Costumes On Screen: How Clothing Has Enhanced Visual Storytelling
“Vain trifles as they seem, clothes have, they say, more important offices than to merely keep us warm. They change our view of the world and the world’s view of us.”
Plucked from Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel, Orlando: A Biography, this observation states an inherent — albeit overlooked — truth of our daily lives. The clothing we wear is, at the very least, a tool of survival. But more than that, they are often carefully selected to reflect the wearer’s personality, identity, and mood.
Generally speaking, a story usually only depicts a brief window of a character’s life. Therefore, the storyteller must be able to convince the viewer that those characters exist outside of the time that they are on screen. The creator of a show or a film must depict a degree of realness in their otherwise fictional beings. It is this human interest that keeps viewers invested. Clothing is a significant part of this process.
In many popular stories that have played out on screen, costumes and clothing have formed an integral part of the storytelling process. Television shows, film, music videos, and even video games have all incorporated what are otherwise thought of as daily staples into their characters’ lives. Often, this is done in meaningful ways that help establish the characters, setting, or plot.
As this article will explore, clothing has enhanced visual storytelling in a range of ways. Indeed, the following examples of popular film and television shows demonstrate that costume choices often demand closer attention than they are normally given. The way a storyteller chooses to clothe their fictional beings can have great influence on how that story is interpreted by the viewer. The wordless medium of clothing design is capable of conveying multitudes.
In its simplest storytelling form, clothing has been used as a valuable tool for character building. Rather than spend a lengthy portion of the story telling viewers that a character is interested in sport, for example, a storyteller can simply put the character in an outfit to show it. This practice often relies on stereotypes and overused tropes to convey a point.
The Breakfast Club Characters
The 1985 film, The Breakfast Club, demonstrates this use of clothing stereotypes. The John Hughes classic takes place during a single Saturday, and depicts five teenagers from supremely different social circles forced to spend hours together in detention. Each person enters detention dressed in their own unique style; this is supposed to represent a part of who they are. Bender dresses in dishevelled clothing which matches his rough and ‘criminal’ life experience. Andrew is easily identifiable as an athlete from his Nike singlet. Allison’s attire is as unconventional as she is touted to be, while Claire is typified as classically feminine through being dressed in pink. Finally, Brian is dressed in the unremarkable clothing befitting his social status as an unpopular nerd.
What is also important, though, is that in showing who they are, their clothing also shows how entirely different they are from one another. This perfectly sets the scene for the film’s later conflict. Without needing to address it, the viewer likely already recognises from their individual outfits that these characters are not friends.
Lane Kim, Gilmore Girls
Character building through clothing can also be more sophisticated and meaningful though. One example of this is Lane Kim from the 2000 television series Gilmore Girls. Best friend to the main character, Lane is from a conservative Christian family. Despite the restrictive nature of her upbringing, she finds herself enamoured by an alternative lifestyle. One way in which the audience is continuously reminded that Lane secretly listens to punk rock music that her family would never approve of is through her clothing.
In many scenes, the character is shown wearing music-related apparel. During the third season’s third episode, titled ‘Application Anxiety,’ Lane begins a scene wearing a black shirt bearing the name of the punk rock band Dead Kennedys. She is comfortable in this outfit; instantly lighting up when someone starts a conversation based on the shirt. Despite this comfortability, at the end of the night, Lane is to return home to her family and, thus, removes the shirt. Underneath is a second shirt that reads “Trust God.”
This clothing-oriented detail demonstrates two integral aspects of Lane Kim’s overall identity: the first is that she defines herself in part by her love of music. The music-loving version of herself is the version she wishes to be seen by the public. The second is that, despite this love, she still wants to please her parents by creating the illusion that she lives as they expect her to. This cycle of hidden clothing begins in the show’s Pilot episode, and continues until the eleventh episode of season four. When her so-called double life is discovered by her mother, the duality of Lane’s identity — formerly expressed through clothing — becomes explicit:
“My band had this amazing chance to play this really famous club last night and I didn’t know how to tell you about it. I knew you wouldn’t approve, you wouldn’t approve of me being in the band or the music we were playing…
I just – I want to please you so badly, but I can’t.”
