Madonna in Desperately Seeking SusanIt is only shallow people who fail to judge by appearances.

– Oscar Wilde

Wilde’s epigram is apt when considering Sarah Street’s Costume and cinema (Wallflower Press, 2002), a short book introducing readers to key theories in the study of film costume. Through an introductory overview of the field to date, followed by five chapters which apply theory via close readings of particular texts, Street sets out to show how costume can be relied upon to convey information within film.

Edith Head, the only female designer elected chief of a costume department in the heyday of the Hollywood studios, famously remarked that her “storytelling wardrobes” (1) clearly delineated both character and narrative action to the extent that if sound were lost in the auditorium audiences would still be able to follow the film. Subsequent critical approaches to film costume have largely built on this notion – that costume is often used as easy shorthand to character while also occasionally to underscore thematics. Colour or design matching can be used to hint at or forecast relationships (one thinks, for example, of the similarly shaped white hats worn by Charlotte Vale and Jerry in Now, Voyager [Irving Rapper, 1941] before they become a couple), while choice of fabric can indicate inner qualities (compare the combination of shininess, flimsiness and display of flesh that comprises the evening wardrobe of Lady Sylvia McCordle [Kristin Scott-Thomas] in Gosford Park [Robert Altman, 2001]).

Beginning with examinations of the literal use of costume, the field of cinema-costume studies has subsequently and importantly widened to take in social and production aspects. Street’s introduction gives a schematic overview of the important authors and texts in this field – Jane Gaines and Charlotte Herzog’s edited collection, Fabrications, which effectively set the ball rolling; Pam Cook’s Fashioning the Nation and Sue Harper’s work on Gainsborough costuming, both of which posited costume’s ability to convey ideas and tensions about sexual and national identities; and Stella Bruzzi’s extended exploration of the importance of clothes in film and the symbolic potential of male costuming in Undressing Cinema. Maureen Turim’s piece “Designing Women: the emergence of the new sweetheart line”, first published in Wide Angle, is an important reference missing from this overview. Turim’s article introduced social criticism to costume studies by exposing the ideologies underlying the design of the popular sweetheart neckline; significantly she also showed how the design’s meaning changed over a short period of time, an important point in costume studies which has tended to adopt a monolithic, unchanging view of clothes’ symbolic values.

The important links between fan and star, achieved through an emphasis on costume, were thoroughly investigated in Jackie Stacey’s important book, Star Gazing. This work also significantly stressed the pleasure which cinematic costume offers audiences, a concept that seems to have become somewhat lost in much subsequent theory, including Street’s. While she remembers to reference Stacey’s work, Street does not follow it up sufficiently. She similarly neglects the concomitant strand of consumerism, the link between onscreen objects of desire and off-screen purchases. While Costume and cinema references Charles Eckert’s well-known piece, “The Carole Lombard in Macy’s Window” from Fabrications, and Sarah Berry’s Screen Style, a recent book on 1930s costume as a point of intersection between star and fan, overall the theories of commodity culture are not sufficiently pursued, marking perhaps the book’s most serious failing, as will be further explored below.

Street’s book takes its subject matter seriously and attempts to unravel the significance of clothes in cinema through an examination of select contemporary films. Her five chapters following the introduction expand on specific points raised therein – in Chapter 1 she takes Titanic (James Cameron, 1997) as an example of the heritage/melodrama hybrid and examines how its costume both asserts and complicates notions of realism and authenticity, and also conveys information about class and sexuality. Street’s reading of the film’s clothes is nuanced and she does a good job of exploring tensions in the film between what she calls “generic realism” and “social realism”, that is, between the needs of the film as romance spectacle and the necessity of dressing the characters in ways appropriate for 1912 fashions. The star persona of Leonardo DiCaprio also has an impact, Street finds, on the film’s costuming, since his character is dressed in clothes which are noticeably more “timeless” than his fellow steerage passengers. Unlike them, DiCaprio’s character, Jack Dawson, is clean and sports collarless shirts, trousers with braces – what Street declares to be a very casual ’90s look. This serves to separate him from the other working class passengers and allows him to appear a fitting partner for the upper class Rose Dewitt Bukater (Kate Winslet).

