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! **

The Wizard of Oz: Dueling Banjos Chat Transcription

Could not get licensing permission for Wizard of Oz picture, so Chachi stepped in.

Could not get licensing permission for Wizard of Oz picture, so Chachi stepped in.

Maggie from The Costumer’s Guide and I recently sat down to discuss this iconic, beloved film, and the costumes and ideas that went into it.  This is a follow-up to our Dueling Banjos Review of The Wizard of Oz… and it just might be the longest Gmail chat in history!

Kristin: OK, do you remember the first time you saw The Wizard of Oz?

Maggie: I’m not sure if I remember the very first time, but I clearly remember it being a big deal to stay up late to watch it the one time of year it was on. Because I grew up in the dark ages before things like DVDs!
The Wizard of Oz and The Sound of the Music were once a year events – and that made them more special.

Kristin: Hahaha. When I was a kid (in the 1970s, cough cough) it used to be broadcast on TV every December or Christmastime. I remember being quite young and watching it, lying on my grandparents’ floor. The music accompanying the flying monkeys tripped me out.

Maggie: I remember that was the one night I was allowed to stay up late, and I would always barely be able to make it through the whole movie, but I was always determined to!

Kristin: Yeah, I am surprised that my parents didn’t censor the flying monkeys stuff for me and my brother – he’s two years younger than me, and he was watching that scary stuff. I must have been no older than 5, watching that film; he would have been three.

But the film made such an indelible impression on me. I mean, ruby slippers, beautiful witches, wicked witches…

Maggie: The movie is a bit scary – the witch trying to scare Dorothy with her magic globe, with Auntie Em and Uncle Henry inside – that always scared me!

Kristin: Yes, and the “Surrender Dorothy” skywriting! Brrrrr! It’s funny, because content like that still exists in movies (I watched Tale of Despereaux recently, and it had some real scares) but the parents’ sensibilities have changed somewhat. I know that a lot of my friends wouldn’t let their five-year-olds watch Despereaux. But somehow, The Wizard of Oz is okay?

Maggie: I just saw Coraline this weekend and I have friends with kids asking if that was too scary – it’s hard to know anymore!

Kristin: One of my friend’s kids had nightmares for like two months after watching Wallace and Grommit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit. Now that’s kinda funny.  I mean, being scared of a big bunny is funny to me.

Maggie: I was traumatized by Superman 2. The bad guys in that prism? It still haunts me! 😉  My friends mock me for it.

But The Wizard of Oz…it left a huge impression on me too.

I think I grew up on the cusp of the B&W to color conversion – I mean, we were always last on the block with any new technology, so I’m pretty sure we had a black and white TV when I was super young. So the magic of the Technicolor was not totally lost on me, even though I didn’t grow up in the 30s or 40s.

Kristin: Yes, I think that the movie holds up, actually, even if you see the entire thing on a black and white TV! It’s still magical.

Maggie: It does hold up – and it was so clever to use the black and white for the real world so that it’s really impactful (if that’s a word) when you land in Oz.

Kristin: When did you first dress up like Dorothy?

Maggie: It was so unusual, or so it seemed to have a brown-haired, brown-eyed heroine. I think you mentioned that they thought about making her blonde – I was so glad to have someone to relate to that didn’t have blonde curls. I’m not sure if my childhood obsession went back to the books (I read them all) or that movie. But I know there was at least one Halloween where I wore a really low-budget Dorothy costume. I was probably 7 or so.

Kristin: It’s interesting when, as a child, you read the books with illustrations. It really imprints on your brain, the image of what the character should look like. This happens a lot with scripts for me, too. I will be reading a script, and it’s like I am seeing the movie. So I go into an interview, already kind of having “seen” it.

Maggie: Yes, the books are beautifully illustrated. And so different from the movie – but you can see the inspirations. Obviously making Dorothy a teen is a big deviation. But one that worked.

Kristin: Well, they wanted Shirley Temple originally.

