Dressed to Serve: Costume in The Grand Budapest Hotel

SPOILERS

From a costume point of view, and therefore a character point of view, The Grand Budapest Hotel (directed by Wes Anderson) is all about uniforms; those worn by men and women in official capacities and those adopted as a life uniform by those trapped in the past. Eccentric La Belle Époque hangover Madame D (Tilda Swinton) is the latter, Moustafa Zero (Tony Revolori), a newly appointed lobby boy in the pinnacle of majestic 1930s hotels, The Grand Budapest, is the former. While Madame D goes nowhere, perhaps because she has already been everywhere, Zero undertakes a journey and evolution of character, which subsequently means his clothing does too. In the grand scheme of Zero’s life it is not a significant costume evolution, but one that bears a mark so significant he chooses never to remove it.

The term lobby boy is not one you will hear much of these days. Lobby attendant possibly, which can apply to several sectors of the service industry from offices to cinemas, theatres to hotels. The term bellhop is pretty much interchangeable with lobby attendant. Their duties are similar, if not identical: help guests, keep the lobby area shipshape, carry luggage, provide local information on taxis, restaurants etc – essentially assist someone staying at their hotel with whatever they require. At The Grand Budapest Hotel, Zero acts as apprentice concierge to Gustave (Ralph Fiennes). Both their uniforms are outwardly distinctive from each other, but each follow pre-WWII rules of formal dress. Zero’s uniform is more directly inspired by military costume, specifically a drummer boy’s hat with ‘Lobby Boy’ stitched on the front, and shiny gold buttons to add an air of prestige. This ensemble still exists for bellhops now, if you can afford to stay in a hotel that takes this kind of grandeur seriously.

Ralph Fiennes as Gustave. Notice the Society of the Crossed Keys badge on his lapels.
Ralph Fiennes as M. Gustave. Notice the Society of the Crossed Keys badge on his lapels.

When Zero and Gustave are together they dress comparatively alike, it’s only as they separated by Gustave’s stay in prison, and later his new life as proprietor/guest of The Grand Budapest Hotel that are they deliberately contrasting. They are aligned together as surrogate father and son, with Zero dressing like all young men did in the thirties, akin to a younger version of his ‘father’. Zero looks up to Gustave and Gustave simultaneously chastises and praises him – just like a real parent. While Zero’s bellhop uniform is an apprentice version of Gustave’s concierge attire they wear amusingly similar ill-fitting and OTT prison escapee disguises. You see Zero and you see Gustave; in fact there is one thing that separates them at this stage – the emblem of The Society of the Crossed Keys.

The secretive and exclusive Society of the Crossed Keys is a clique of concierges in high-class hotels that assist each other like an international network of friendly spies. If this sounds far-fetched, consider that a real life Society of Golden Keys still exists today, having orientated from Paris’ Les Cliffs D’or hotel in 1929. Their insignia of two crossed golden keys is the same as that used in The Grand Budapest Hotel – it’s the first time the society has endorsed the recreation of their insignia for a film. All member concierges wear their golden key badges as lapel pins. Zero finally gets his own badges when he becomes concierge of the Grand Budapest. Having proven his worth he is welcomed into the club leaving Gustave to drink champagne and frolic with the geriatric lady guests. However earlier in the story Gustave actually gives a golden keys pendant to Zero’s love Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), bestowing her a great honour, presumably for resourcefulness, that Zero has yet to earn. As a retired widower, Zero keeps this pendant for a keepsake of Agatha, even though he has removed his own lapel badges.

Saoirse Ronan as Agatha wearing the Crossed Keys pendant given to her by Gustave.
Tony Revolori as Moustafa Zero and Saoirse Ronan as Agatha wearing the Crossed Keys pendant given to her by Gustave.

Costume designer for The Grand Budapest Hotel is Milena Canonero, possibly one of the most celebrated of her craft. She has won three Oscars and garnered eight nominations, not that such an honour means much with the Academy’s constant misunderstanding of what costume is intended to achieve. Ms Canonero does not need anyone to tell her how accomplished she is, just a sample of her CV expresses that far more succinctly: A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon, Chariots of Fire, Marie Antoinette, several elaborate operas and even 1980s TV series Miami-Vice. Incidentally that last entry has a stronger connection to The Grand Budapest Hotel than you might think. Just look at the use of colour in both, the balance of shades and textures, dark and light, soft and hard – it may be comparing pink t-shirts and espadrilles to royal purple tailcoats and patent dress shoes but the concept remains the same; she brings a director’s vision to life as they wish it to be interpreted. Reality is secondary to the art.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is released on DVD and Blu-ray on 7th July.

© 2014, Lord Christopher Laverty.