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! **


Review Date: 10-26-12

Release Date: 11-9-12 (limited); wide on 11-16-12

Runtime: 150 min (approx, unofficial)

Period: 1865

Costume Designer: Joanna Johnston

This film details the last four months of American President Abraham Lincoln’s life. Essentially, it covers Lincoln’s struggle to achieve passage of the thirteenth amendment to the US constitution, outlawing slavery. Along the way, it paints a loving picture of Lincoln as a doting, hands-on father, an involved, engaged husband, and a charismatic, determined leader.

With outstanding performances by Daniel Day Lewis (as Lincoln), Sally Field (as Mary Todd Lincoln), David Straithairn (as William H. Seward), Tommy Lee Jones (as Congressman Thaddeus Stevens) and particularly the scene-stealing James Spader (as political operative W. N. Bilbo), the film is more of a character study than a strictly historical document. It is interesting to imagine these famous historical figures in the midst of a critical chapter of our history, and the details (inasmuch as we have them) have been painstakingly reproduced, in part, by the costume department.

The film is comprised mostly of men in uniform, and men in suits. The color scheme is dark – lighting is mostly ambient, and the camera makes the most of lens flare and imperfection. Janusz Kaminski, the Director of Photography, is a master at his craft, so it was interesting to see him use modern conventions to tell such a historically interesting story. The color palette for men ranges from black to navy to brown, with bits of cream and grey thrown in for good measure. These are somber times, and the production palette, along with lighting, remind us of that fact in every scene.

The interesting and frothier visuals come when we meet Mrs. Lincoln. There are a lot of photographs of Mary Todd Lincoln from over the years, and it is obvious that much effort was directed toward recreating her look. If you look at these photos (below) you can see that her necklace, pictured here:

Is replicated almost to the letter in the film, here:

As the film’s only female lead character (truly, there were only three other women with any lines in the film), her costumes really pop. Sally Field is a gorgeous, vivacious woman with a beautiful, youthful face. However, here as the depressed and afflicted Mary Todd Lincoln, I get the sense that Field’s natural beauty was cast aside in favor of a more authentic portrayal of Mrs. Lincoln – heartbroken, inconsolable, and unpredictable.

Her skin seems grey, her eyes ready to burst into tears – and it seems as though the costumes (in terms of their color) not only reflect the overall color palette, but also somehow conspire to accentuate her wan, exhausted complexion. I thought Field’s performance was magnificent, and the costumes really help to frame her emotional arc – frothy and frilly on the outside (what she’d like the world to think), and then, when removed – as we see her in her chemise after she undresses – wild and messy.

The costumes worn by Lincoln himself are natural, worn-in, not fancy, but practical. I believed every moment of his costumes – they felt like a second skin for this character. They were unobtrusive, and I think that is the point here – Lincoln is portrayed as down-to-earth. No need for fancy, tailored costumes.

The thing that was interesting to me was the huge number of background. Everyone must be dressed by the department – and here, there were literally thousands of background players to dress. Some were finely dressed in congress, and others were dressed (and bayoneted to death) in uniform.

The opening scene of this movie was so nauseating – a huge battle in a vast, muddy field, everyone wearing wool uniforms, getting filleted, blood everywhere, rain and mud all around. I shuddered, just thinking about the logistics of it. I am told that this scene was (mercifully) shot in just one (very long) day – I mean, how the EFF would you clean all of those uniforms overnight so that they could be worn again the next day, anyway?! AND I was told that the shooting was so fast and furious that fifty individual shoes were lost in the sticky mud bog, never to be recovered. That, friends, is an undertaking. Really, this is the kind of scenario that gives me nightmares. So hats off to the entire costume team of Lincoln for gettin’ ‘er done!

I think the film will skew toward an older crowd; history buffs will certainly flock to it as it is of prime interest in terms of American history. It is a long movie, but the performances are lovely and the costumes are wonderfully, quietly effective. Worth seeing, for sure. Enjoy, Frocktalkers!!


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