Over this summer, I have been revisiting some of my favorite movies that combine tales of love with exquisite costuming. The best costume design goes beyond putting characters in pretty dresses or dashing suits—outfits, color palettes, and textures can tell their own story about a character's relationships or journeys. Films that do this well fascinate me.
So, for anyone interested in sublime fashion design and a good (though not always happy) love story, this month, set your sights on I Am Love (2009, starring Tilda Swinton), the Chinese film In the Mood for Love (2001), and the 1970 American classic, Love Story.
For additional reading, I highly recommend the blog Clothes on Film, which writes detailed analyses of how costume design informs storytelling. Below, see excerpts from that blog and others that I have found illuminating, making me love these films even more by demonstrating how fashion can play such an important role in how we see ourselves and tell stories to others.
I AM LOVE
"From stills of this film alone you could easily be forgiven in thinking that I Am Love (Io sono l’amore, 2009) was set during the 1960s. The designer clothes worn by lead members of the Recchi family, as selected by costumer Antonella Cannarozzi, are generally minimalist, in plain colours with little embellishment. I Am Love is actually set in Europe around 2000, but its central characters are trapped as the well-heeled repressed of the sixties. Just as sexual, artistic and cultural expression was blossoming, the old guard struggled to make sense of this new world so regressed even more vehemently into their old one. The Recchis seem to live an intentionally separate existence to the rest of us. It is not just wealth either; they genuinely view themselves as our betters. It is the ethos of the class system. As such, when Emma Recchi (Tilda Swinton) indulges in an extra marital affair, she comes acutely alive through colour. Emma finally understands that true happiness is free of dependability on anything; class, religion, wealth, even family.
"The story zips forward several months to find Emma running errands in Milan. She is wearing a somewhat peculiar combination of long, loosely structured lilac coat, pattern sweater, white slim leg cropped trousers, Hermès Kelly bag, brown and silver pearls, and black flats. All Swinton’s clothes in the film were provided by Raf Simons for Jil Sander, mostly a selection of deceptively mundane shifts and knits accompanied by the Hermès [bag]. Note too Emma’s sweater here: it features a print that resembles the wrap she wears during the film’s final dinner party sequence, which in turn resembles work by abstract artist Sonia Delaunay, whose book, ‘Atelier Simultane’ she purchases while stalking Antonio through the streets of San Remo. Incidentally, Delaunay was Russian-born but lived in central Europe, just like Emma. As Emma tells Antonio after they make love, she was brought over from Russia by Tancredi and given a new name; she does not even remember her birth one, that is how disconnected she is. At this point in the story Emma practically blends into her surroundings, but as the idea of an affair takes hold, perhaps inspired by discovering her daughter’s latent homosexuality, this soon begins to change."
IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE
"Maggie Cheung, as Mrs. Chan, glides through the winding alley ways and cramped noodle bars of 1962 Hong Kong in figure-hugging, beautifully constructed cheongsams, on the haunting, recurring refrain of Shigeru Umebayashi’s Yumeji’s Theme. These are atypical cheongsams, the traditional Chinese dresses, also known as qípáo in Mandarin Chinese, or as Mandarin gowns in English, and are different even from the more modern cheongsams developed in Shanghai in the 1920s: the collars are higher, the shoulders more defined; they are hemmed just below the knee and come in a wonderful variety of fabrics. Mrs. Chan dresses in nothing but cheongsams, but she would stand out anywhere.
"Her wardrobe is like a style statement, echoeing the costume designer’s own philosophy: “I don’t like fashion. It’s transitory,” as he stated in a rare interview. Poised and graceful, with her hair always meticulously styled, Maggie Cheung looks impeccable every step of the way, even when she goes to a neighbourhood take-out noodles stand. The restraint elegance of her wardrobe also reflects a sense of loneliness that transgresses the film. There are so many things in In the Mood for Love that remain unworded, but which are grasped visually. Isn’t this part of the fascination of cinema?"
"Shot mostly in the fall and winter months of Boston, Love Story is a tragic romance set against of the sophisticated backdrop of the Ivy League. The film exploded in the public's consciousness when it was released as audiences responded to both its story and its style. Costume designers Pearl Somner and Alice Manougian Martin capture the essence of preppy style through the seasons, and no one was more beautiful in it than Ali MacGraw. While playing poor but brilliant Jenny Cavaleri, Ali became an instant style star for wearing school girl prep so well. The costumes are an incredible achievement, especially considering that Somner and Martin only had a handful of credits between them at this point in their careers and much of it from the stage. Their choices for Love Story are so classic, so timeless, that they continue to influence fashion today. Modern fashion designers—like Michael Kors and Tommy Hilfiger—regularly make references to Ali's outfits from this film as well as her own offscreen Boho Chic style.