The Roaring '20s are back in fashion — on the runways and on-screen.
It started in September at the spring 2012 fashion shows, with Ralph Lauren's "Great Gatsby" gowns, Tory Burch's sportswear inspired by Coco Chanel and 1920s Deauville, and Frida Giannini's Art Deco black-and-gold fringed flapper dresses at Gucci.
Those clothes won't be in stores for another month or so, and Baz Luhrmann's film adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's Jazz Age novel "The Great Gatsby," sure to be a costume extravaganza, isn't due out until next Christmas.
But the trend has already hit Hollywood, with the films "Hugo" and "The Artist," both of which are set in the late 1920s to early 1930s.
So why is that time period resonating in 2011?
Sandy Powell, the costume designer for "Hugo," cites the popularity of HBO's "Boardwalk Empire," which is set in 1920. "It's been pretty influential," she says. "It's funny how these things turn around and suddenly a certain look becomes fashionable and it's in every film. It's bizarre. It's the zeitgeist."
When it comes to retro fashion, the 1920s look is "simple and sexy and romantic at the same time," says Mark Bridges, costume designer for the silent film "The Artist." "It's easy to wear but exclusive in that you need to be slim. And because the shapes are so simple, they are a blank slate for embellishment. It covers all the bases one wants for a successful fashion moment."
The 1920s were the beginning of the modern age in fashion, when women ditched their corsets, cut their hair and started wearing shorter, body-conscious dresses and skirts that allowed them the freedom to kick up their heels. It's also when women started to turn to Hollywood for fashion cues.
Whereas "The Artist" is about Hollywood glamour, "Hugo" is about the everyday glamour of ordinary people. The film, based on Brian Selznick's 2007 book "The Invention of Hugo Cabret," tells the story of an orphan boy named Hugo (Asa Butterfield) living in a Paris train station, who unlocks the mystery of an abandoned automaton and discovers a forgotten filmmaker. His tale is intertwined with the stories of the everyday visitors to the train station — the florist, cafe owner, cafe patrons, bookseller and station manager.
"[Hugo] was set in 1931, but it really has the look and feel of Paris in the late 1920s," says Powell, who scoured the Paris flea markets for inspiration pieces, such as an Art Deco-style evening gown that was remade into the striking rose-colored dress worn by Hugo's friend Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz) in the final scene.
Director Martin Scorsese "also had 'The Lavender Hill Mob' screened for me — the old 1951 Ealing comedy with Alec Guinness — and that was really about the level of stylization within the costumes for each of the characters," she says. "Because, although this is about real people in real-life situations, everything is sort of seen through the eyes of a child, so you have to heighten it a little bit. Even the views of Paris are a little bit storybook, so I tried to do that with the costumes."
This was Powell's first 3-D film, and she found the medium enhanced her work. "You have to be careful that there's no loose thread hanging — off a button or a cuff for example — or it's going to look like a rope. And you need to be careful about woolly textures and the way wool goes a bit nubbly or furry. In 3-D, it can look hairy. But in general, 3-D makes things a lot more beautiful — especially textures and patterns like a tweed, which filmed normally, would disappear completely."
"The Artist" puts '20s fashion on display in black and white, which posed a different set of challenges for costume designer Bridges ("There Will Be Blood," Boogie Nights").
The film takes place in 1927, and centers around silent movie star George Valenti (Jean Dujardin), who must cope with the arrival of talkies, and the possibility of being
replaced by a new generation of talent,
epitomized by young dancer Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo).
"With costumes, you're always trying to tell the story subliminally," says Bridges, who was nominated for a Critic's Choice award for his work on the film. "So in the medium of black and white, we used a lot of textures and high contrast when the characters were at their pinnacle and more monochromatic looks when they were down on their heels. It was all about whether there was enough separation in tone because once it goes to black and white, it's mush. You lose definition."
In an early scene, George is on top of the world — arriving on the studio lot with his car and driver like the movie idol he is, dressed in a perfectly tailored, wool tweed three-piece suit with a jacket that has a half-belt in the back. The look was inspired by a similar scene in the 1928 film "Show People," featuring actor John Gilbert (who suffered a career fate similar to George's with the dawn of the talkies) driving onto the MGM lot. Bridges also drew inspiration from Joan Crawford, Douglas Fairbanks, Fritz Lang's 1928 film "Spies" and F.W. Murnau's 1930 film "City Girl."
Meanwhile, Peppy is fresh off the bus and hoping to make it in Hollywood. The first time we see her, she's wearing a flapper dress and cloche hat that look "medium-value gray" in the film but are actually coral-colored. To help make her stand out from the other Hollywood fans, Bridges put a large bow on the bodice of the dress.
As the story progresses, Peppy's star rises and George's falls. In one pivotal scene (shot at the Bradbury Building in downtown L.A.), they meet on a staircase. She is walking up, and he is going down. After that moment, George's look becomes flatter and grayer, and Peppy's more sophisticated with lots of shine, jewelry and furs.
When Peppy visits George's house in the middle of the night in a rainstorm, she is dressed in a waxed cotton raincoat, copied from a 1920s original. He is in despair, a broken-down man, and she represents the sparkling promise of the future, her flower-lined umbrella in hand. "I wanted Peppy to seem like flowers to George," Bridges says.
Los Angeles proved to be a great resource for Bridges, who found research pieces at several old costume houses, including Western Costume, which celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2012. Most of the looks in the film were reproductions, because the originals could not stand up to filming.
Peppy's beaded dresses were made by L.A.'s LeLuxe Clothing Co., which specializes in 1920s looks for parties and weddings. "I was surfing EBay early on to see what was available and found this great source right in L.A.," Bridges says.
But the most standout costume in the film is the black satin dress Peppy wears while giving an interview to a journalist at a fancy restaurant, with George sitting at another table but within earshot. (The scene was filmed at Cicada restaurant, an Art Deco landmark in downtown L.A.) "That's my favorite," says Bridges, who found the trim — a 45-square-inch panel of gold lamé and black satin brocade — at Mood Fabrics in West L.A. He worked with his cutter to copy a black satin dress from 1920, and used the brocade as a border. "We went back and forth about how to make [the costume] feel like she's putting on airs," he says. "The dress worked perfectly for the moment."
For Bridges, it was important to reflect the passage of time in the film, even if it was just a few years. During the second-to-last scene, when Peppy and George are dancing for the studio head, she wore a copy of a 1930s crepe de chine dress. Bridges added a vintage collar with embroidery that reminded him of the crown design on the Chrysler Building, built in 1930, which became a symbol of the Machine Age. The costume, Bridges explains, "said it all about where we were."