From “True Lies” to “Die Hard”: Simple-Yet-Brilliant Costume Designs
Here are two simple-yet-brilliant examples of how costume design can convey — and even dramatically transform — a character’s arc.
Costume design is critical in film and video production. While some characters and scripts don’t call for anything special, the characters still need to look a certain way. A fifteen-year-old girl in 1997 wouldn’t dress the same as a forty-five-year-old man in 1939. Sometimes, costume design is either very overstated (with ridiculous or over-the-top outfits) or terribly overlooked (with characters dressed too similarly or just not representing their personalities or ages).
Costume design is necessary because it helps convey who the characters are. So, when a character starts dressing differently, this can be a critical moment in their development — when handled correctly. But your costume design doesn’t have to be crazy complicated to pull this off.
In James Cameron’s 1994 action-romance-comedy True Lies, Jamie Lee Curtis plays the epitome of a dorky, bored housewife. Throughout the film, her clothes are brown, drab, and frumpy. True, the style in the ’90s was pretty baggy, but her clothes aren’t flattering at all.
Compare her fashion to the film’s femme fatale, Juno Skinner (played by Tia Carrere). Juno’s clothes aren’t terribly revealing, but her clothes are tailored to fit her form, which reveals her figure. As Jamie Lee Curtis said, “Juno Skinner is everything Helen Tasker isn’t.”
However, when Helen gets a secret mission to pose as a prostitute and dance for an arms dealer, she chooses the sexiest outfit she owns. The outfit is ridiculous, with frilly lace collars, sleeves, and accents. It’s like someone dyed a Disney princess’s dress black. But watch the clip and see what happens.
When she sees herself, she knows something’s not right. There’s a lot riding on the success of the mission, and she must look the part. By simply removing the excess frill from the dress, suddenly this dorky, childish outfit transforms into a beautiful, sleek dress. This moment is important because it’s about more than just Helen playing a role to fulfill a mission. It’s about Helen embracing her courageous and daring nature — not hiding behind bad fashion and self doubt — and taking charge of her life. By the end of the film, she is no longer this bored, bland housewife who regrets not doing more with her life. Instead, she joins her husband as a daring secret agent, fulfilling her desire for an adventurous, thrilling life.
John McClane is a rough-and-tumble New York detective. In many stories, this type of character wears a suit and badge, and carries a gun — much like Indiana Jones almost always wears his hat and jacket, and carries a whip. But Die Hard pushes John McClane to his limits.
His costume is simple: dark slacks and a white tank top. While the tank top reveals some battle scars — giving us a glimpse of who John McClane is — it doesn’t convey much else. That is, it wouldn’t convey much else if the rest of the film involved sitting in that room waiting for the party to end. The brilliance of this simple costume is that it acts as a canvas for the trials ahead. In every action scene, every tense and bloody moment, the shirt becomes “painted” by his thrilling and death-defying actions. Eventually, he’s forced to use the tank top to bandage his foot, exposing him almost completely to the enemy.
The costume design allows us to see what John McClane is made of. We don’t get an awesome costume or outfit to connect with him visually. We get, at first, something bland and normal. It’s his actions that reshape the costume to reflect the character.
Quite possibly the most overdone, quick-costume-change-arc occurs when the flamboyant friend throws off the lead’s glasses and ruffles their hair, revealing a sexy vixen or a heartthrob. You see it a lot in rom-coms. But, using the more effective examples above, think about how you can incorporate subtle costume changes to convey a shift in a character’s arc. Challenge yourself to find simple-yet-clever ways to change or modify a costume to create a new attitude in one of your leads.
Cover image via True Lies (Twentieth Century Fox).
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