This might be news to Lane’s mother but, to the show’s viewers, this only reaffirms what the character’s clothing changes have consistently demonstrated. Due to the constant and pedantic attention given to Lane’s wardrobe, this character building is overt and seamless. Just as humans do, choosing clothing to reflect the character’s personality is a convenient way to advertise a degree of who they are.
Growth and Change
In a similar vein, if clothing can be used to establish who a character is, then a change in their outfits can also be used to signify when a character changes. Films have long used upbeat makeover montages to redesign a character. Usually, this occurs during a turning point of the character’s story. One need only watch Miss Congeniality or Clueless to confirm this.
The Characters of Community
But, using clothing to signify change can also remain unspoken in a way that rewards the faithful and observant viewer. Not dissimilar to The Breakfast Club, the 2009 sitcom Community is built around an ensemble cast that appear to be unlikely friends. However, throughout the duration of six seasons, the sitcom shows just how compatible its characters are despite first appearances. At numerous points throughout the series — and often without any verbal acknowledgement — the characters’ clothing choices change with the characters.
Britta Perry is touted as a beautiful and unapproachable woman; indeed, to the main character Jeff Winger, this is exactly who she is. At one point he remarks that people likely find her “severity” off-putting. Described as having an “infinite supply of leather jackets,” and always seen wearing high-heeled boots around campus, her clothing matches this.
However, throughout the show’s six seasons, she grows more comfortable being her awkward and loving true self. As the characters get to know Britta, she begins dressing in ways that make her appear more approachable. She frequently swaps her heeled boots for sneakers, and opts for lighter-coloured sweaters that soften her appearance.
Annie Edison is the youngest member of the fictional study group, and from the Pilot episode, she overtly states that she struggles with being dismissed due to her comparative youth. She mentions often that she feels as though she is not taken seriously. In season one, episode twenty, titled ‘The Science of Illusion,’ Annie angrily states, “maybe I’m tired of everyone thinking of me as a little girl. Maybe I wanna be in charge of how I’m defined.”
To match this immature characterisation of Annie, her character often wears floral dresses and brightly coloured cardigans. There are plenty of guides that tell women how to dress more ‘maturely’; floral dresses and bright colours are scarcely in them. 1 Therefore, during season five when it was time for Annie’s character to grow up, this was signified by her swapping her dresses for corporate-wear and, most noticeably, pants.
Alison Brie — the actress who played Annie — addressed this change in numerous interviews. During one interview with TV Insider, she discusses how Dan Harmon, the show’s creator, incorporated her clothing changes into the character’s storyline:
“Annie wears pants now [laughs]. That was a big deal in Season 5. She’s still wearing them…Dan was very conscious with my character to start taking her out of the realm of being a little girl.”Alison Brie 2
This outfit change coincided with several life developments for the character. This included her decision to study forensic science; a decision that ultimately led her to move away from home for an internship with the F.B.I. For the loyal viewer who has watched from episode one, this change in her outfits is noticeable and it complements her character development well.
Abed Nadir, another protagonist of Community, is different from his friends in that he does not change his style. For the duration of the series, he wears the same style: a graphic t-shirt, jeans, and a jacket of some sort. However, this lack of development also complements his character’s storyline. Abed mentions on numerous occasions that he is happy with who he is as a person: “I’ve got self-esteem falling out of my butt.” Thus, unlike Britta or Annie who felt the need for some change, Abed’s willingness to stay the same is also demonstrated in his attire.
Many of these examples rely upon limiting stereotypes and, thus, their storytelling capabilities are only one-dimensional. However, these creative clothing choices help propel each character’s storyline along. Not only do the wardrobe choices give viewers an idea of who each character is; they also show viewers who each character later becomes.
Outside of individual character storytelling, clothing is a useful tool for setting the scene. This works in the most immediate sense when a scene imitating reality requires basic authenticity. For example, a standard funeral scene is better articulated with a cast dressed in black. Similarly, viewers might not believe it to be winter if characters are comfortably standing in the snow whilst wearing shorts.
Not only this, but clothing is a recognisable way of dating a story. Trends and styles have changed dramatically over the course of hundreds of years. A decade can be instantly recognised purely by looking to the clothing that is worn. This is due to the ever-changing nature of clothing trends and patterns. Thus, when depicting a story set in a time gone by, clothing is an effective way to establish the time period.