Maggie: I’m so glad they didn’t go with Shirley Temple. No disrespect to her, of course. But what they ended up with was so different. That’s so interesting, to be able to see [the movie] in your head. How often does what you see jibe with what the director wants?

Kristin: Well, it’s interesting. Sometimes you get hired because of your vision, and sometimes you get hired because of your ability to execute the director’s vision. Sometimes the director wants your vision for the film, and sometimes they want their own.  It’s always different, on every film.  Ultimately, our job is to realize the director’s vision, period… Even if that means he wants something that we think is inappropriate or unattractive. I should say HE or SHE, because there are a few girls out there directing, too – not enough.

Maggie: I’ve always been curious how much input the designer gets. I suppose it varies from director to director. For example, I always wondered why Sleepy Hollow, which is set in 1799, is so very 1780s, and whose vision that was. I adore the costumes and the look of the film, but I’m curious whose aesthetic vision that was.

Maggie: I do think of that (what you just said) when a designer gets blamed for the look of a film and I wonder if it was really the director’s call. (i.e., in the instances of inappropriate or unattractive) I think most designers probably do their homework with period costumes, for example, but may or may not have their input listened to.

Kristin: Well, we’d have to ask the [costume designer] CD for that show – I mean, I think it is always appropriate to make the film look slightly OLDER than the year in question, especially if it is a rural area (no access to current fashion) or if the characters are poor (can’t afford new clothes); that could drive a film to be pre-dated. But the risk, and ultimately failure of a film would be to jump ahead in the period. To have the screen say 1799, but dress the people like 1810 – that is a real error, and shows lack of discrimination on the part of the design team, usually. If you set a movie in 1799, you should aim for that year or before, end of story.

Maggie: Ha, (re: talking to the costume designer of Sleepy Hollow) which I would love to do, as most people know how much I adore Colleen Atwood’s work! Yes, I can definitely see why you’d have country people being slightly out of the times than city people would. 1780s vs. late 1790s is such a big change in waistline. I’ve never really thought of that movie as an error, so much as an interesting stylistic choice.

Kristin: We designers often get hung out to dry for bad choices made by the director. But we designers have a choice: capitulate to the director’s ideas, or fight for what we think will be better. It’s not a desirable situation to be in, believe me. But you have to weigh your options. Is his/her idea really terrible? If not, you may have to suck it up. But if it is really terrible, you have to think about fighting for it.

Maggie: That’s probably true in a lot of jobs – when to remind your boss that you were hired for your expertise and hope that they will take your opinion into account, and when you’re just not going to win.

How much of “Oz” do you think was Adrian? Versus the studio? There seems to have been a revolving door of directors so I’m not sure who had the most aesthetic input.

Kristin: Regarding “Oz” – that’s a really tough question. I put it out there to see if anyone knows of a book about the costumes, maybe a bio on Adrian, I don’t know, but I suspect that the studio shoved their fingers into his grill about it. Here is a film with a HUGE budget. They have every right to know what he is doing, and they THINK they have every right to put their personal thoughts and “stamp” on the project. With the change in directors, the studio certainly was keeping tabs on the “look” of the show, to provide some kind of continuity of authority. These situations just do not resolve themselves; someone in a suit usually steps in and leads the parade.

Maggie: I wonder how frustrating an experience that was for Adrian – essentially having each director perhaps try to put their stamp on it, and a studio possibly coming in and changing their minds on things. Glamorous witch? Evil witch? Teen, sexy heroine? Teen dressed as little girl? And colors – you mentioned all the testing that must have been done. Plus, we all know the story of the silver shoes switched to ruby. Not a bad choice on that, I have to say. One of the biggest costume icons of all times, those shoes!

Kristin: Yes, the battles that surely went on behind “Oz” are the same battles in which we engage today. Often times, the costume department is caught in the middle between director, studio, and actor. Everyone who gets dressed in the morning has an opinion about clothing. And some people can’t separate clothing from costume. It can be frustrating beyond measure.

