Costumes are fundamental to any film, but they are particularly important in adaptations of literature, an aspect that is often forgotten amid changes to plot and character. Costumes help bring characters to life on screen, and they are fantastic visual tools for telling us just who these characters are.
The recent Netflix adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s classic 1938 novel ‘Rebecca’, subverts the infamous flouncy, white dress that Mrs de Winter wears to the costume ball in the text, reimagining it into a crimson velvet gown. Through costume, the new, less-submissive interpretation of the character comes to life on screen.
When Greta Gerwig’s ‘Little Women’ won its Oscar for costume design, it was met with frustration, with many deeming the film unworthy of the award. Yet this sentiment ignores the way that costumes, especially in recent period dramas, can be used to elevate the substance of the work. The costumes that Jo wears are distinctly different to the ones that Meg wears, and this small choice subtly says much about who these women are: their desires, their views, their dreams. Meg’s aspiration to be a ‘proper’ lady sees her wearing a corset and hoop, whereas Jo’s performative and practical frocks perfectly capture her resistance to the social norms imposed on women.
‘The Great Gatsby’ wouldn’t be ‘The Great Gatsby’ without the lavish costumes worn by Daisy Buchanan and Jay Gatsby. The 2013 adaptation, although not strictly historically accurate in its depiction of 1920s style, uses costumes to say a lot about its characters. Gatsby’s pink, pin-striped suit, in its cultural context, is all about showiness, and works to reveal the truth about Gatsby’s beginnings. The darker colour palette reserved for Tom is restrained and understated. The contrast between the costumes is used to represent the contrast between old and new money, and makes for a striking visual effect on screen.
Like plots, narratives and themes, costume is just as pivotal when adapting an iconic piece of literature.