Costuming in The Great Gatsby (2013): Not What You Might Think

Posted by muhammad nasrudin

There are two genres of historical film costuming: the accurate and the artistic. To judge either type by the other's standards results in dissatisfaction - very accurate costumes that are truly representative of their era will frequently be unattractive or awkward to a modern eye, while very stylized costumes can frustrate a viewer who was hoping to see lavish reproductions for a particular era. But both options have equal advantages: with the latitude to use modern influences, a costume designer can speak more clearly to a modern audience, and with more strict standards of authenticity they can give an impression that the characters have stepped directly out of the past. While you can criticize an artistically costumed movie for inaccuracy or an accuracy-focused production for being odd-looking or for wasting too much time on details, to concentrate entirely on those qualities is to ignore a full picture of what was attempted.

(Of course, it hardly needs to be said that this applies almost solely to women's costuming. For some reason, male characters will usually be dressed accurately and beautifully even when female characters are in the most poorly-researched and poorly-made outfits.)

The new adaptation of The Great Gatsby is (in)famous for its costuming, with many outraged that a costumer could unabashedly collaborate with a commercial fashion designer, or that she could consider women in period photographs to often look frumpy in their clothing. (Which, I have to admit, I frequently agree with.)

But there's a wrinkle in the story that generally isn't talked about: the 1920s may be the most stereotyped modern era, and therefore the most difficult to represent to a contemporary audience. It's been mentioned that actors are dressed more for the later '20s rather than 1922, when the book was set - but to me, it seems impossible to set a film about the dissipation of the Jazz Age so early in the decade in a way that could satisfy an audience.
Mae Murray and Monte Blue in the Robert Z. Leonard's silent film Broadway Rose (1922) - in many ways,
she resembles a variety star in the 1910s more than a liberated 1920s woman
As you can see from many of my posts on the 1920s, what is accepted about the decade - even by academics and people who have done some research - is generally only true, when it is true, about a small portion of it, perhaps 1925-1927. One that I haven't written about very much is the appearance of the bob: the Louise Brooks style, smooth and close to the head, was not actually seen that frequently on women in the 1920s (more usual was a frizzy, wavy mass of hair), yet it has become the way nearly every bob onscreen is portrayed. That is what we see as attractive, so that is what we accept onscreen. It also fits with that stereotyped narrative about the '20s, that the world suddenly changed in 1920 and everything of the past was jettisoned, replaced with sleek, shining modernity.
Unidentified women, 1923; Library of Congress LC-DIG-npcc-08553
Clothing in the '20s is interpreted in much the same way. Overall, the aesthetic ideals of the 1910s continued on - the ideal body shape was still slim and not curvy, hair was still thick and wavy, skirts were still long, and expensive clothing was often fussy. A bodice might be made on a fitted foundation closing with numerous hooks and eyes, with several filmy layers sewn on top, and then covered at the waist with a carefully gathered sash, itself fastening separately from the bodice. Extant dresses from the early 1920s are a far cry from the ideal of the "flapper dress" that slips easily over the head for a night of drinking and dancing. Even when the construction was simpler, further in the decade, there would usually be applied trims, faux-sashes, odd piecing, or intricate embellishment to complicate matters. (Especially on hats - while the simple, plain cloches came into fashion during the 1920s, brimmed hats loaded with flowers and ribbons were still frequently worn.)
Lobby card for The Beautiful and the Damned (1922) - not a look
you're likely to see in any modern film set in the 1920s
At the same time, we see a paradoxical combination of innocence and sensuality in the decade, in that we envision the men and women of the time engaging in transgressive behavior for the sheer joy of it, and an innocence of what would happen to this hedonistic, joyful world after the crash of the stock market. While a person around or after 1925 seems prescient and wise for realizing that the pursuit of fleeting physical pleasure is meaningless and leads to dissatisfaction and unhappiness, it would be much more difficult to reconcile this sort of world-weariness (not to mention the sexiness) with a setting that appears so much more old-fashioned and naive. The way that countless films have depicted the 1920s have all but replaced the real 1920s in the public imagination, seeming more like the decade of drinking, bootlegging, violence, and sin than the reality of it does. As Granny Weatherwax says in Terry Pratchett's Wyrd Sisters, "Things that try to look like things often do look more like things than things."

So, what about the actual costumes from the movie?

First of all, from reading interviews with Catherine Martin, the costume designer, it's clear that a lack of research or understanding of the period is not an issue. My overall opinion is that the artistic aspect of the costumes clearly took precedence over their accuracy, and that that to a certain extent helped Martin retain some aspects of accuracy by her avoidance of stereotype.

Daisy is the central female character in the story, and it is her clothing that is the most criticized for inaccuracy. Carey Mulligan's costumes are generally romantic and soft, very far from the typical image of the streamlined, short 1920s dress - however, in their departure from this stereotype, her dresses approach authenticity in their fussiness and the amount of embellishment, while also conveying aspects of her character: her old-fashioned viewpoint on marriage and social class, as well as her ethereal nature. And while her long skirts appear to the viewer used to 1920s costuming as anachronistic holdovers from the 1910s, not right for the fashionable Daisy, below-the-knee skirt lengths were only the height of fashion from late 1924 to 1928. As with many of the costumes designed for the film, her look can be seen as cutting-edge, more related to the end of the decade than the middle of it, but also totally appropriate for 1922.

(Note that the dress above is not strapless: it appears to have a sheer yoke. Sheer yokes were fairly common in '20s evening dresses, although they were usually not that invisible.)

Much has been made over the tightness of the dresses and Mulligan's probable foundation garments. The former, yes, is most likely due to modern sensibilities about what makes bodies and clothing attractive (although tight clothing in the 1920s did exist, as did defined busts), but the latter is not actually an issue, corsets, girdles, and brassieres being worn in order to achieve the fashionable figure.

The purple "floating nun" hat, in my opinion, is one of the best weddings of artisticness and accuracy in the whole movie. That particular historical style is very under-represented in film, which generally chooses to dress all women in brimless cloches - Martin uses them as well, but hers are mainly spectacular shaped felt numbers like this one by Miss Fox.

This dress again uses a sheer layer to create the impression of a more dramatic neckline, and has a highly appropriate asymmetrical hemline. In fact, just as I was looking for a proper example to illustrate the accuracy of that hem, I came across a dress that may very well have served as the inspiration:
Evening dress, Lanvin, ca. 1926; MMA 2009.300.1364a-c
On the other end of the scale are Myrtle and her friends: boozy, flirtatious, promiscuous. Myrtle's look in particular seems to be strongly influenced by Clara Bow, with her fluffy bob, bow lips, and scarf.

There's no excuse at all accuracy-wise for Isla Fisher's dramatic cleavage, but what all of these dresses remind me most of are costumes from a Broadway musical, like How to Succeed in Business ... - eye-searing colors, one base color per actor, and very large details (buttons, edging, jewelry, belts, etc.) to be seen by the audience from a distance. In Gatsby, it helps to differentiate the Queens characters from those in West and East Egg, who live in entirely separate worlds. Even when Gatsby is throwing vulgar, excessive parties, the color schemes are metallic and dark (except for the showgirls and performers, who are likely from the same social class as Myrtle).

So, I must depart from the general opinion and say that I consider the film's costuming to be excellent, and more accurate than Catherine Martin is given credit for. In some ways, I prefer the mix of accuracy and imagination in The Great Gatsby to a film or show that attempts accuracy but is repeatedly off on details.