Due to the power to communicate without using words, costumes are a central part of performances.
Whether for the stage or screen, a costume must be able to convey the tone of the scene, the status, personality and above all the emotional complexity of a character. However, the psychological value of costumes is a rather recent idea: since 1500 in Europe the key word for costumes was indeed spectacularity. The spectacularity of costumes was highly praised in Elizabethan theatre, where actors used to be dressed in the latest fashions, commissioning garments and accessories from dressmakers who would either create something as new or adjust historical garments to produce an ‘antique’ effect in period plays.
The professional figure of the costume designer started emerging in 19th century Europe.
Before that, play authors, directors and actors would give indications on which costumes to wear. Between the 19th century and early 20th century, fashion personalities started being involved in either designing costumes or producing illustrations of the costumes that could be disseminated.
In the late 19th century, one of the most acclaimed and prolific costume designers was Théophile Thomas.
He started working in 1871 and designed costumes for the Renaissance Theatre and the Opera Comique in Paris. Thomas designed the costumes and set details for director Victorien Sardou’s play, Théodora, which debuted in Paris in 1884 and had revivals in 1894 and 1902. The play contributed to the construction of the stage persona of Sarah Bernhardt, for whom he designed the costumes to turn her into a glamorous Cleopatra.
French illustrator George Barbier started designing haute couture fashion illustrations and also theatre and ballet costumes after 1911, the year of his first solo exhibition in Paris. In the mid-1920s, he collaborated with artist and designer Erté to design sets and costumes for the famous Parisian cabaret Folies Bergère.
Interview with Erté (in French), Institut National de l'Audiovisuel, In Copyright
Italian designer Piero Tosi also started as an artist, trained in Florence’s Accademia di Belle Arti in the 1940s. Tosi then became one of the most accomplished costume designers of the golden age of Italian cinema, working with Luchino Visconti, Vittorio de Sica and Pier Paolo Pasolini, who asked him to dress Maria Callas for his movie Medea. Obsessed with what he called ‘the architecture of the body’, Tosi was renowned for his attention to detail and accuracy in period costumes, which also led him to taking care of hair and makeup design.
Tosi was active in the same period as Piero Gherardi, whose work for Federico Fellini’s movies remains unforgettable, and Piero Zuffi. Both designers contributed to the definition of Anita Ekberg's public image - and her transformation into an icon of femininity.
Fashionability was one of the most important features of the designs for Hollywood movies, and many creators are remembered for their contribution to the history of cinema and also the history of fashion. Travis Banton, Adrian and Edith Head, are some of the greatest and most influential costume designers in film history.
With 8 Academy Awards, Edith Head is the most awarded woman in Oscar history. Active in Hollywood between the 1920s and the 1980s, Head's style has as much to do with the study of the character as with the conversations and alliances she had with the female leading stars she was dressing - from Vivienne Leigh to Marlene Dietrich, from Audrey Hepburn to Elizabeth Taylor - who would request her services even if they were working for different production companies.