The case study of costume design in the Hollywood musical, Funny Face (1956)

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‘If clothes make man, then costumes certainly make actors and actresses. I have much for which to thank the talented men and women on whom I have always been able to rely’. (Audrey Hepburn)

The images of Audrey Hepburn as Jo Stockton in the fashion show musical, Funny Face, are still remembered by many movie and musical fans. Her elegant style and the spectacular costumes made by Hubert de Givenchy started a fashion trend in the Hollywood glamour age; and even now, her particular fashion style of black tight-fitting sweater and pant with white socks and black loafers in the scene of ‘Empathicalist’s Dance’ still inspired many fashion designers and stylish women.

It is impossible to estimate how a film star through the use of costumes and accessories can provoke millions imitations and create a trend. However, there is no question that with the medium of cinema, fashion becomes more influential; and with the cooperative works of a couturier, Givenchy, a costume designer, Edith Head, and a star with her own image, Audrey Hepburn, the fashion show musical, Funny Face, is so impressive in fashion and artistically integrated.

I conclude Funny Face as a fashion show musical, because the fashion shows that exhibit Hepburn’s Paris couture and the particular fifties style of women’s dresses are essential to the storyline. However, in several musical numbers, such as ‘Empathicalist’s Dance’, fashion is used just to support the song and dance. Thus, in this essay, I will argue there is a difference between using song and dance as accessory to the film that mainly celebrates the exhibition of women’s fashion, and using fashion as a backdrop for song and dance numbers. I will look at the visual style of the fashion show and musical numbers in Funny Face, and its relation to fashion style in the fifties, Hepburn’s self image, French couturier and the role of costumes within the musical. Also, I will examine how the costumes in Funny Face affect audience and women’s fashion desire from the sociological perspective.

Visual style

The story of Funny Face was inspired by Richard Avedon, one of America’s most famous fashion photographers who had trained one of his models and married her. In the movie, the fashion editor of Quality magazine, Maggie, looks for a new and different face to promote as Quality woman, and to model in the new collection of a famous French designer. Her reliable photographer played by Fred Astaire persuades her to use Jo Stockton who works as a clerk in a musty secondhand bookshop. They finally go to Paris and have the fashion show and fashion photograph done. In the end, Jo and photographer fall in love with each other, and all the problems are resolved for a happy ending.

It is very clear that the main theme of this movie is fashion. The contemporary costumes in the fifties are featured in the movie, and the fashionable women’s costumes are presented as the main subject in some musical numbers. The main title, the musical number of ‘Think Pink’, the scenes of Take The Picture and Paul Duval’s Collection are all vehicles for the fifties fashion and spectacular costumes.

In the main title, the subject of the movie, fashion, is conveyed to the audience through a series images of petite and well-figured female models with contemporary costumes of the fifties. There are fashion accessories, such as a diamonds necklace, a pair of pump high heel shoes with ribbons, a white lady’s hat with huge brim, and lady’s fan made by black feathers. There are well made-up models who wear white gowns, grey time-clock tweeds, furs, minks, orange and white picnic costumes, dark red jumbo T-shirts with white spots, and red and white striped casual wears in the formats of films and glossy magazine papers. Those images are significant in the opening scene, and lead the audience to the following scene of Quality magazine’s office where the ideal fashion style is created.

Fashion as the main issue of the movie is also vividly shown in the musical number of ‘Think Pink’, and the costumes totally stand out from the song and dance, and celebrate women’s fashion by showing pink clothes ranging from children’s dresses to women’s gowns. This suggests that this musical number is created to celebrate pink costumes that are set as a fashion trend by Quality magazine; we can thus assume that song and dance add an aspect of entertainment to this scene.

However, in the musical numbers of ‘Empathicalist’s Dance’ and ‘Let’s kiss and Make Up’, costumes only play the supportive role. It is well known that Hepburn has her own principle of costume style on the screen and off the screen, and although the costume of black turtlenecked sweater, back narrow pant and a pair of flats is recognised as her off-screen uniform which she also wears in the musical number of ‘Bonjour, Paris!’, she refused to perform with white socks on in ‘Emphathicalist’s Dance’, and protested that ‘the stockings would break the continuous all-black line that made legs look longer’ (Patricia L. Fox, 1995, p118). But the director Stanley Donen insisted that she wear white socks, in order to allow the movements of her legs to stand out from the dark background while with the black costume she fades into that gloomy scene setting.

Another example of costume as an accessory to the musical number is Fred Astaire’s ivory-white wind coat in ‘Let’s Kiss and Make Up’. ‘Costumes are obvious indicators of occupation’ (J. Michael Gillette, 1997, p392), and Astaire is a reputable fashion photographer. So his clothes must be fashionable and artistic enough to let audience recognise his job and social status. From this analysis of occupation, the costume designer, Edith Head, makes a milky-white wind coat with a red Burberrys’-like patterned collar decoration which can be seen closely while Astaire is sitting on the handrail at the balcony.

The wind coat is so fashionable and special that the collar decoration actually matches the red velvet inner coat with Burberrys’-like patterns. The coat is stylish and well designed, but it turns into a prop for a dancer in the performance. Astaire reverses the coat into red inner side, and swings it in the air and drags it on the floor like a bullfighter. From this very moment, costume is not just a fashion; it becomes a part of the performance, and an accessory to integrates the dance number.