Maggie: Also the challenges of trying to execute those fantastical costumes (monkeys, straw men, tin men, humanoid lions) without CG. And without killing your actors with that terrible makeup!

Kristin: Well, the monkey costumes and soldier costumes would have been a delight to do, minus the political BS, I am sure. Those costumes are really cool!!

Maggie: Which is why the CD gets blame (or credit?) for the whole thing when really there are probably a lot of proverbial cooks in the kitchen and everyone with an opinion.

I adore the monkey costumes – and the soldiers – they are two of the most interesting and probably most overlooked. There are so many interesting minor characters – and we forget that a lot of work probably went into them – it’s easy to focus on the four main characters. I even overlooked the poor Professor/Wizard myself!

Kristin: There are often a lot of cooks in the kitchen, but that’s what collaboration is all about. As a costume designer, you have to learn to work cooperatively with other people, being considerate of their input and the looming input of others. There is always compromise. So when I look at the Dorothy Gale costume, I go, “Hmm”. I am sure that Judy Garland kept her 17-year-old mouth shut at that time, but every director and studio exec was probably all up in it, and I imagine that Adrian had to have several incarnations of that dress at the ready for screen tests. This is the ONE costume she wears throughout the entire movie. You can’t make a mistake. Never mind the physical weirdness of making a lion costume that effectively cuts off the actor’s mobility from the knees up. We had the same issues with the donut costume from Sex Drive – when I watched “Oz” again, I was reminded of the “binding the knees” thing that happens, impeding the ability to walk. Luckily for Lion, there was open space in between the knee parts of his costume, and he could get around pretty well. Not so much for Señor Donut.

Maggie: That is a good point – when a character has one costume – that costume has to tell you everything about them – there’s nothing else supplementing it to tell you about that character. And you have to want to
look at it for the entirety of the movie. And you are right about mobility too – we can forget that at the very least, all four of the main characters have to be able to dance in their costumes!

Kristin: Yes, it’s odd – we are not often asked to design costumes for actors that carry them throughout the entire movie. I’ve done it a few times, and it is really fun, but you do have to hit the nail on the head. It’s always good to test a costume, because then you know what kinks you have to work out, if there are any, and it just makes everyone’s work better. I can’t tell you how many hat tests I have done with DPs – can you light around this? Do we need a shorter brim? What about the color of the hat – does it bounce or does it absorb the light? It’s endless. There is so much that goes into the design process in a film; it’s really hard to imagine.

Maggie: That is a good point too, about lighting. I don’t think people think about the technical aspects of things.

Kristin: And they shouldn’t, really…

Maggie: Like lighting. People might think about color and how it will look on film, but even something like the shape of the hat!

Kristin: It’s our job to make it look seamless. So we have to be on the ball and test everything.

Maggie: Of course! But [amateur/hobbyist] costumers do like to think about things like that.  Costumers know that the first time you wear a costume out is when you figure out everything wrong with it, and whether you can move in it.

Kristin: Even scarves – I have tested a lot of neck-scarves. They go right next to the face, they take up a big portion of the screen, etc. Yes… it is worth it to test all of those things.

Maggie: So I think they can sympathize, but beyond that, I think they would appreciate the effort that goes into making it so the actors can move or dance – and then the technical challenges, like lighting.

Kristin: I heard that Posh Becks has a video camera in her closet for just such tests – she doesn’t go outside in something that looks odd or is ill fitting. I mean, it seems silly, but we do it; why shouldn’t everyone camera-test their clothing?!

Maggie: Ha! Actually, that’s not a horrible idea, especially considering how photographed by the paparazzi someone like she is! I guess odd and ill fitting is also in the eye of the beholder!

Let’s look at “Oz” in the context of the late 30s – both things like the Depression and fashion next. You made some interesting points about this in your write-up.

