Despite all the hoo-ha over films such as Blue Jasmine and Stoker contemporary is still pretty much overlooked as a form of costume design. If it’s invisible, well, nobody notices it, and if it’s designer it becomes all about ‘the fashion’ (OMG TOTES WANT THOSE SHOES). We are currently in an age when costume design means period and sci-fi. It comes to the extent that if a costumer wants to tell a story through contemporary attire, he/she needs either a director with a key grasp of semiotics, or one that doesn’t care less about semiotics and offers a degree of autonomy. Watching About Time we presume that Richard Curtis is one of the former. Apparently he was specific on his needs to costume designer Verity Hawkes, yet gave her room to breathe and develop the project independently. Basically he let Hawkes do her job. What he received for his faith was a delightfully neat and spot-on recreation of upper middle class London, with some deft print and colour touches thrown in for good measure. About Time is beautifully costumed because it fits its world exactly.
For the record, About Time is two hours of whimsy. It uses time travel as a premise, which obviously makes it a fantasy, though the main thrust of the narrative is between charming Tim (Domhnall Gleeson), a young man with the ability to travel back in time by simply closing his eyes and clenching his fists; and Mary (Rachel McAdams), an equally charming young woman he falls in love with. In a nutshell, that’s it. But this is a Richard Curtis movie so there is also a cast of well-to-do quirky artists and professionals with a heart of gold and a vault of money. Being as the story takes place over 4-5 years, in the strictest sense it is a period piece. However these characters are so ingrained and rigid in their personality, their clothes would change very little. This helps establish a credible and comprehensible timeline.
About Time’s roll call of family and friends are dressed exactly the same and yet uniquely different. Anyone who has travelled within tuning distance of Home Counties Radio, or of course ever watched a Richard Curtis film, will recognise these people immediately. There’s Tim’s dad (Bill Nighy), the man in Clint Eastwood’s slacks; his mum (Lindsay Duncan), who models her clothes on The Queen visiting Balmoral; ‘Kit-Kat’ (Lydia Wilson), Tim’s hippy sister who always has purple on her somewhere (this is even alluded to in Tim’s voiceover); Uncle Desmond (Richard Cordery), who lives with the family and dresses like Lord Ralph Mayhew in The Fast Show; curmudgeonly friend of dad, Harry, a playwright (Tom Hollander), seemingly forever in search of a sofa or beach; and Mary, who looks exactly like the woman every mother would want their son to marry in a tea dress and warm cardy. There’s also a femme-fatale in the classic Jean Harlow mould of Charlotte (Margot Robbie), lots of golden tan and décolletage. We are supposed to hate her, but thanks to this being a Curtis movie, she’s really quite pleasant.
We’ve stated that this is a love story between Tim and Mary, but it’s just as much a love story between Tim and has dad. The two men initially share a similar look of cosy sweaters and plain trousers, though as the years creep by and Tim becomes a father and barrister his style smartens up somewhat in line with new responsibilities. In fact any change in costume during this film is a direct result of circumstance. Kit-Kat has at least some of the colour purple on her, even if it’s just a splash, except for one moment: her dad’s funeral. This either rings true or it doesn’t. Kit-Kat always wears purple and yet the one time she doesn’t it seems obvious for her to do so? Maybe it was a sign of respect for the occasion, though being a free spirit, dad would have loved the thought of his daughter staying true to her personality – plus she does go typically barefoot. Purple has many connotations; mostly it is associated with death or the mystical. Both apply to Kit-Kat. We can tell she is heading for tragedy. Wilson’s acting foreshadows it, as does the consistency of her wardrobe. Kit-Kat is an obsessive and that rarely represents a healthy state of mind. After she gets another shot at life without the destructive influence of her on/off Made in Chelsea boyfriend Jimmy (Tom Hughes), Kit-Kat hooks up with Tim’s best friend Jay (Will Merrick). Immediately he’s seen in a purple sweater to match hers, and later their child wears a purple hat. She is no longer bound by her association to the colour, but chooses to retain it as a facet of her personality.
Mary is one of the film’s great constants. As with most people her deep character evolves, she becomes more confident and adventurous, but outward her characteristics such as dress, make-up, even hairstyle, remain much the same. Like the actress who plays her, Mary loves thrift or reproduction era clothes (at the start of the story she even lives above a vintage shop for goodness sake), and is drawn as the ultra-feminised ideal. She is pretty, but not too pretty, smart but not stuck up, kooky but not mad; basically not challenging but very comfortable. The first outfit she wears is a Paris print tea ‘frock’ which melts Tim with its acute daintiness. In Tim’s second attempt at their meeting, Mary’s dress has doilies stitched on its shoulders. Lace is ultimate feminiser for those conforming to a gender ideal. For Tim’s, Mary is a goddess because she is his perfect embodiment of a liberated woman. Their existence together is ordinary in terms of its conformity to present day gender roles, but this fits the characters. One thing screenwriter Curtis does well is creating individuals that fulfil their dreams without doing anything to jeopardise those around them. They are just bloody nice people.
Mary’s clothes are covetable to anyone even slightly swayed by the charms of vintage. She wears a 1970s Ossie Clark style shirt dress at one point, which McAdams surely must have had a hand in choosing. Mary is not a put-together person, but remains true to her attractive and unthreatening demeanour. Her red wedding dress is interesting because the colour is so unusual. This could denote passion, or even pain, or just that Mary walked into a vintage shop, saw a red 1950s wedding dress, liked it, and bought it. Mary is getting married to the love of her life and the father of her unborn child; what dress she wears is about as important to her as the weather (it pours with rain and she doesn’t care less).
We judge everyone by their attire because it’s the first thing we see. Even those that don’t care less about clothes are making a statement. Fashion is different to style, which is why the two terms hardly ever go hand in hand; the stylish are rarely fashionable and vice-versa because one is not a requirement of the other. About Time’s femme fatale is a woman who understands what looks good on her. If Mary is the feminised ideal, Charlotte is the heterosexual male fantasy. Blonde and deliberately curvaceous thanks to the tight pull and drape of her clothes, she is clearly used to attention from both sexes. Women ogle Charlotte for her classic beauty, men ogle her as a bedroom poster come to life. Charlotte is used to getting her own way, especially around men. When she runs into Tim many years after his initial crush,she is wearing a low-cut sequin top, slim black trousers and cream blazer. Literally and figuratively she wears the trousers in their relationship. At least she thinks so; Tim’s rejection of Charlotte is an air-punch moment for the path of true love. But perhaps more than that we rejoice because the ultimate embodiment of sex and sensuality has got her comeuppance? Poor Charlotte has done nothing wrong in the story whatsoever, not really, and yet she becomes a projection of our own insecurities as men and women. She is punished for being too perfect.
About Time eventually rounds up at the present day with Tim and Mary happily together having seen off bereavement, squabbles, and just the merest hint of infidelity. McAdams wears a green sweater in the film’s final moments, an unusual colour not especially favoured by costume designers. We can read a lot into green, maybe too much; sickness, nature, balance or stigma, though in this context green probably represents growth. Tim and Mary’s family and chums are the most upper middle class of the upper middle class. They however are something of a fresh breed – a new generation that wants to evolve. While we mock their sensible knits and repro vintage, they are living a happy life ignorant of our discrimination. This is why contemporary costume is underrated, because so much has to be achieved with so little. Our interpretation of what we see and how this makes us feel about the characters is crucial.
About Time is currently available on DVD and Blu-ray.
© 2014, Lord Christopher Laverty.