University of Applied Arts, Vienna

The same dress - another character.
Costume as a self-referential device in movies

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"The Same Dress - Another Character. Costume as a Self-Referential Device in Movies".
In: Tasca, Norma (ed.) (1995). Ensaios em homagem a / Essays in Honor of Thomas A. Sebeok(= Cruzeiro Semiotico22-25), pp. 225-232

Since the early days of cinema there are self-referential movies, movies that refer to (certain aspects of) cinema - either on the level of the story or on the level of the discourse. Refering to cinema on the story level can be easily recognized: the movies tell us stories about their own world - about filmmaking (we watch the preparation or the shooting of a movie, sometimes one that really exists), about (fictitious or real) stars, about the events at a film festival, or about going to the movie theater, in other words, the referent can include all items listed under production and consumption in Figure 1 and some of those connected to distribution and product. Discursive self-referentiality, on the other hand, is slightly more complicated since both the referent and the act of refering can coincide in one element of filmic expression - the elements of the filmic codes (in a wider sense, including profilmic signs), such as composition of a shot; camera perspective or camera angle; montage (a particular "style", or fade-in/fade-out, dissolve or iris); color; speed; titles or sub titles; decoration; props, dialog, music, and - costume and makeup. For instance using an iris-in at a time when this very element of filmic expression in no longer used (as done in Godard's A bout de souffle in 1959), is a reference to a certain period of film history with its particular aesthetic techniques, and a reference to cinematographic codes as such.

Figure 1

True, alluding to other films through the costume of a character is but one small domain within filmic self-referentiality, nevertheless, costume can be an effective device since looking at people's clothes is a decoding capacity we practice everyday. Compared to research on intertextuality within literary studies, the number of publications on similar phenomena in film is still relatively small. And I have not found a single article dealing explicitly with allusion to, or citation of, another film by costume or make-up. Thus, my contribution has to be considered a first attempt to look more closely at the particular use of costume as a means of reference. I will present a commented collection of examples and some observations concerning the functions and contexts of the costume quotation. The collection of examples is by far not exhaustive. A few examples are based on scattered clues as to costume in film literature or on published stills, but most of them I found when watching movies. The results of both approaches are purely accidentally, since they depend either on the chance to find remarks on costumes, or on recognizing the costume as one already seen in another context, in other words, on the subjective memory of movies.

Further difficulties arise with the definition of costume quotation and the typology of functions. As to film costume, a quotation in the strict sense will be the exception, since most of the times the costume is not the very same (or not even a precise copy of the original), but only a sufficiently similar one, and thus we have to talk rather of allusion to other films, movie characters, genre-specific codes of costume, etc. Concerning the various functions of costume quotation we can sometimes assign one and the same costume to different use categories.

In order to analyse the examples found, we can start from some questions (as already indicated in Figure 1) with regard to the persons involved, the evoked characters, and possible meanings of a costume quotation:

1.   Is there any relation between the alluding costume and the original costume with regard to the actors/actresses (for instance his or her own dress from an earlier movie), or to other people involved in the production?

2.   Is the source costume connected to only one particular character or to a type of characters? Is the costume specific to a certain genre?

3.   What are the functions of a particular costume within the movie:

  -   The actor/actress has to wear the same or a similar costume in order to match those shown in clips from other films, no matter whether the excerpts are cut-in for economical reasons (stock footage) or as unmarked filmic citations;
  -   the costume allusion can be part of a disguise scene (sometimes with explicit reference to another movie character);
  -   the costume can serve as a parody both of movie characters and of whole genres; and
  -   the costume can be used as an hommage (or at least allusion) to a particular director and his work, a certain film or a genre.

Before discussing the various examples according to patterns of allusion I have to explain several topical restrictions. For obvious reasons I have excluded all bio-pics and movies restaging the shooting of an actually existing film since none of them can do without duplicating the original costumes; I have also excluded short cameo appearances where an actor or an actress might refer to one of his or her characters; and I have not examined whether the costume designs of remakes in the strict sense are to some extent copying the original movie.