Kristin: Well, you have to remember that this was a time of austere living in the US and elsewhere. The German (Nazi) Army was making progress in Europe, there was an ongoing rebuilding effort in this country after the Great Depression. Things were not easy here. To have a film as hugely-budgeted as “Oz” was a great risk for the studio, but they knew that they needed a home run. Here’s essentially a children’s movie, a
fantasy film, and they were taking a huge chance, even though the material was familiar to many people. One of the reasons I think this movie became so successful is that it provided a complete and total escape from reality. It also reminded viewers that everything they ever needed is right there at home. It’s a crazy kind of patriotic movie, in that sense. I think this country needed “Oz” more than anyone realized. Of course, Gone With the Wind soon followed, which was another film about war, country, love, and home… so these themes were powerful and important at the time… as they are now, in our current political/economic state.

When I say “escape movie” I mean, in that dark theater, you were no longer poor or hungry. You were in the land of Oz. It provides that freedom. This is a powerful thing!

Maggie: There is definitely the thought of movies as escapism – and I’m not sure you could get more escapist than a movie that takes you from black & white Kansas to a Technicolor fantastical world! But then tell you that there’s no place like home. I liked very much what you said about Glinda’s costume being a confection for the eyes for children that grew up in the Depression. We don’t always think of these iconic costumes in their context. It’s like taking the Beatles for granted since Rock is commonplace now – but at one point, they were something new – and escapism in a sense too.

Maggie: I liked what you said about Miss Gulch – that here is someone still stuck in the past – and I liked the thought that maybe that was a happier time for her – or something happened to make her bitter and she
never moved on. We don’t know much about her, though I guess modern things like “Wicked” have extrapolated. I love both Glinda and the Witch’s costumes -they are so different and so opposite – black on black and pink on pink. And both are so detailed, it almost gets lost – but I love how you can always find more detail there if you look for it. Both very fairytale too.  I love that the Witch’s outfit isn’t ugly. It’s actually really pretty and very fairytale with the waist cincher, pouch and puffed sleeves, like Snow white as you pointed out (*note* – in a separate, off-line conversation).

Kristin: But as far as the fashion goes in this film, or should I say fashion’s INFLUENCE, it’s kind of all over the map. Auntie Em looks perfectly appropriate in her dust-bowl skirt, peter-pan collared shirt, and long apron. I am not sure that I believe that it’s actually practical, that giant long apron, but visually, it works. These people are not destitute, like people in a Dorothea Lange photograph, but their economic situation is apparent – they are squeaking by. Their clothes are “poor but proud”, in the simplest sense.

*note from Maggie*  [At this point, we got sidetracked on a lengthy discussion on the nature of the Witch’s sleeve puffs, which amused me greatly, as this is the stuff my costumer friends thrive on. It’s the dissecting and figuring out the “how”s of costume construction that entertains us endlessly – and the trying to place the inspiration of the design historically. Well, I enjoy discussing this kind of thing anyway.]

*note from Kristin* [Yes, it was a long side-track, and pretty funny.  Maggie and I are still not in total agreement about those sleeves, but we thought we’d spare you the bloody details!  Hahah!!!]

Kristin: I think this has been the longest Gmail chat of my life, but it has been very fun.

Maggie: Yes, it has been fun!

Kristin: Maggie, thank you so much – I really appreciate your time. I think it is going to be really interesting to hear feedback on this one! Thank you so much for your thoughts!

Maggie: And thank you for your time – it’s really fun to compare the thoughts of the interested amateur/hobbyist with someone actually in the field. I probably represent the readership of my site in that way – and they are the people who genuinely are interested in what you do for a living! 🙂

——————————————————————————

What a hoot!  We are going to have to do this again.  Thank you Maggie, for your time and insight.  This was really fun.  I hope everyone out there enjoys it, too!!  Please check out Maggie’s site The Costumer’s Guide – it is simply faboo!!!

— KMB

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