“Vain trifles as they seem, clothes have, they say, more important offices than to merely keep us warm. They change our view of the world and the world’s view of us.”
― Virginia Woolf, Orlando
Red bodies suspended from the ceiling ripple with the waves of an intricate muscular system. The suits are a dark shade of red with hints of maroon and purple, and a synthetic sheen glistens on the artificial flesh like a soft coating of blood. The costume tightly molds the lines of human form, revealing the hidden world just below the surface of the skin. As the clothes fall away, the unveiling of flesh acts as a metaphor for the subconscious, the psychological arena where Catherine Deane (Jennifer Lopez) enters the mind of a serial killer in the hopes of saving the life of a prospective victim in The Cell. These costumes, designed by the late Japanese designer Eiko Ishioka, transcend spectacle and practicality; they inform both atmosphere and theme, enriching director Tarsem Singh’s cinematic universe.
What constitutes great costume design in the contemporary landscape of cinema? With the industry-wide embrace of CGI, practical effects have fallen by the wayside. Sets and monsters can now be built on a computer screen, but costumes remain tactile and in the hands of carefully trained artisans and inspired designers. Yet, even as a category at the Oscars, it’s still fighting for respect. Lavish period pieces and historical accuracy routinely trump everything else for voters, negating the fact that costumes serve as a powerful and versatile agent for story and theme. Jacqueline West, the Oscar-nominated costume designer for The Revenant, explained the questions she considered in her work in an interview for The Film Experience:
“From the beginning, I understood that [the director] was telling the story of enlightenment from pain. And how do you express enlightenment through costumes? I agonized over it. I hope I got close. I wanted to show in the clothes what he was seeing in the character.”
There are few costume designers in the history of the medium with as strong of an authorial voice as Eiko Ishioka. While she often worked in period films, historical accuracy was never a top concern in her work. Her preference for the color red and fascination with pain and constriction as a metaphor for repression—best represented in the corset-filled Bram Stoker’s Dracula, for which she won an Oscar—overpowers her designs and her best costumes are informed by these obsessions.
Ishioka may not be a household name, but her work has pervaded the public consciousness. Following a successful career in fashion, design and advertising, her cinematic career began when she was hired by Paul Schrader to work on production design for 1985’s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters. While only credited as a costume designer on seven features, Ishioka’s most frequent collaborator was Tarsem Singh. She worked on all of his aesthetically fantastical films (The Cell, The Fall, Immortals, and Mirror, Mirror).
But Ishioka’s work has done far more than merely raise the tonal and visual sensibilities of the films on which she has collaborated. She has defined them. Her collaborations with Singh are embedded with her vision, and her opulent designs inseparable from the fabric of the film. Her preoccupation with female autonomy, sexuality, and the subconscious resonates throughout her elaborate designs. Her costumes are infamously intricate, often uncomfortable, and even cumbersome—but as costume reflects character and mood, this discomfort is reflected in the text.
On the set of The Cell, Lopez reportedly asked Ishioka to make a collar on a costume more comfortable. Ishioka refused, saying “No—you’re supposed to be tortured”—referring to the character’s entrapment in a serial killer’s twisted fantasy. While The Cell was received with mixed reception upon release and written off as a bloated music video by critics, Ishioka’s embraced the freedom of the rather free-form film and her costumes were praised for successfully revealing the inner world of the characters and their dreams.
Ishioka’s primarily sanguine designs, as similarly witnessed in Bram Stoker’s Dracula for Mina’s gown and Dracula’s cape, hints at a dangerous desire. Like a kiss laden with poison, it is sex immortalized through death. The integral element of eroticism, as defined by George Bataille, was this seemingly contradictory paradox between pleasure and destruction. Ishioka’s designs translate the world of fairy tales into the dark world of adulthood. The playing ground for adult fairy tales, opposed to those of children, is often rooted in ambiguous moral conclusions and seedy psychological elements.
In direct contrast to the murky, surreal R-rated films they worked on before, Singh and Ishioka’s last collaboration before her death was 2012’s Snow White-inspired Mirror, Mirror, for which she was posthumously nominated for an Oscar. Released the same year as Snow White and the Huntsman, the film is exemplary of fantastical designs that enrich rather than merely support the script. Instead of comparing it with Snow White and the Huntsman, which has utilitarian and practical costumes that do little to inform the film aside from suggesting it is “gritty” and “real,” let’s take a small detour into this year’s frontrunner for the Best Costume Design Oscar, Cinderella.
In early 2015, controversy surrounded Sandy Powell’s costume design in Cinderella. The corseted dress that reduced Lily James’ waist to an impossible ideal was criticized for upholding dangerous ideals of femininity. Dress—whether we want to admit it or not—is loaded with politics and power. Powell has defended the choice, though ultimately the need within the narrative for that design is questionable. The difference between the corseted works of Ishioka, which to entrap and oppressed characters, versus a young woman’s dress during a moment where her greatest dreams are coming to life are incredibly different.