One costume - one actor/actress - two movies

What is true for the whole topic of costume quotation, is, necessarily, also true for this particular case: alluding costumes are not limited to certain genres and they are used for very different reasons. The play of reminiscence of movie characters can either concern a genre or a group of films with specific characters, or it can be oriented toward an actor/actress and the parts he or she has previously played. Or it can include both aspects, as it is the case with Yul Brynner in Westworld (USA 1973, Michael Crichton), a sci-fi movie about a high-tech vacation resort in the middle of nowhere which offers four different "worlds" (ancient Rome, the Middle Ages, the Orient, and the Wild West), each one amalgamating more the Hollywood images of these periods and places than pesenting actual historical features. Yul Brynner as one of the robot gunslingers is dressed up just like his Chris character in The Magnificent Seven (USA 1960, John Sturges), from the black shirt to the silver-turquoise belt-buckle. In the specific context of the movie the costume is not merely a reference to one of Brynners previous roles, the Western in general, or the movie-based design of the resort, but, at least partially, an attempt to deal with the character type as such: the robot is one of the first who gets out of control, and, instead of being constantly "killed" in the show-down, starts to kill the guests.

The second example comes from a completely different genre. When on their Road to Utopia (USA 1945, Hal Walker) Bing Crosby and Bob Hope are crossing the frozen waste of Alaska they meet a colleague from previous movies of the Road series: Dorothy Lamour. Looking at her and her garment, they can only state quite astonished that she doesn't belong up here to Alaska, because she is dressed in a sarong. Starting from the 1936 movie The Jungle Princess (William Thiele), this sort of costume became almost her trademark, since she had to wear this garment in several films: The Hurricane (1937, John Ford); Typhoon (1940, Louis King); Aloma of the South Seas (1941) and Beyond the Blue Horizon (1942, both Alfred Santell); Rainbow Island (1944, Ralph Murphy) (for many of these movies, including Road to Utopia, the costumes were designed by Edith Head). A similar parodistic allusion to character and casting stereotypes can be found in a movie which is full of quotations and allusions: Casino Royale (USA/GB 1967, John Huston, Ken Hughes, Val Guest, Robert Parrish, Joe McGrath). When Deborah Kerr has to deliver a secret message to David Niven who plays the James Bond character, she appears dressed as a nun, and this was definitely not her first habit. Although it ressembles the one she was wearing in Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (USA 1957, John Huston), it also refers to her role in Black Narcissus (GB 1946, Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger).

Costume quotation & film quotation

When re-using material from another film, the old and the new costumes have to be sufficiently similar. The reasons why a director quotes another film in the material sense might be different: either for financial reasons to lower production costs, or for aesthetic-dramaturgic reasons.

The first group of using old film material is typical for B-movies (cf. Cross 1981: 20). Instead of spending a lot of money on the shooting of new action scenes with many extras, the directors used stock footage from other movies which had higher budgets. But the secondary exploitation was not limited to prestigious films, it also happened within the same category. SoSpencer Gordon Bennett had the leading actor of the Columbia serial Riding with Buffalo Bill (USA 1954) dressed in the same costume as the main character of the 1940 serial from the same studio, Deadwood Dick (James W. Horne), in order to insert clips almost unnoticed. Sometimes all actors of a B movie were dressed with stock costumes, even without the necessity of matching those from inserted clips, as it was the case with The Black Arrow (aka The Black Arrow Strikes, USA 1948, Gordon Douglas) which was shot on sets left over from the A movie The Swordsman (USA 1948, Joseph H. Lewis), reusing the costumes from Bandit of Sherwood Forest (USA 1946, George Sherman & Henry Levin; cf. Cross 1981: 164)

Both examples for the aesthetic use of costume quotation and film quotation are disguise scenes and both are taken from a movie full of film quotations: Carl Reiner's hommage to the film noir, Dead Men Don't Wear Plaids (USA 1982; the film is, by the way, the last one of the famous Hollywood costume designer Edith Head and dedicated to her). In these two cross-dressing sequences Steve Martin, the privat eye, has to play woman roles "together with" characters from other movies in perfectly matching shot-reaction shot scenes. In the first one, he has to contact a jailed captain, who is nobody else than James Cagney. In order to get in, Martin puts on the dress and the hat originally worn by Margaret Wychery as Cody Jarrett's mother in White Heat (USA 1949, Raoul Walsh). In the second scene he acts as a luring blonde, a part played by Barbara Stanwyck in the first place, who tries to seduce Fred MacMurray in a scene taken from Double Indemnity (USA 1944, Billy Wilder).

