Contemporary Costume: Where Have the Aloha Shirts Gone?

While science-fiction and period costume can sell to collectors at auction for tens of thousands of dollars, the future of contemporary costume from the contemporary drama, comedy and thriller genres is unclear. Costumes from films set in the modern age are not valued as highly. Sourced from costume houses, high-street stores, and even actor’s own wardrobes, these pieces could be lost for good for future generations of collectors and fans if current mentality doesn’t change.

Contemporary costume, even from popular movies, is surprisingly hard to trace. What has happened to George Clooney’s Aloha shirts from The Descendants? The film’s costume designer Wendy Chuck isn’t sure. “I have no idea where his shirts went, probably into the stock at Fox costume house,” she guesses. And Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s iconic jacket worn as social armour in Brick? Another uncertain costume designer. Michele Posch rented three of the jackets from the Universal Studio’s costume department in order to distress a couple for different moments in the film. Their current whereabouts are uncertain. “The jackets were returned but I have looked recently and they seem to be gone,” Michele explains. “Could be someone has rented them for another project or that they were lost at some point.” Another piece of collectable costume (or three) goes missing.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Brendan Frye in Brick (2005) wearing his much coveted fleecy lined jacket, which may now be lost forever.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Brendan Frye in Brick (2005) wearing his much coveted fleecy lined jacket, which may now be lost forever.

Costume houses often hold on to valuable items, yet they keep more period costume and science fiction or fantasy pieces. Angels the Costumiers, from which three out of five nominees for the Academy Award for Best Costume Design at the Oscars were sourced this year, has a ‘star collection’ which valuable costumes are kept in. Jeremy Angel, creative manager for the company, describes the star collection as, “all the pieces we’ve had that were iconic film pieces or recognisable costume worn by famous actors”. Although these are mostly period, including pieces from the last twenty years such as Shakespeare in Love, there are some contemporary costumes in the principal room of the warehouse. Jeremy explains that, “a lot of the stuff in there is designer and brand new things from the past five years, and probably the last ten years.” This shows that contemporary designer clothes on film are valuable, but the everyday less so. Things aren’t looking good for the Aloha shirts. “We do have sections of modern clothing but what you do notice more and more now is if you’re going to have a film based in the modern period, they won’t hire those costumes they will go out and buy.” The low cost of high street stores is obviously a draw to costume designers on tight budgets, but it’s also part of the reason why these clothes aren’t as collectable. They are not exclusive enough.

Costume collecting has boomed with internet shopping. Auction websites such as eBay allow everyone to see, and purchase, items that previously would have only been available from quietly publicised auctions. However, the market is still specialised. Fantasy and science fiction costume cannot simply be bought off the shelf; pieces are made from scratch by costume designers more often than contemporary costume, some of which can be picked up off the high street.

Angels the Costumiers in London. Although Angels do house contemporary costume, their stock in trade is period and fantasy costume.
Angels the Costumiers in London. Although Angels do house contemporary costume, their stock in trade is period and fantasy costume.

Of course for those keen collectors there are some pieces available. Bruce Willis’s poncho from Unbreakable is currently for sale on Movie Prop Warehouse, and Jennifer Lawrence’s sports bra and top from Silver Linings Playbook recently sold for $3,175 from a Nate D. Sanders auction. But these by no means match the vast quantity of costume and props sold from science fiction, fantasy, horror, old Hollywood and period drama films every year to collectors and fans.

Stephen Lane is founder of online site The Prop Store, which sells movie props and costume for collectors. He believes that the reason people choose science fiction over contemporary film is because the science-fiction pieces are more recognisable and individual. “Those sort of genre pieces are what people generally hone in on,” he explains. “It’s material that is bespoke for a production, tailor made for the film, so a lot of times it will have its own language and you will be able to identify with that and clearly see that asset on screen. The people who want to collect the actual garments that are used in the films want it to be rare and not something that everybody can get a copy of. That’s why people collect original material in the first place.” There is no chance of mistaking custom designs when they are otherworldly; however, this doesn’t diminish their value, nor their significance in the history of the craft. The designer’s attempt to keep contemporary costume naturalistic can also work against its value. Matt Price, costume designer for British social realist drama The Selfish Giant believes that, “if people don’t notice the clothes, that’s when you feel like you’ve done quite a good job.” Sadly, if it’s not noticed, it’s not collected.

Jennifer Lawrence’s sports bra ensemble from Silver Linings Playbook, which recently sold at auction for $3,175, demonstrating there is a market for contemporary costume, even if it has to be essentially a famous actress’ underwear to sell.
Jennifer Lawrence’s sports bra ensemble from Silver Linings Playbook, which recently sold at auction for $3,175, demonstrating there is a market for contemporary costume, even if it has to be essentially a famous actress’ underwear to sell.

As well as the unknown origin of contemporary costume, films that feature modern pieces are rarely considered come awards season. Creative manager Jeremy Angel is also a BAFTA member and he continues: “I think there is an aspect that when the films get nominated for costume design, they don’t realise how difficult it is to design a modern piece as it is to design a period piece because they think, “it’s so easy”, and that mentality is probably why you don’t get as many pieces from the modern era.”

The easier access and less identifiability of contemporary costume in modern film reduce its value as a collectors’ item. Surely we want to look back on costume we are seeing currently on screen. Without the demand for contemporary pieces now, will we be able to save them from getting lost in costume warehouses clear outs and charity shops? Save the Aloha shirts; they’re a costume worth keeping.

By Pippa Day

Pippa has written about film for Little White Lies, the Guardian and Alternate Takes. She has a specific interest in contemporary costume in independent film and serial drama and the future of costume collection.

© 2014, Lord Christopher Laverty.