While Sandy Powell has denied looking to the retrograde Disney animated film too closely for inspiration, it is hard to argue that it is anything but a recreation of a dated ideal from the 1950 film. The costume design in Cinderella is whimsical and overwhelmingly colorful. It imagines an animated film come alive, recreating in rich textured materials the dreams and aspirations of a young girl who wants to be a princess. In the prologue, where the happy and perfect family life is warm and full, there is flowers and joy. Dresses are made of loose materials that rest on the body, unconstrained. There is a childish wonder to these costumes, which look as comfortable as they do beautiful.
In stark contrast, the evil stepsisters wear tight, ill-fitting clothes. Their clothing is terribly over-adorned and tacky. When we first see the Stepmother, her “refined taste” is commented on—she is wearing an embroidered and tight fitting gold and black mourning dress. It hugs her shape but its harsh lines hint at her cold nature. Her manicured ensemble reveals a woman who’d rather look good than mourn her recently deceased husband, and like most things in fairy tales, her hardness contrasts with Cinderella’s benevolent softness. Powell’s costuming in the film is incredibly rich and beautiful. It supports the text beautifully, and a brief glance at the screen without audio, it is very clear just by looking who fulfills the roles of good and bad within the story. And this is largely due to Powell’s work. Powell is unquestionably one of the greatest costume designers working today, and by no means should her work be diminished, but it’s difficult to praise Powell’s insightful work when considering Ishioka’s majesty.
Mirror, Mirror is in many ways a much lesser film than Cinderella but Ishioka’s creative costumes are once again the overwhelming star of the production. Beyond simplistic riffs on good versus evil, Ishioka finds a depth within humanity’s relation to nature. Rather than emphasize Snow White’s morality in Mirror, Mirror, Ishioka’s designs hint at her close connection to nature. As written in the original Grimm’s fairy tale, Snow White is described as having “skin white as snow, lips red as blood, and hair black as ebony.” The natural world, both its chaos and beauty, battle in Snow White’s inner and outer life and are in turn expressed in her dress. In Snow White’s first appearance, her dress is a soft gold and pink embroidered with delicate flowers. The way the dress frames Snow White’s body hints that she is still a child, as it does not emphasize her form and comparatively easy to move in. An undercurrent of the film’s text is Snow White’s sexual awakening, so watching her evolve from this childlike presence to a vibrant queen is explored through the changing costumes.
White, red and black become the color palette of this evolution until at the end she is presented in shining blues and oranges—now fully bloomed. And as a driven Snow White enters the snowy forest, her red cape is the only splash of color in the terrain—expressing the loss of innocence, the first menstrual cycle, and the path towards adulthood. This is exemplified poetically in the scope of Mirror, Mirror and Ishioka’s motif of red represents both danger and growth.
This evolution is unusual in a fairy tale—in particular, a princess narrative—where the pure young protagonist exhibits a certain amount of passivity. In Powell’s designs, Cinderella certainly changes over the course of the film, but only so much—her costuming, which remains consistent, hints that her kindness and generosity are unchanging. In spite of hardships, she remains herself. Not to imply this is a bad thing, especially for a children’s story, but it’s somewhat lackluster as an example for young women to look up to. It reflects only part of the story and offers—visually, and perhaps even ideologically—an impossible pedestal. Snow White, on the other hand, is conflicted and forced to grow up before she wants to. It feels more real, urgent, and relatable—and much of this is owed to Ishioka’s costuming.
Ishioka was undergoing chemotherapy for pancreatic cancer throughout the production of Mirror, Mirror and she would die before the film was finished. It is no small feat that this was maybe her biggest film in terms of breadth. As described in The Hollywood Reporter:
The size of the costumes and scope of her final film — over 400 costumes made for the movie, then renting, altering another 600, as well as creating costume masks, jewelry and sailing ship hats — seems daunting. After her sketches were approved, Ishioka had the main characters clothes built in 4 New York shops: Tricorne costumes, Jennifer Love Costumes, Carelli Costumes and Eric Winterling Costumes. The rest of the cast’s garb was built in her shop in Montreal, using local costumers and craftsman.
Opportunity, ambition and risk are important measures in the making of great costuming but that is not all. Ishioka, who was a rare designer as respected in the world of fashion as in the film world, had a powerful signature marked by her obsessions. Perhaps her most revealing work is her only directorial effort when she worked with Bjork on the music video Cocoon. Blending Western and Eastern influences, Ishioka puts Bjork in a white bodysuit which hints at an artificial and almost mechanical nudity. From Bjork’s breasts, her mouth and her fingertips red threads start to emerge. As a song about desire, these feelings of love and sex as expressed through the red thread are liberating and exciting, but soon become suffocating, wrapping around her body until she becomes a corpse.
Love and hate, life and death, and desire and disgust are always close partners in Ishioka’s work. She never took the easy way out, and her costumes were as large and laborious as her vision. The motivation and intention of her work showcase the full potential that costume has in cinema, and hopefully will illuminate that costume is not just dressing on someone else’s vision. It has the possibility to enliven the screen with beautiful contradictions and hidden desires.