Welcome to FrockTalk, the web’s only costume-based movie review site. The goal of Frocktalk is to shed light on the magnificent artistry of costume design in motion pictures. Reviews on this site are written by working costume designers in the entertainment industry – people who know, better than anyone, what it takes to make it all happen. The focus of FrockTalk is not to comment on the big flashy costume dramas, but to call attention to the seemingly ordinary costume design work in film that silently and persuasively moves the audience toward understanding the characters. Costume design for motion pictures is an art form that deserves more recognition than it usually gets. Fancy, pretty costumes do not always equal effective, appropriate costumes. The art of the costume is in letting the audience know who the character is, before the actor even has a chance to open his mouth. Read on, and enjoy. ** CAUTION: ALL REVIEWS CONTAIN SPOILERS! **

Costume Design Around the World

Hello Frocktalkers – after a long absence, I am back in the States to tell you all about it. I have been designing costumes for films for (officially) about twenty years now, and I have had the good fortune to work all over the world. Everyone does things a bit differently, and it is always fascinating to note not only the similarities, but also the differences. I’ve just visited Argentina, and I was lucky enough to hook up with a production down there to see how they do it.

Argentina has a healthy entertainment business (movies like The Motorcycle Diaries, and The Secret in Their Eyes), but most people in the business make their living doing commercials. There are only a handful of films made yearly in Argentina, but loads and loads of commercials. Everyone with whom I spoke on this production makes their living doing commercials and advertisements.

Our guide was costume designer Soledad Tuero, a lovely, hard-working gal who speaks excellent English! It was Soledad plus three other costumers on this job, and as they had a large crowd to work with, with complete costume changeovers, in the rain no less, it seemed like a lot for them to do.

The setup: A throng of protesters, red on one side, green on the other, yelling at each other in the rain. It’s the same group of people, with a costume changeover from red to green. Production puts the people seen in the foreground in the red sequence into the background of the green sequence, so you don’t see the same faces and notice that they are actually the same people.

The rain setup is very similar to how we do it – in this case, they are using fire hoses attached to tall stands to shoot water out. The first AD was yelling like mad into a bullhorn. Yes, some things are done in EXACTLY the same way…

US Rain Bar setup

US Rain Bar setup

Often we use fire hoses connected to tall stands, as seen here in Argentina. However, most of the time when we do rain in the states, we have a hose connected to a crane, and the hose is hooked up to a bar, or series of bars, that shoots the “rain” out over a big area.

US Rain Bar setup

US Rain Bar setup

One of the coolest things of the set visit was to see the costume department’s truck, or in this case, TRUCKS – they had two of them! In the first truck (an RV outfitted with hanging racks), they had clothing for the background. What was interesting to me is that they have no clamp-downs on the racks. I asked if the costumes fell down when they moved the truck, and she said, “Nope!”

Sole and her trailer!

Sole and her trailer!

And then I wanted to show her this picture, which is what our truck (WITH clamp-downs) looked like after a company move on my last show.

What was interesting about the RV setup is that there were NO drawers, and NO desk space. I thought that was unusual only because there is truly a need for these things. But perhaps because it was a short gig – a commercial lasts a few days, as opposed to a film that lasts a few months – those kinds of amenities were overlooked.

Soledad then took us into trailer #2, which was actually a hair/makeup – costume split workspace. In the US, our “combo trailers” (as they are known) are divided completely down the middle so that the two spaces are completely separate. In this case, it’s all one big space, with makeup stations on one side, and built-in racks on the other. Here, in this space, they had a very narrow row of small drawers… but still no desk space.

I wondered how this costume crew would be able to do their petty cash, their breakdowns, their paperwork… So often in this business we gripe and complain about things – our trucks, our offices, whatever – but the truth is that we have no perspective at all. It is only through seeing how other people work that we can appreciate our own situations.

I showed Soledad some pictures of the trucks we use here in LA, and I thought she was going to pass out. “A washer-dryer? Inside the truck?” she gasped. “Send me these pictures so I can ask for something like this on my next job!” When I told her we had internet in our trailers, I thought she was going to fall over.

Typical US Truck setup.  Dog not included.

Typical US Truck setup. Dog not included.

The work that we do is the same – we prep, we fit, we alter, we dress, we shoot, we wrap, we clean. We all work over 12-hour days (confirmed on this Argentinian shoot, for sure), we all have laundry and maintenance considerations (they have send-out dry cleaning service in Buenos Aires that picks up and delivers), and we all (mostly) love what we do. It’s fascinating to see it from someone else’s perspective.

Just to give you some ideas about how different filmmaking, and costuming, is all over the world, here are some examples: when I worked in Prague, our costume office was in an abandoned MIG factory. We had to bring in a washer and a dryer (“What’s a dryer?!” they asked) and we had to build a walled-off fitting room in the corner of the factory. There was asbestos everywhere, and it was a bloody mess. Our truck was a converted RV, just like the one in Argentina, but with lower overhead clearance. Good thing none of us was over 5’6” tall, or we would have been constantly hitting our heads.

In Japan, the costume office was a room in a corporate office, with racks and mirrors brought in for fittings. In New Jersey, our office was the inside of a vacant delicatessen, with only minimal electricity, and cold food storage containers still in place. In Montana (part 1), our office was in the unfinished basement of a rental house in the dead of winter, with no heating. In Montana (part 2), our office was in an abandoned IGA supermarket, and washer/dryer had to be installed there, too.

The famous lunch counter in Rock Hill, SC's Woolworth where desegregation began in earnest. Also, our costume offices for 2005's "Walker Payne".

In South Carolina (part 1) our offices were in an abandoned Woolworth’s – the same one, actually, that was a pivotal part of the civil rights movement in Rock Hill, SC. In South Carolina (part 2) our offices were in a dirty, abandoned public transportation pool office. You make do with what you’re given. Nothing is perfect, and assuredly production will opt for “cheap” before they will opt for “well-appointed”.

The abandoned IGA in Montana

The abandoned IGA in Montana

So, the next time you are offered a truck, an office, or a workspace that doesn’t exactly fit your vision of what a glamorous Hollywood costume department should be, pause for a moment. What, realistically, SHOULD the space be? The answer: functional. If you can get the basics done within the space, make it work! Given a global perspective on our work conditions, it gets pretty tiresome to hear complaints about not having wireless or MP3jacks in the costume truck. Just my two cents.

Have a great week, Frocktalkers, and stand by for more news and reviews!

– KMB

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