A recent article in The Atlantic described The Great Gatsby as ‘a fabulous betrayal of 1920s fashion and this got me thinking about an issue at the heart of historical costume design and an ever present tension for those of us who work in this industry – how far should one go to be historically accurate with costume design and at what point should one instead seek to recreate the spirit of the age?
The Great Gatsby certainly evokes the mood and interprets the style of the 1920s without being a strict historical reproduction and Catherine Martin and Baz Luhrmann have both spoken about how their design process achieves this. Every film that they work one begins with the source material and extensive research is the precursor to everything that they do. From this base they then make informed decisions, along with their design collaborators, on how to adapt this material in a cinematic context. As is clear in Gatsby, they have made the choice to include slightly anachronistic elements in the film in order to better evoke what we, a modern audience, picture when we imagine Gatsby’s world. The example of this most often cited by Martin are the cars used, which actually appeared on the market five years after the conclusion of the film’s story but better convey the speed and danger we associate with the period.
My philosophy about creating costumes aligns with Martin’s and Luhrmann’s view and the headwear I created using their vision certainly aren’t historical replicas but rather combine a number of elements to best represent the characters in their world.
Period costume design is by its very nature an example of contemporary fashion reinterpreting the past through the lens of film and as such works at its best when it is able to speak to a modern audience without encumbering and interrupting the story being told. The aesthetic of a film must work together with its narrative to successfully bring to life the characters on the screen and the approach taken by Catherine Martin and Baz Luhrmann certainly works to bring together a cinematic journey which is a pleasure to watch.