A Note On Costume Design And Character


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A note on costume design and character (using ‘Notes on a Scandal’)

Look at the nature of costume design for Notes on a Scandal with Judy Dench and Cate Blanchett. They play two distinct characters in the film and there were obviously specific concerns for the two characters as regards dress/costume. They are two separate individuals and yes, they are individuals and both have a distinct dress sense. How then do you define a dress sense? How do you design or create the distinct dress senses of the two characters.

You can observe that the first time Judy Dench’s character goes to visit Sheba’s family, she is ‘poshed up’ as the young daughter says. What the girl refers to is the fact that Barbara has a certain type of dress sense. You could say that she approaches dress in a functional way, in the sense, that she wears clothes for purposes. She has ‘dressed up’ for the afternoon but she didn’t realize that someone else would say that she was ‘poshed up’.

In some way, she has a certain view of dress. She has her Sunday-wear, you could say. However, in defining Barbara’s dress sense, you could say that she has an acute sense of what she wants to wear and this is important for the costume design of the film. She has chosen to wear a ‘suit’ look for the first afternoon with Sheba. However, we know that she doesn’t believe that she is ‘poshing’ herself up. Still this confession to herself doesn’t impact on how Barbara’s dress sense is defined. She has a certain middle-class view of dress. She is neat and smart and this is what she aims for in dress. She is a gardener, a spinster, a battle-axe and a woman with taste e. g. as regards music. Dress is not overly important but she is aware of its importance. Her colors would indicate restraint as well as a certain casualness e. g. at work. Outside work, colors like black and grey may be suitable as they indicate restraint. She also wears clothes which approach a level of sophistication.

There is nothing wrong with the interview -type clothes that she wears on the ‘first’ afternoon. One does not judge a dress sense. Everyone has a dress sense but Barbara has a defined dress sense in that one could say that she has ‘chosen’ her look. Barbara’s clothes are generally attractive, fitted and maybe ‘tailored’ clothes. Sheba has a more bohemian ‘look’. She also wears ‘younger’ clothes.

Barbara notices Sheba’s long tweed jacket. This tweed is a ‘bohemian’ tweed, a tweed with color and it is long. If it was fitted and waist-length, it would indicate a fashion-conscious person perhaps but as it is ‘long’ and ‘hip-length’, it indicates a certain casualness and an ‘artiness’. This is important as Sheba is an artist. She is an art-teacher and her dress-sense approaches that of an ‘artist’. She is also an ‘artist’ with no money but still has ‘access’ to it.

Sheba’s clothes have more color and style. The sweater she wears when she comforts Barbara after the death of the latter’s cat is noticeable for its design and color. Sheba is also a more open and candid character than Barbara. She is thus more open to colors. Sheba is also more svelte and taller than Barbara and it can be said that taller women are able to wear clothes better. This seems to be a general fact in fashion and design. We know that taller women can generally wear clothes well.

Sheba wears long artisan-type clothes. She is fashionable but not overtly so. Sheba and Barbara are two middle-class women with so-called ‘middle-class’ concerns and that is important. They are not overtly conscious of dress and this is important. Sheba is high middle-class but she is not overtly aware of this fact. She is a woman who is not confident. She slouches for example and this is important for her dress. She also rides a bicycle and she is an artist who is conscious of color, shape, texture. She is also aware of how to under-dress as well as to over-dress. When she is with Barbara with the media camped outside, she dresses up in a type of new-romantic style!

Sheba can thus wear ‘color’. It is rare on the other hand that Barbara wears color and this is noticeable. Barbara is afraid to wear color. She can certainly match colors and we know she has a dress sense but she is ‘afraid’ unlike Sheba who, in a certain way, is more ‘confident’. As a middle-aged woman, Barbara still refers to her mother and father and she is ‘traditional’. She has kept with the same job and she has in some way, a defined lifestyle. Her ‘suit’ look, when she is ‘poshed-up’ marks her out in a specific way and this is important for her dress. She is not high middle-class like Sheba but she belongs to a certain section of middle-class. She is a woman who was well ‘brought up’. She was given rules and behaviour and ‘look’ are important to her. How she looks is important! She is aware of the rules in a way that Sheba isn’t and she aims to stick to the rules. She is the battleaxe, as she says. She is the woman who keeps law and order in the school but she is also lonely and vulnerable.

Yes Barbara has to dress well! She is a teacher but she is not necessarily the ‘smart’ older woman. Notice her long fitted skirt which almost ‘hobbles’ her. She can thus overlook her dress. There is a contradiction in her as well as in Sheba. They are both not overtly conscious of dress and can ‘forget’ themselves and this is an important fact for their dress senses. We can try to stereotype the characters in defining their dress-senses. There is the artist type of Sheba and the old-school dress of Barbara but this stereotype may be too simplistic. Their dress senses can be stereotyped when aiming to ‘fill’ out and define them but they are true three-dimensional characters. Barbara and Sheba are not stereotypes and this is important.

There is also no judgment of dress sense in the film. Barbara may have made a ‘mistake’ in choosing the suit-look but this was only a mistake according to the young girl. It shows up the latter’s dress sense and doesn’t necessarily mark out Barbara’s ‘posh’ look for the afternoon as a ‘mistake’. Costume design can be approached through stereotyping but there is something more. There are more complications. We learn for example that Sheba belonged to a pop-group. She should be fashionable but her dress-sense is sometimes questioned by Barbara as with the long tweed coat. Thus Sheba’s dress sense is not ‘better’ than Barbara’s.

Sheba may be a bohemian type, the ‘art teacher’ type, the ‘trendy art teacher’. Stereotypes can be used to define her dress –sense but the more sophisticated the stereotype the better! But stereotypes may not be enough to ‘dress’ Barbara and Sheba. We have to know more about her, their family life, the people around them, the environments, how they contrast with it, or how they merge into it too.

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