HUMANITIES: This passage is adapted from the essay “Costume, Cinema, and Materiality” by Therese Andersson (Culture Unbound 3 (2011): 101-112.
The opening scene of the film Marie Antoinette (Sofia Coppola, 2006) is set in Austria: a static image of a young Marie Antoinette sleeping in a dark room. The establishing shot that follows shows Schönbrunn Palace in the early, grey morning light, before reverting to a close-up of Marie Antoinette waking up. Completely unaware of what the future has in store for her, Marie Antoinette allows the attendants to dress her just as on any other day. While she waits for them to lace the corset and finish her hair, she appears unconcerned and plays with her little pug. Dressed in a soft, velvety and lavender blue two-pieced dress, she then meets with her mother, before being sent off to France.
The theme of dressing and redressing, which is accentuated in the opening scene, is pursued throughout the film Marie Antoinette, establishing costume as a significant feature for reading the movie. Costumes help in the construction of cinematic identities. Their colors and configurations intervene with the actors’ movements, allowing further characterization on a more associative level. A character’s story is visualized through clothing. At first glance the attire of a filmic character connotes time period, social status, and whether or not the cinematic world refers to fantasy or reality. A closer examination reveals more subtle details: a character’s state of mind, motivations, and how the character wishes to be perceived.
Costume design involves conceptualizing and creating garments that capture and define the personalities of fictional characters and are therefore intended to embody the psychological, social and emotional condition of the character at a particular moment in the screenplay. For instance, one of the scenes in the “I Want Candy” montage in the film shows Marie Antoinette trying on new high-heeled shoes, and next to her on the floor lays a pair of well-worn, light blue Converse boots. The anachronistic feature is a cross-reference to today’s fashion and youth culture, reminding the audience that this is a film about teenagers and not really an 18th century period piece.
Additionally, in Marie Antoinette, color is used in a nuanced way, not only to describe the characters, but also in order to facilitate a specific look for the whole movie. On a conceptual level, the colors are used to tell a story. In this case, a story with an unhappy ending. In this early stage of Marie Antoinette’s time at Versailles, the colors worn and applied are light and icy, more sorbet-like. In the middle of the film—depicting her party years—her gowns become most dessert-like in their choice of color and even in cut, with bright yellow, pink and blue combinations creating a macaroon effect with the ornamentation of petticoats and skirts. Her dresses are modified in configuration as well and become bolder, with more daring garnish. In the final sequences of Marie Antoinette’s life at Versailles, the colors grow a bit darker, faded, and become stricter. The fabric seems to change as well, and the dresses look heavier and more formal. The whole mise-en-scène subsequently becomes darkened and the film ends with a frame of her wrecked apartment overlaid with the sound of the guillotine as it slices the air (implying Marie Antoinette’s beheading).
The color palette of the costumes might be translated to a depiction of Marie Antoinette’s inner journey. The range of colors are comparable to those of the seasons, beginning with the light, spring-like pastels for her youth; bright summer colors representing her party years; and the darker, autumn-like shades for the last period at Versailles. As such, the costumes have metaphoric meaning; they are symbols of a stage in life and a state of mind. The costumes for Marie Antoinette are thus understood as being designed in order to communicate the inner experiences of the characters.
Ultimately, costume design in Marie Antoinette allows us to quickly grasp what the characters are all about. The actual changes in French fashion that began in the 1780s are in the film used as a way to visualize Marie Antoinette’s state of mind. The costumes conspire with the other cinematic features, generating a symbolic network for telling a story through dress.