Another article from our series highlighting Water for Elephants
By Open Book
This is our last week highlighting the Sara Gruen novel Water for Elephants. It’s been fun discovering various facts about the novel. The film open’s in theaters this Friday April 22nd, 2011. However, costumes (which helps to tell this story) is the last area we have yet to uncover.
Costume designer’s can be described as visual storytellers who use texture, silhouettes and color as their means of communication. As some of you know Jacqueline West (the costume designer for Water for Elephants) not only shaped the characters personality in the film but also illustrated (for audiences) Hollywood’s influence over this period. To help us understand what may have inspired the look for Marlena played by Reese Witherspoon, we are going to look back at the social customs, magazine articles and costume designers of the 1930’s.
During the great depression, America looked to costume designers to help empower the average woman. Jacqueline West, in a recent interview revealed she referenced film actresses from the 1930’s to help Reese Witherspoon prepare for the role of Marlena. Why? In 1930, magazine articles communicated to women, “if clothes can accent a character in a movie why can’t they do that for you?” In a book called Screen Style in 1930’s by Sarah Berry, she states:
“ By the early 1930’s, it had become clear that fashion display was a significant aspect of female box office appeal, and Hollywood costume publicity began to emphasize films’ display of “wearable” styles, in addition to the ongoing use of costume for characterization, spectacle or drama.” Pg. 16
Many women were told in-order to be successful they had to add dramatic flair to their wardrobe. Travis Banton the costume designer for Paramount tried to design costumes, which would appeal to women in every class. He wanted women to see the theatrical potential in their wardrobe rather than downplay it. In Water for Elephants, West transported the audiences back to the 1930’s by showing us how the character Marlena would have maximized and embellished her wardrobe, according to the social customs of the day.
In 1930, the costume designer for MGM Adrian refused many offers and proposals to manufacturer his designs from films. However, other costume designer’s like Edith Head, Orry-Kelly, Walter Plunket and Howard Greer joined Carolyn Modes to design and manufacture their costumes for retail. It was considered good publicity for Hollywood to illustrate their growing influence over ready-to-wear. In the 1930’s Hollywood designs were considered more innovative than Paris due the depression era “Buy American” campaign promoting the garment industry.
In Berry’s book Screen Style she also discusses the types of articles written in magazines from the 1930’s:
“The article “Finding Your Type in the Stars” suggest that a favorite movie star could function for the reader like “a sort of finishing school,” claiming that “we can all learn much, not only for the benefit of our appearance, but much in the way of the little niceties of life………. “ pg. 27
As you can see Marlena in Water for Elephants would have been exposed to all of this during this period. And West, highlights this very well by fashioning Marlena’s look after the most popular film actresses of the 1930’s. It’s hard to imagine costumes having that sort of impact on American culture today. However, every now and then you see it occur but not because of the clothing itself. In fact it’s typically a good film and performance that inspires audiences to emulate a characters look in a film. Can you think of a film character that has inspired your everyday wardrobe and why?