by Nathaniel R
Welcome to "Three Fittings" in which we will celebrate costume design in the movies weekly. The number is necessary self-restraint for we love the art of costuming too much. We'll choose three costumes from a chosen film to discuss. Otherwise each episode would be six thousands words and twenty-five images long. As with Daniel's series "The Furniture," which focuses on Production Design, I'll alternate between contemporary and older films.
Let's begin with one of this year's Best Costume Design Oscar nominees La La Land. Contemporary films rarely receive this honor. Out of the 85 films nominated this century thus far for costumes, only 4 have been contemporary films: The Devil Wears Prada, The Queen, I Am Love, and now La La Land. But let's state this clearly up front: La La Land deserved the nomination.
While the guiding principle of La La Land's costume design by Mary Zophres is simplicity, this should not be confused for subtlety...
Zophres states her intentions as soon as the opening scene when a traffic jam results in a giant freeway production number. Most of the dancers are in primary colors or slight variations thereof and we even see little formations of them that will later be echoed when Mia hits the town with her girlfriends in jewel tone cocktail-hour versions of the same colors.
Before we even meet Mia, Zophres prepares us for the key yellow dress. The first woman who sings in the movie is a brunette wearing a pale yellow. Book-ending that opening number is a blonde woman in a bolder yellow. When the color pops up again, yet more beautifully, on red-headed Mia (Emma Stone) it's in the form of this canary yellow cap sleeve dress. (It also comes with primary color accessories -red purse and blue shoes). She's in the dress for quite a long time at a party that stretches from day to night. She leaves the party with Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), platonically, and they perform their first duet "Lovely Night". The dress isn't just beautiful, it's delicate like Mia and Seb's life situations at this point.
It's also functional. She can dance in it and it needs no reflectors; even if the streetlights malfunctioned Mia would be safe from traffic. You can't really not see her in that color.
Look Two - Matched Sets.
One of the most clever yet actually subtle things about the costuming is how Sebastian and Mia mirror each other when they're on the same page, even when they're not a couple. Take the sequence when Sebastian is fired (pictured above). He's wearing a royal blue suit, beautifully tailored, with trademark spats (to give it a retro-feel since he's so hung up on music of the past). Mia, too, is dressed to impress, in a royal blue cocktail dress that's sexier than what she usually wears. They're complete strangers at this point but both of them began the evening with hope and things have gone decidedly sour. Later in a dating montage, when they're very much in love and comfortable with each other they're both wearing baby blue and a looser fit than usual. When Sebastian has his most humiliating job in an 80s cover band, he wears a shiny red jacket that Mia makes fun of. In Mia's most disheartening audition, when she's about ready to quit acting, she's also chosen a shiny red jacket (pictured above). Both of those two "humiliation" outfits (Sebastian's not pictured) are quite busy with color and pattern, which is in direct opposition to most of the clothes worn in the movie.
Classic musicals, I think we can agree, often err on the side of flamboyance in costuming. Give 'em the old razzle dazzle if you will. While Zophres will go bold (primary colors) she stays far away from flamboyant. In the big musical numbers these streamlined simple colors read as bold or elegant, but Zophres will even risk frumpy (comparatively) to rid the movie of any visual clutter. As with "Audition (Fools Who Dream)" when the spotlight is on Mia. Sebastian has driven her to the audition and they're both in their least distinctive outfits in the whole movie, drab of color and slightly too big. We're only meant to be looking at Emma's soul in this moment, after all, and what her dreams have meant to her. When the movie is busy, the costumes need not be. It's as comforting a design decision as this sweater surely is on Emma. Zophres' designs are as perfect a match for Damien Chazelle's contemporary vision for La La Land as Mia and Sebastian are for each other that magical year in Hollywood.