Costume design comes in three main forms: visible (the 1950s, Dior inspired gowns in Anna Karenina for example), invisible (the impeccable yet subtle military uniforms in War Horse) and subtextual – those apparently commonplace costumes that actually possess a hidden meaning, a concept employed most effectively this year in horror satire The Cabin in the Woods.
The film’s costume designer Shawna Trpcic created a subtle reversal for the main characters – five archetypes from horror movie folklore. Think of the teenage victims in Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street or Friday the 13th; they are all variations of the underwear flashing tramp, the bespectacled academic, the jock in his Varsity jacket, the plain shirt wearing innocent girl and the scruffy stoner. The Cabin in the Woods establishes these personalities, stereotypes really, in the first ten minutes, only to change them around completely during the first act. Costume is one of the most ingenious signifiers of this.
The Cabin in the Woods screenwriters Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard put considerable thought into how the costume could and would evolve in the film’s original script. Costume designer Shawna Trpcic then created mood boards to establish she had understood the transitions, followed by sketches and finally shopping for the garments themselves.
The first of the archetypes we meet is Dana, dancing in her knickers in front of an open window and revealed to have recently had an affair with her tutor; obviously she is the tramp or Whore (Kristen Connolly). Then we see her friend Jules in a floral dress and new blonde hair. Jules (Anna Hutchison) is in a stable relationship with boyfriend Curt (Chris Hemsworth); Jules is the innocent girl or Virgin. Curt wears a plain grey t-shirt and is evidently book-smart; he is the geek or Scholar. Curt’s friend Holden (Jesse Williams) arrives catching a football in a blue hooded sweatshirt; clearly the jock or Athlete. And finally pot smoker Marty in a shabby cardigan and shirt; Marty (Fran Kranz) is the stoner or Fool.
All but one of these characters undergoes a costume transition. According to Shawna Trpcic this was absolutely intentional. Even early camera tests were undertaken in full costume to ensure these changes could be noticed and read by an audience. The transition begins at the gas station scene when a few clothing layers are added and The Harbinger oddly refers to Jules not Dana as being the Whore. However the main costume evolution is undertaken later at the cabin; this is where all the teenage characters become the different archetypes they have been moulded into in order to be sacrificed for the sake of humanity.
Outside of the teenage characters, further costume clues can be seen on those who manipulate the ritual sacrifice. During initial celebrations at their success in the Operations Room, one man can be seen wearing a leather vembrace implying he is the dog trainer of the monster world – basically a ‘monster vet’.
Curt is now seen in a green Varsity jacket acting uncharacteristically boorish; he has become the Athlete. Dana is buttoned up in a neat cardigan, sitting quietly; she is the Virgin. Jules is suddenly dancing around in tiny denim shorts and an open top; she is the Whore. Upon entering the cellar Holden puts on a pair of spectacles thus becoming the Scholar. And finally Marty, the Fool, whose appearance does not change because, thanks to all the pot he smokes he is immune to the mind altering drug that affects his friends.
Each character is in place as the stereotypical American slasher movie victim. Their seemingly ordinary clothes are not coincidence but clues. Costume notes abound in this film for all the teenage protagonists, even Marty whose lack of a change is a clue in itself. Also note The Director’s, who wears long black gloves to imply a physical and emotional detachment from the ritual sacrifice that she must perform. For aficionados of the horror genre this is contemporary costume design at its most readable. A jacket is never just a jacket; it is always there for a reason.
With thanks to Shawna Trpcic.
This article is an updated transcript taken from Clothes on Film editor Chris Laverty’s segment on BBC Radio 4’s The Film Programme discussing the subtextual costume design of The Cabin in the Woods. The BBC audio version can be streamed or the podcast downloaded HERE (the segment is about 25 minutes in). Worth a listen if you like English accents..
© 2012 – 2014, Lord Christopher Laverty.