On the other hand, it is no doubt that Funny Face is a movie about fashion because this film production incorporates French couture, Givenchy, as an essential part of it, and shows the glamour of French high fashion. The scenes of Take The Pictures and Paul Duval’s Collection are just like Givenchy’s non-stopping fashion shows. Every costume Hepburn wears after transforming into a sophisticated lady in Paris has Givenchy’s particular styles, such as heavy silky gowns, trapeless satins, pipe-shape suites with square neckline, slim-waist dresses, wrappings and delicate cup-like hats.

It was Givenchy’s French couture that brought Hepburn an ‘Audrey Hepburn Look’, and attracted audience to come and see the film. According to Hepburn’s personal view,

‘His [Givenchy] marvellously sure sense of colour put life on the screen. His red coats, apple-green costumes, or the dress in shocking pink have never been forgotten by cinemagoers, nor has the delicate lace creation I wore when I sailed down the river with Fred Astaire in Funny Face. And the hats! They always made the face appear in close-ups like a wonderfully framed picture…Givenchy’s outfits gave me “protection” against strange situations and people, because I felt so good in them. In a certain way one can say that Hubert de Givenchy has “created” me over the years’ (Prestel, Verlag, Munich, 1990, p10).

The relationship between Givenchy and Hepburn is auite important. Givenchy gives Hepburn a flawless public look by creating spectacular costumes that emphasize her slenderness, and in return Hepburn contributes her elegance and her artistic accomplishment to the costumes Givenchy designs for her. If Givenchy had not been so faithful to Hepburn, she would not have been so faithful to her style nor so sure about her taste, and Funny Face would not have been so fashionably attractive.

While Givenchy was given the opportunity to create all the spectacular costumes, it was Edith Head who made the Cinderella clothes for Hepburn and all the other costumes for the entire musical film. Hepburn’s costume before she turns into a model for Paul Duval is designed into a set of a dark grey woollen vest and a brown woollen skirt, which portraits her as a bookworm in the beginning of the movie. But there are still Hepburn’s styles in it, such as the pipe-shape line of the costume, and a pair of loafers. Moreover, Hepburn’s particular style – a scarf folded in the triangular form and tied under the chin appears in the musical number of ‘On How To Be Lovely’. Probably Hepburn discussed the image of the costumes with Head before the costume construction, because she was very concerned about her public image, and because of the previous working experience with Head in Roman Holiday (1953), in which ‘together Head and Hepburn took advantage of her lithe dancer’s body. The star took to actually sketching costumes on “little Audrey” to show the designer what she wanted’ (Patricia L. Fox, 1995, p112).

For the female staffs of Quality magazine, Head also designs elegant fifties lady’s suits in numerous vivid colours with narrow skirts, tight-waist jackets, delicate hats and pump high heel shoes, which look like the fashion in the fifties women’s fashion magazine. But for Maggie, the editor of the magazine, Head uses more classic colours, such as black, white, grey, dark red and beige to suit her age and her superior occupational position in the magazine company.

However, for the empathicalists, costumes are designed in the funky styles, and are created to wear untidily, such as men’s suite jacket with jeans, black and white striped T-shirt with traditional gentlemen’s vest, and suite with shirt with button unfastened, to indicate their philosophical images and free-and-easy lifestyle. Besides, Head wisely picks bright costumes for the empathical dancers in the musical number of ‘Empathicalist’s Dance’ to make a contrast with Hepburn who wears all black, and to make dancers stand out from the dark background.

In addition to analysing the characters of the film, and listening to star’s costume requirement, a costume designer has to think about the budget and the balance of the scene settings. According to an interview with Head, she describes her working methods as follows,

‘The budget has to be very carefully fixed. I start on the design when the script is ready. Only then can I draw up a dress plot, a score which shows what figure will appear in which scene, at what time of the year, how often and with whom. The most important thing at this stage is to master the script…it contains data on weather conditions, the social and financial status of the individual characters, their personalities, and so on. These studies are the basis for conversations with the director, the producer, and the cast. I always talk to the cast first, ask them how they see their part and how the character should in their view be dressed. Then I speak to the art director, to make sure I do not design a lilac dressing gown for a lilac bedroom; similarly, I talk both to the set and the lighting designers. The effect of a costume very largely depends on their work’

And of course, being a costume designer for a musical film about fashion, Head has to research the contemporary fifties fashion trend, to understand the musical numbers the film features, and to arrange and balance the costumes she creates with Givenchy’s couture in the settings. Thus, it is very clear that there is a difference between a couturier and a costume designer. The couturier, Givenchy, creates an ideal image based on his aesthetic ideas and the model of his choice, such as Audrey Hepburn whose body and image fit to his ideas. Because of his fame, his French couture makes fashion as the main attraction of the film. On the other hand, Head works with a script, and serves the characters in the roles and the personalities they represent in the film. That is why her costumes is so successful in dealing with the contemporary women’s fashion of the fifties, and in assisting the perfection of dance and singing musical numbers.

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