Chapter 2 examines another period piece, The Talented Mr Ripley (Anthony Minghella, 1999), set in the early ’50s. Street interestingly compares and contrasts the 1999 film, the earlier film version, Plein Soleil (René Clair, 1960), and the 1955 novel by Patricia Highsmith, upon which both films are based, to consider how each uses costume to explore notions of male identity and desire. She finds the recent film version deals most openly with the theme of homosexuality, which is a subtext in the novel, and which is almost totally written out of the ’60s film version. Examining all three versions’ treatment of a key scene where Tom dresses up in his friend’s clothes, Street reveals a sensitive approach in drawing out the different resonance of each version. What is less convincing, perhaps, is her invocation of Lacanian theory to give the French film both the scene’s erotic charge and the murder’s necessity; she seems equally over-reading when ascribing, in the latest film version, the motivation behind Freddie’s murder to Tom’s guilt and denial of his own homosexual attraction to Dickie, when the act seems actually driven by fear of the first murder’s discovery.

Turning from male-male identification, Street looks at the equivalent female fascination in Desperately Seeking Susan (Susan Seidelman, 1985). Here the star persona of Madonna is such a powerful signifier that it is difficult to read the film’s costumes outside her influence. Street admits this, but her reading of the intersection of star power and costume becomes problematized by her assumption of a single audience position, already aware of Madonna’s idiosyncratic dress style before viewing the film. Street’s examination of clothes as exchange-objects and identity-markers within the film is thus less assured since it draws on this limited conceptualization of the extra-diegetic relationship between fan and star. This is where an informed reading of consumption-based film theories would have benefited Costume and cinema: reading Desperately Seeking Susan in the light of Mary Anne Doane’s important piece, “The economy of desire: the commodity form in/of cinema”(2), one can begin to construct a parallel trajectory of desire from Roberta to Susan and from audience to Madonna, both reliant on the purchase of commodities. In addition, to consider the merchandising and tie-in products associated with the costumes of the films she examines would have enriched Street’s arguments. Further work in this direction could consider the reflexivity between film text and sanctioned consumables, and tease out the irony inherent in the fact that audience members, in their attempts to emulate free-spirit Susan or the anarchic rebels from The Matrix (The Wachowski Brothers, 1999) are conforming to the dictates of consumer society through spending.

Chapter four looks at Wonderland (Michael Winterbottom, 1999), another film set in ‘modern’ dress, and draws some interesting conclusions about how everyday clothes can be used to give verisimilitude to the depiction of ‘the ordinary’ world around us, and simultaneously carry symbolic weight. For example, Street posits symbolic resonances to one character’s frequent wearing of layers: “this layered look is perhaps symbolic, in this context, of her shyness, of the need for people to probe beneath her profoundly unconfident surface.” (p. 76) Other attempts at a symbolically laden reading of the film’s costumes are not so successful: in discussing another character’s overtly sexy clothes, Street tries to squeeze too much meaning from the outfit: “Her clothes are expressive of her desire to be seen as sexually available, to play down her responsibilities as a mother … The tightness of her clothes and their sexualised nature is therefore reflective of the tension between pleasure and responsibility…” (p. 78) But Street has only described the character’s ‘sexualised’ garments and not referred to those which are markers of responsibility. No doubt the character does contain a tension between “pleasure and responsibility”, but a successful reading of the clothes has to be based on what is actually being worn. With a see-through blouse and a tight, figure-hugging skirt, the tension can only be apparent in the character, her situation, or the script.

Keanu Reeves in The Matrix

Costume and cinema fails to convince also when it discusses the potential of film costume as it intersects within the text with well-established star personae. As with her discussion of Madonna, Street does not do justice to the impact of the star persona of Keanu Reeves in her discussion of The Matrix; here consideration of the star’s contestatory potential might have been seen to diffuse the fascistic message she finds in the rebels’ uniform of shiny black leather and PVC. Without discussing either the importance of general or specific Keanu ‘cool’ to the movie, with which the black leather has as much to do as fetishism or fascism, Street overlooks the continuity between the Matrix costumes and other outfits worn by Reeves, both in his films and in widely disseminated extra-cinematic material: these indicate that black clothes, and especially leather trousers (3) amount to signature items and can thus be seen to be part of the film’s playful self-reflexive foregrounding of elements of Reeves’ star persona (as, for example, when the Oracle comments on him being “not too bright”).