Grease and the 1950s
The 1978 film Grease demonstrates this. Set during the 1950s; the film ensures viewers understand the time period by artfully selecting key styles of the 1950s. Sandy Olsson’s style is described as preppy; she frequently wears dresses with a cinched waist and full midi skirts that create a dramatic hourglass silhouette. Her friends are often seen wearing pencil skirts or cropped shirts. These were all common styles worn during the 1950s. 3 By selecting such costumes, it allows viewers to recognise the film’s intended time period. Moreover, this attention to contextual detail also helps viewers to immerse themselves into the story world being depicted.
Many of the characters in Grease belong to the Greaser subculture that became popular in the United States over the late 1950s and early 1960s. The men who were involved in this subculture usually dressed in leather jackets, tight-fitting clothes, and motorcycle boots. 4 Danny Zuko and his friends match this description perfectly. Similarly, Sandy’s makeover outfit — tight leather pants and a leather jacket — is reminiscent of a so-called ‘Greaser girl.’ Through contextualising her makeover in trends of the 1950s, it further helps to reiterate that this is the film’s chosen setting.
For stories that are not necessarily grounded in absolute realism — such as those in the dystopia or fantasy genres — the costumes chosen often help to demonstrate this move away from reality. The 1982 sci-fi classic film Blade Runner demonstrates this. The film envisions a 2019 version of Earth that has been destroyed by war. For the audience who viewed the film when it was first released, it was set thirty-seven years in the future. Thus, its characters’ attire can be described as futuristic.
The costumes, like that of Pris Stratton, are unconventional. They mimic outfits typical of daily life, like a dress with a coat, but they are a little too dishevelled and eccentric to be considered ‘normal.’ Moreover, the android characters of Blade Runner tend to be dressed less conventionally than the humans. This ties in to earlier ideas of character building.
By dressing the characters in this way, it helps to emphasise that this story is not set in the contemporary world that the viewer lives. It adds to a story world that is supposed to look different from the real world. However, it is close enough to reality to impress the point that this is still a reflection of the darkest parts of humanity.
While clothing details arguably do not make or break a story, they do add a necessary layer of contextual detail. Clothing in real life is heavily dependant upon context. Indeed, clothing is often grouped based upon the context it is intended to be worn in; for example, swimwear is for swimming and coats are for the cold. Incorporating these ideas into the storytelling process ensures that the viewer can understand and immerse themselves in the lives being depicted.
Breaking Social Norms
The impact of a costume not matching its intended context can result in a lack of believability; this might ultimately hinder the viewer’s ability to immerse themselves into the story world. For example, if the characters in the 2011 film adaptation of Jane Eyre all wore jeans and t-shirts, it would change the viewing experience altogether. As this film is set in the 1800s, if the clothing were too modern, no longer would it be a period romance or drama. It might instead be misconstrued as a comedy or parody.
However, sometimes a deliberate decision is made to make a character’s outfit conflict with the context of the story. Though choosing what to wear each day is seen as the result of human agency, often these decisions are conditioned by social norms. 5 Thus, when an outfit breaks such social norms, the wearer can risk looking somehow out of place. Creators can mimic this scenario by choosing contextually inappropriate attire for characters. This might, then, signal that they are out of place.
The Rose Family from Schitt’s Creek
The sitcom Schitt’s Creek exhibits this perfectly. The show follows the Rose family as they lose everything and are forced to move out of their mansion and into a small rural town just to survive. Having grown accustomed to dressing expensively, when the Rose family arrive in the town of Schitt’s Creek they look unusually well dressed. This is especially as plaid and denim seem to be the norm for this town. Put simply, the characters’ attire never really matches the new rural context they are thrust into.
Their choices of clothing do come up in conversation with the new friends they make; the people of Schitt’s Creek notice this oddity. David Rose’s clothes are referred to as “funky” in the show’s first season. Similarly, Alexis Rose is questioned on her choice to dress up while participating in community service. When Johnny Rose wears a white suit to a backyard barbeque, a fellow townie comments upon how unsuited such a pristine outfit is for the occasion.
These seemingly out of place outfits match the feelings of alienation that the Rose family experience. Every member of the family struggles in differing ways with feeling as though they do not belong. Moira Rose expresses this to a friend when she says, “I don’t hate this town, Jocelyn. It’s just not mine.” Similarly, after suffering from a panic attack, her son admits, “I’m pretty sure I’m really lonely here.”