And once again: disguise

There are several other examples of evoking film scenes or characters in the mind of the audience via disguise. In Sunset Boulevard (USA 1950, Billy Wilder) Gloria Swanson makes herself up as Charlie Chaplin and impersonates the sad Tramp for William Holden. The already mentioned movie Casino Royale features yet another disguise scene. Peter Sellers, as the new James Bond-to-be, tries several costumes, among others he appears as Toulouse Lautrec walking on his knees, thus refering both to José Ferrer in Moulin Rouge (GB 1952) and to the director John Huston. Finally, when in E.T. The Extraterrestrial (USA 1982, Steven Spielberg) the little creature is taken out by the kids on Halloween, he is very happy to see at least one other extraterrestrial among all the human beings: Yoda, the wise old Jedi from the Star Wars sequel (The Empire Strikes Back, USA 1980). Unfortunately, this is, of course, not the "original" Yoda, but only a child wearig a mask. In this case, the costume functions as a reference to another blockbuster film of the same genre, and, in addition, as Spielberg's reference to the work of his Hollywood friend and colleague George Lucas.

B>Well-known characters - well-known genres

Apart from the garments of individually recognizable movie characters used for allusion, there are certain costumes that are closely connected to specific genres, such as the colorful bathing suits of Esther Williams and her water ballet. In the inquisition sequence of his History of the World Part I (USA 1981) Mel Brooks as Torquemada invents a particular way of torturing the prisoners: he has the nuns sent in. One after the other they open their habits and throw them away, but only to show the tight bathing suits they are wearing underneath, and then they start a perfect swimming routine as we know it from Bathing Beauty (USA 1944, George Sidney) or any other Williams movie. A reference to all kind of bad guys from various genres is made with the costumes of the volunteers hired by the heavy in yet another Brooks movie, Blazing Saddles (USA 1973): there are ferocious Bedouins, Mexican bandits, a gang of rockers, Ku Klux Klan members and Nazi soldiers. And finally, to stay with Mel Brooks, in his last film he refers both in the title and in the title song to an article of clothing specific to all those movies depicting the hero from Sherwood forest and his Merry Men: Robin Hood: Men in Tights (USA 1993).

In order to function already on the visual level, an impersonation of a star, a take off on, or a spoof of, a movie character, whatever it is called, has to draw on essential features of costume, hairstyle, and make-up. In the case of the parodies Carol Burnett presented regularly in her weekly TV show, the design of her appearance was already close to caricatures. Among the woman stars she portrayed in her own way are: Marlene Dietrich (Der blaue Engel; D 1930, Josef von Sternberg), Judy Garland (The Wizard of Oz; USA 1939, Victor Fleming), Lana Turner (here it is not The Postman but The Murderer who Always Rings Twice; USA 1946, Tay Garnett), Gloria Swanson (Sunset Boulevard), Maria Montez, Jeannette MacDonald, and Mae West (cf. the pictures in McConathy & Vreeland 1976: 292-297). Both Marlene Dietrich and Mae West have already been the target of a spoof in the early thirties, when the cute little Shirley Temple started her career with the one-reeler series Baby Burlesks (McConathy & Vreeland 1976: 136).

A sort of hommage to a fellow comedian are the Groucho Marx moustaches Woody Allen has put on both his movie parents in Take the Money and Run (USA 1969). Another famous model is Rudolph Valentino's sheik character (both The Sheik, USA 1921, George Melford, and Son of the Sheik, USA 1926, George Fitzmaurice) whose lookalike reappears in a short sequence of The Last Remake of Beau Geste (USA 1976, Marty Feldman). And, since the scene refers to the cinema of the twenties, he appears not only in the flickering black and white of an old, scratched film copy, but he also "talks" in titles. Valentino is also the central referent of Gene Wilder's The World's Greatest Lover (USA 1977). Wilder plays the role of Rudy Valentine/Valentini, a would-be actor who, in the Hollywood of the twenties, takes part in a screen contest. In one scene he puts on a sheik costume in order to seduce his wife who has a crush on Valentino, and, already in a dream sequence at the beginning, when still working as a pastry cook, he is dressed in a similar costume as Valentino in his famous tango scene from The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (USA 1921, Rex Ingram).