The book’s contribution to cinema-costume theory, besides the overview and useful (if partial) bibliography, is to propose a method for studying the intertextuality of films through costume. This would involve, for example, comparing the latest Titanic to earlier film versions of the disaster. While Street does not say this, a useful comparative concept (4) is found in John O. Thompson’s ‘commutation test’: in his famous ‘what if?’ scenario, weighing the contribution of a specific actor to a scene is attempted through imagining what a different person would bring to the role (5). Performing a comparable test for a film’s costumes would involve judging how the clothes are used to carry information contributing to the themes, characters, symbolism or narrative, in comparison to similar outfits in another rendition of the same story. Thus the costumes in Titanic, while of historical necessity very similar to those in the earlier A Night To Remember (Roy Boulting, 1958), are felt by Street to be used more consistently as indicators of class, gender, and genre expectations. Titanic‘s costuming is thus responsible for the success of the film in mediating between the audience, the actual historical event, and the previous film version. This useful concept should help to underline the importance of costuming to a film’s meaning, not just its pleasures.

But pleasure is important too. The book’s main lacuna is its failure to adequately discuss the importance of the attempted cashing in on the pleasures of film costume or to properly address research work in commodity culture, which Street gestures towards but does not pursue. Not only have clothes been used as a means to get audiences to see the film, audiences are also encouraged to want to purchase the objects on show. The circle of desire which sends them from the shops to the cinemas and from the cinemas back to the shops, never satiated, conforms beautifully to the aim of capitalist consumerism to ensure an everlasting market for its goods. The cycle of fashion which constantly motivates buyers to have the latest consumables or shames them with the notion of being outmoded, declassé, dovetails neatly. But as Jackie Stacey and Sarah Berry, amongst others, have shown, audiences have always found ways to subvert industry expectations, adapting screen clothes or elements of screen style to their own budgets and lifestyles. This is where in-depth exploration of the consumer’s use of components of Madonna’s image would have strengthened the book’s argument and impact.

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Berry, S, Screen Style: Fashion and femininity in 1930s Hollywood, Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2000

Bruzzi, S, Undressing cinema: clothing and identity in the movies, London: Routledge, 1997

Cook, P Fashioning the Nation: costume and identity in British Cinema, London: BFI, 1996

Doane, M. A, “The Economy of Desire: the Commodity form in/of the cinema”, Quarterly Review of Film and Video, Vol 11, 1989, pp.23-33

Eckert, C, “The Carole Lombard in Macy’s Window”, in Fabrications, costume and the female body, London: Routledge, 1990

Gaines J, “Costume and narrative: how dress tells the woman’s story”, in Fabrications, 1990

Gaines J and Herzog C, eds, Fabrications, costume and the female body, London: Routledge, 1990

Harper, S, “Historical Pleasures: Gainsborough Costume Melodrama” in Home is Where the Heart is, studies in melodrama and the woman’s film, edited by Christine Gledhill, BFI, 1987

Highsmith, P, The Talented Mr Ripley, New York: Coward-McCann, 1955

Stacey, J, Star Gazing: Hollywood cinema and female spectatorship London: Routledge, 1994

Turim, M, “Designing women: the emergence of the new sweetheart line” Wide Angle Vol 6 No 2, 1984

Vanity Fair, Annie Liebowitz photograph of Keanu Reeves, August 5, 1995


  1. As quoted in Gaines, “Costume and Narrative: How Dress tells the Woman’s Story” in Fabrications, Costume and the Female Body, Routledge, p. 180
  2. Mary Anne Doane, “The Economy of Desire”, Quarterly Review of Film and Video, Vol 11, pp.23-33
  3. As in the famous photograph of Reeves with his motorcycle by Annie Liebowitz. One could also cite the leather jacket of Scott Favor in My Own Private Idaho (Gus Van Sant, 1991) and the leather trousers of Don John in Much Ado About Nothing (Kenneth Branagh, 1993).
  4. In conceiving this comparison, I have benefited from reading, “Why study film acting? Some final reflections” by Paul McDonald, in More than a method: trends and traditions in contemporary screen performance, eds Cynthia Baron, Diane Carson and Frank Tomasullo, forthcoming from Wayne.
  5. “Screen Acting and the Commutation Test”, Screen, Summer 1978, vol 19, no 2, pp. 55-69

About The Author

Tamar Jeffers' research interests include stars, costume, and the figure of the Career Girl in 1950s films. She is currently engaged in part-time study for her doctorate at Warwick University, conducting research on Doris Day.

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