5 Different Costume Interpretations of the… 1940s

Today marks Iron Man 3‘s Blu-ray release and I am beyond excited. Not about re-watching Iron Man 3 but because of the inclusion of the new Marvel One-Shot: Agent Cater (2013). (Director: Louis D’Esposito, Costume Designer: Timothy A. Wonsik.)

Agent Carter

The idea of a new “adventure” with Hayley Atwell dressed up to the nines in her ’40s garb again fills me with great joy. To celebrate the release of the short I thought I’d add to my costume interpretation segment that began with the ’20s with a look at interpretations of ’40s costumes.

The films I’m looking at have all been made since 2000 but take very different looks/inspirations for the ’40s.

The Aviator (2004)

Director: Martin Scorsese

Costume Designer: Sandy Powell

Best Costume Design

The Aviator

The Aviator wearing a traditional aviator jacket.

The Aviator is the first in a series of biopic films set during the ’40s (or at least partly). Films based on real people can sometimes flit between faithful to the stage of recreating clothing or representing that person’s spirit. In the Sandy Powell talk that I attended a few months ago I made reference to her discussions about dressing “real people” and the overriding detail?

It’s not a documentary, we’re not setting out to make a documentary.

Costume is about character and it is more important that you believe in this character than that you see them wearing something that you saw them wearing in photographs.

The Aviator

The lapel widths on this double-breasted suit showing Hughes’ wealth due to the amount of fabric used. Post-war years and all.

Don’t forget that the big costume “issue” for The Aviator was the colour process used: the three-colour Technicolor palette. This drastically affected the colours of the costumes seen. The whole texture of the film changed but the colours and shapes of the ’40s fit perfectly in the view of ’40s Hollywood. This is the key to the world being created – big personalities living in a big glamorous era.

The Aviator

Here we have Ava Gardner with the “traditional” ’40s silhouette – shoulder pads, cuff decoration and draping to emphasise the waist. The key with this costume is the colour. The red dress pulls in the red nails and essential red lipstick.

The Aviator

More pronounced shoulder pads, sharp lines, a big hat and more red lipstick. Gardner at her siren best.

The Aviator

The widely used still for the film. Another example of wide lapels on a double-breasted jacket.

The Notebook (2004)

Director: Nick Cassavetes

Costume Designer: Karyn Wagner

The Notebook

The Notebook is a very different film to that of The Aviator – this is a film told based on reminiscences. The story “exists” through slightly rose-tinted glasses. But that’s not to say that the costumes don’t have historical basis in the ’40s.

Wagner on Ryan Gosling’s Noah:

He probably gets his clothes from the general store in town

We’re already a world away from Howard Hughes.

The Notebook

The key to all of these costumes is the wealth separating the couple. Wealth and colours. Brightness, patterns and colours, particularly red, surround Allie whereas darker and plainer colours dress Noah.

The Notebook

Highly co-ordinated period style bikini matched against an undershirt and flat cap. The difference in wealth can be understood instantly.

The costumes in the film are much more small town wealth than high glamour. Allie’s clothes may be custom-made but they wouldn’t compare to Gardner’s costumes in The Aviator. This is more down-to-earth everyday wealth.

The Notebook

Here we can see Allie’s extended collar on her shirtdress – a very popular shape for Allie in this film. We have the silhouette of the era but in softer lightweight cottons and much more approachable than the fabrics worn by Gardner.

The Notebook

Another shirtdress, more red, the popular ’40s yoke that help to emphasise the shoulders without the strong use of shoulder pads.

The Black Dahlia (2006)

Director: Brian de Palma

Costume Designer: Jenny Beavan (Read about the talk I attended with Beavan here.)

The Black Dahlia

Elizabeth “The Black Dahlia” Short seen in black and white flashbacks to highlight her pale skin and dark hair. A black silk shirt compounding that image.

Another interpretation of the ’40s – this time to simulate the hard-boiled film noirs of the period like The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon. This film is all about the darkness of a murder investigation and its impact on the policemen involved.

