was killing herself, starving herself, and driving herself crazy for nothing artistic; and her final triumph (which I believed in) was in transcending the tired production she was stuck in. 

But I guess not?  I doubt the Mulleavy sisters had any such intentions, or they would be able to understand that they only did a small part of the costume design.  And the fashion world certainly doesn’t seem to think their  tutus were boring and sad.  So I guess I’m wrong.  But I like my interpretation anyway.

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “Black Swan and what costumes are

  1. I like your interpretation, too.

    • I’d be really interested to talk to some of the creators about it. I keep reading that the movie is anti-ballet, which I don’t see. It just seemed to be pro-having-perspective, or something.

      • Maybe it’s making a ~larger statement~, that it’s (or that it’s become) impossible or ridiculously rare for professional ballet to include perspective. For an art form that has such harsh body regulation that basically the only widespread ballerina character trope is “bulimic”, where greatness means doing things that make your feet bleed and not stopping while they do bleed.. I can see why one might choose that discipline to set a breakdown movie in, or why falling to its faults might be understood as inherent to pursuing the practice after childhood.

  2. Well, I think The World of Ballet was one of the things which was getting the advice to have perspective. (Although this maybe only follows from my feeling that the final ballet is pretty mediocre.) After all, Lily is presented as a great dancer, better than Nina in some ways at first, and Nina can only get better by being more like her. It seemed to me that Lily had a pretty healthy relationship with the art form, comparatively at least.

    I mean, there’s plenty wrong with ballet, and the movie didn’t gloss them over. I felt that scene with the costume lady saying, approvingly, “you’ve lost weight” like like a punch in the stomach. But I don’t think honesty makes the movie “anti-ballet”.

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