In the case of Spaceballs (USA 1987) we are not dealing with the parody of a single actor or one particular character, but of a series of movies: the Star Wars trilogy (plus many other sci-fi films). Almost all of its prominent characters are included in a somehow transformed way. Brooks himself plays the role of Yoghurt whose appearance is more than reminiscent of Yoda. Chewbacca, the faithful Wookie becomes an equally hairy, tail-wagging "mog" (= half man, half dog) called Barf, and the bad guy, Dark Helmet, is dressed in black like Lord Darth Wader, only that he always tries to raise the visor of his helmet which constantly slams down over his face.

To serve as the origin for costume quotation a movie character need not be connected to a well-known star, only the appearance has to be sufficiently distinctive in order to be recollected. A particularly remarkable costume has the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz whose duplicate sheds tears at the final farewell in the over-all self-referential movie Top Secret! (USA 1983; Jim Abrahams, David und Jerry Zucker). Equally spectacular is the golden body make-up of the dead woman in Goldfinger (GB 1964, Guy Hamilton), and, of course, the Bond spoof Casino Royale takes advantage of it: during the mayhem at the end even two golden ladies enter the scene, but both are still alive.

The final two examples, concerning rather make-up or hair dressing, are, again, connected to famous actors. Who would ever forget Robert Mitchum's sinister preacher and his play with the finger tattoos in The Night of the Hunter (USA 1955, Charles Laughton): on every finger of his hands he has one single letter, together they form the words H A T E and L O V E respectively. Peter Ustinov as the Foreign Legion sergeant in The Last Remake of Beau Geste (UAS 1977, Marty Feldman) outmatches this message with his tattoos, saying HATE and LOATHING. Billy Wilder certainly raised a laugh with the prom scene in The Major and the Minor (USA 1942, Billy Wilder), which is, by the way, not the only allusion to other movies that appears in this film. A sort of epidemic has broken out in the girls' school, one of the cadets of the military school explains to Ginger Rogers. And the next shot reveals the kind of "disease": all the girls sitting in one row, and waiting to be invited to dance, even the elderly principal, have the same blurred vision caused by Veronika Lake's "peekaboo" hairdo.

*     *     *

As shown by the examples, costume quotation can, apart from the camouflage of inserted stock footage, serve various purposes. Self-referentiality is far more than just another post-modernist element. Like all other ways of filmic self-referentiality, it can be used to introduce bits of an additional message that no other filmic means of expression is able to convey. And, like all other ways of filmic self-referentiality, it depends heavily both on the movie knowledge of the viewer and on her or his readiness to share the play and pleasure of allusion with the filmmaker.

By responding positively to filmic self-referentiality we not only receive more of the message encoded by the artists, but, in addition, we experience a different way of viewing films, since, in many cases, self-referentiality has a particular distancing or anti-illusionist quality: we are watching a movie, and, at the same time, we are made aware of watching a movie, thus we gain a surplus of intellectual pleasure.


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McConathy, Dale with Diana Vreeland (1976). Hollywood Costume. - Glamour! Glitter! Romance!. New York: Harry N. Abrams

Metz, Christian (1991). L'énonciation impersonelle, ou le site du film. Paris: Méridiens Klincksieck

Parish, James Robert and Michael R. Pitts with Gregory W. Mank (1978). Hollywood on Hollywood. Metuchen, NJ-London: The Scarecrow Press

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Withalm, Gloria (1993). "Die Felder des intertextuellen/autoreferentiellen Verweises im Film". Semiotische Berichte 17(3,4): 369-392

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Created: 20 August 2000, Last Update 22 September 2003