The Black Dahlia

Dark, weather-worn suits. These clothes have seen a lot of use and will continue to see a lot of use. There is no wealth here – this is a uniform of a sort. The key differences are the darker tones Bucky wears compared to Lee. Lee is the “older brother” figure – the three-piece suit adding maturity and the lighter colours contrasting the unhappiness of Bucky’s tones.

The Black Dahlia

The Black Dahlia

At a first glance you may think Johansson is the femme fatale here. Don’t let the red lipstick fool you – this is the ’40s after all. Kay is as much a victim of the story as Bucky, Lee and Elizabeth. She is glamorous but is costumed in soft fabrics and pale colours. The above still is from the boxing match. The veil and large fur are her protection against seeing Lee hurt.

The Black Dahlia

Ramona exudes wealth and influence at all times. And must seem distant from Madeleine. She has the mature traditional ’40s silhouette – the extreme shoulder pads and cinched waist. But her colours are soft and muted. For the most part. The importance is when those colours change.

The Black Dahlia

The femme fatale of the piece. Every noir needs one and here she is. The doppelgänger of The Black Dahlia. The complex character who belongs in Ramona’s world but wants to exist in the debauchery that Elizabeth found herself trapped in. The dissatisfied “poor little rich girl”. Fulfilling herself by “slumming it” with the police. Her character of the moment shown clearly through her costumes.

The Edge of Love (2008)

Director: John Maybury

Costume Designer: April Ferry

The Edge of Love

Another biopic of sorts but The Edge of Love takes the glamour of the ’40s completely away. This is a film about people surviving during the shortages of WWII. This is a film about make do and mend. In Wales. Yes, there’s much more “wealth” here than would’ve been true but put this film against The Aviator and you have two very different interpretations of the ’40s. For a film using poetic license for a story about an iconic poet it seems appropriate that this poetic license spread through the whole film.

The Edge of Love

We start with performance wear – deceptive Hawaiian setting in an underground shelter. This is the Hollywood glamour section of the film. This is Vera’s own costume. Her escape. Our first view of Vera is here and this is a much different Vera than we see throughout the rest of the film.

The Edge of Love

The red coat working perfectly to contrast against the khaki of the soldier’s uniforms. The mix of textures showing character and the nature of this world – loose of structure and full coordination. The kind of costume that wouldn’t fit in any of the other ’40s films. Instantly Caitlin is set up as a contrast to Vera – the epitome of ‘the girl-next-door’.

The Edge of Love

More ’40s structure with more patterns. Checked tweed being a big aspect of this film – belonging to another era. Another time. The red dress has similarities with Allie’s but with fewer detailing and possibly a heavier weight fabric.

The Edge of Love

The knitwear that overtook Wales. If there was anything to remember from The Edge of Love it would be knitwear – worn by all. The film is full of layers with heavy socks worn with wellies (appropriate for the country) and various knitwear over tea dresses. The tea dresses giving that eternal ’40s feel but the knitwear being weather and location appropriate.

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

Director: Joe Johnston

Costume Designer: Anna B. Sheppard

Captain America

I couldn’t not include Captain America after my introduction to this post. This is the only film listed here to have the majority take place within the confines of WWII – from the perspective of soldiers. Yes, the soldiers we see are are put of the Strategic Scientific Reserve with a super soldier on the hunt for an evil Nazi. So although the story is not exactly rooted in historic accuracy that doesn’t stop the costumes from fitting with the ’40s WWII aesthetic.

Captain America

We’ve got the traditional ’40s trench coat and Peggy with her war uniform – more detail about that here.

Captain America

Now we have more soldiers but, more importantly, another aviator jacket. Compare this to Hughes’ in The Aviator and you see a similar structure and practicality just that thus one has survived a battle. The leather is protection and is the best material for use, especially during the war.

Captain America

More army uniforms. The structure between male and female uniforms are very similar at first glance. These are intended as practical uniforms. Uniforms to remove too much individuality.

Captain America

Whereas individuality is what Stark is all about. Having started this post with Howard Hughes it seems apt to end on Howard Stark. The influence in the origin of the character is widely known and Sheppard even references Hughes’ influence on Stark’s costumes. When you think about the costumes in Captain America you tend to think about Captain America’s suit but the key interests and depths are within the other characters – particularly in a film so concerned with the war effort and ultimately uniforms.

S x