The dissonance created between the outfits they routinely wear and the new environment they live in also demonstrates just how different this new life is for the family. In fact, the opening scene of the entire series shows the family during what viewers can assume began as an average day; they are dressed in suits and gowns for no special occasion. Thus, a quiet rural life is a significant change in scene for them. While this difference is mentioned frequently — it is, indeed, the entire concept of the show — the outfits act as a permanent visual reminder of this fact.
Though the family eventually find some sense of belonging in Schitt’s Creek, their feelings of being out of place are solidified when all but one of the Roses conclude the series by leaving town. The fact that none of them settled into the style norms of the town suggests that they each have a strong sense of identity. These identities remained largely unperturbed by a change in circumstance. But, it also suggests that Schitt’s Creek was only ever a temporary home. Despite how welcoming the town was, as their out of place clothing suggests, it was not necessarily where they belonged. This family are never quite settled; having costumes at odds with the surroundings silently reiterates this.
The show’s creator, Daniel Levy, confirmed the importance of clothing in his storytelling during the documentary Best Wishes, Warmest Regards: A Schitt’s Creek Farewell. 6 He expressed his belief that, aside from actually writing, clothing is one of the most important parts of telling a story. He commented further on this saying that costume choice was crucial to designing his characters:
“Because we, as people, say so much about who we are and what we believe in, and what we want, and what we think of ourselves by the way that we dress.”
For the Rose family, what they want is to escape the town and this is evident in their norm-defying clothing. Though it might not make sense in another story to have costumes so divorced from the context they appear in, it works for Schitt’s Creek as it helps to tell the story. Arguably, without such peculiar wardrobe choices, a significant aspect of the story would be lost.
In on-screen mediums — and in life — clothing is necessary. Aside from the strikingly stylish or unusual outfits, characters’ costumes can simply go unnoticed. But it is important to remember that when telling a story, the clothes a character can be seen wearing were chosen for a reason. Whether they sell the story’s believability, or establish the key points of a character’s identity, clothing is more important than viewers might acknowledge.
Already, we have assigned different stories to the clothes we wear. We assume a person dressed in business wear is headed to work and that such work is likely in a corporate setting. We assume a person dressed in activewear has either just recently exercised or intends to exercise in the near future. A child’s school uniform not only says that the child has been to school; it boasts proudly the specific institution where they are being educated.
Further still, the clothing we choose for ourselves each day is impacted by factors both in and out of our control. The weather, personal taste, the occasion being attended, or monetary means all contribute to the decision of what to wear. Thus, in the media that mimics our humanity, it is only natural that choosing what a character wears must include the same considerations.
Sometimes viewers only pay attention to the remarkable outfits on screen: Breakfast at Tiffany’s is often remembered due to the black dress worn by Holly Golightly. But, the on-screen characters dressed in jeans and a t-shirt demand close attention too. Chances are, looking to what they wear will help determine who the storyteller intended them to be.
- Lamport I (2011) ‘Dressing Your Age When You Naturally Look Young’, Inside Out Style [webpage], https://insideoutstyleblog.com/2011/09/dressing-your-age-when-you-naturally-look-young.html. ↩
- Schneider M (2015) ‘Community Q&A: Alison Brie on Weathering the Show’s Cancellation and Its Yahoo Rebirth’, TV Insider [webpage], https://www.tvinsider.com/1708/community-alison-brie-annie-edison-interview-season-6/. ↩
- Brewer T (2021) ’50s Fashion for Women (How to get the 1950s Style)’, The Trend Spotter [webpage], https://www.thetrendspotter.net/50s-womens-fashion/. ↩
- The Greaser Subculture (2021) ‘The Greasers Subculture: Background’, The Greaser Subculture [webpage], https://thegreasersubculture.weebly.com/background-information.html. ↩
- Turone R (2018) ‘Do Social Norms Determine What You Wear?’, Huffington Post [webpage], https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/rachel-turone/do-social-norms-determine_b_14706224.html ↩
- Segal A (director) (2020), Best Wishes, Warmest Regards: A Schitt’s Creek Farewell [documentary], Netflix. ↩
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