Perhaps the most mind-churning mainstream film of recent years, Inception is testament to the power of great costume design. Not only does it look sumptuous, thanks to all those 3 pc suits and silk ties, but because of costume designer Jeffrey Kurland and director Christopher Nolan’s commitment to clothing serving an implicit function, Inception is at least partially decipherable by what the characters wear. The screen is filled with costume clues to interpret.
Jeffrey Kurland has been costume designer on thirty seven feature films, including Ocean’s Eleven (2001) and Collateral (2004), though Inception is his first collaboration with Chris Nolan. Here he explains exclusively to Clothes on Film his sartorial choices for the movie and how they integrate with the story. (Click HERE to read the follow up interview).
Clothes on Film, Chris: Was it your intention to give each character a signature look, e.g. Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Arthur in 3pc suits, or Ellen Page’s Ariadne nearly always wearing patterned silk neck scarves?
Jeffrey Kurland: I set out, as I always do, to design all of the costumes for Inception to best serve the emotional and physical needs of each of the characters.
If a signature look for each character emerged, it was not through a pre-designated plan but through the physical development of that character.
The costumes, i.e. the suits, coats, dresses, etc in Inception were all designed by Jeffrey Kurland. They were made to order.
COF: The first time we see Marion Cotillard as Mal she is encircled in an angular upturned collar, somewhat like a wicked witch. What was the purpose behind her look and how did it evolve throughout the story?
JK: When we are first introduced to Mal we wanted to stir the audience’s curiosity with a sense of mystery. As the film proceeds we find that Mal is femme fatale, mother, wife, architect and the emotional center of Cobb’s world. All of these character traits combined became the basis for her character’s design and palette.
The fabrics for all the costumes, including the majority of ties, were collected from many sources both in the United States and abroad.
COF: How much does costume reflect the inner machinations of the plot, particularly in a film such as Inception? For example, Cobb’s children are wearing the same clothes at the end of the story as they are in his dream ‘memory’ throughout the film. Is there something to be interpreted here?
JK: Costume design reflects greatly on the movement of the plot, most significantly through character development. Character development is at the forefront of costume design. The characters move the story along and with the director and the actor the costume designer helps to set the film’s emotional tone in a visual way. In a more physical sense the costumes’ style and color help to keep the story on track, keeping a check on time and place.
On to the second part of your question, the children’s clothing is different in the final scene… look again…
Each costume was cut and assembled by talented artisans: tailor Dennis Kim, dressmaker Mary Ellen Fields of Hargate Costumes, shirt maker Anto of Beverly Hills, and an army of seamstresses and finishers. Ager dyers and fabric specialists added to the mix.
COF: The male characters’ suiting is very up to date, even forward thinking, such as the peaked lapels on Ken Watanabe’s single breasted suit, or the Nehru collar and popper studs of Michael Caine’s shirt. Was your intention to create a pseudo-futuristic vibe?
JK: Not wanting to date the film, I was trying to create an upscale world of business and intrigue with architecture being a constant metaphorical thread running throughout… definitely forward thinking, without being futuristic. That enabled me to travel from reality to dreams and back, keeping a certain amount of stylization that would serve all the situations presented in the script.
Most of the footwear for the film was purchased, although some of the shoes were custom made.
COF: Ken Watanabe as Saito wears a Nagajuban under his lounge jacket at one point, a subtle blurring of East and Western culture. How detailed was your research into Asian dress traditions?
JK: I did research traditional Japanese dress thoroughly, knowing that I wanted that influence in Saito’s first costume. The scene being in a mysterious and unidentifiable place was the perfect setting to introduce a highlighted reality. Being a powerful Japanese businessman in what was eventually revealed to be a dream; I wanted to show an adherence to and a respect for the old, but still showcasing him as contemporary and cutting edge.
Tom Hardy’s watch as Eames was an antique piece.
COF: How involved was director Christopher Nolan in how the characters should dress?
JK: Director Chris Nolan was very involved, and extremely collaborative in every aspect of this film and its look. His fingerprint is everywhere. Happily, the costumes were no exception.
COF: What was the significance of Arthur and Leonardo DiCaprio’s character Cobb both wearing leather jackets for the initial ‘Inception’ sequence?
JK: Arthur’s character was a cab driver in this dream and Cobb’s character was a kidnapper/thug. To be true to the scene and convincing to Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy’s character), they were dressed accordingly. Their leather jackets were different in fit and style but still kept a cohesive look respecting the architect and the dream.
In an early scene Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Arthur wears a green raincoat. This was an original design by Jeffrey Kurland.
COF: How important was your use of colour and texture in the film, particularly with regards to the high quality 65 mm shooting format showing up every detail?
JK: All of the costumes and the fabrications for Inception were carefully chosen for their texture, patterns, and colors. Each character had a palette that was symbiotic with their character and style. I especially enjoyed working with director of photography Wally Pfister whose light and shadows complimented and defined the patterns and colors in the costumes.
In fact, Jeffrey designed every item of clothing for the principals, including a casual black and tan linen shirt worn by Leonardo DiCaprio. As with all the shirts it was made by Anto. Collar stands varied depending on other clothing requirements, e.g. necktie knots, jacket weight.
With thanks to Jeffrey Kurland. Read our follow up Inception Q&A HERE.
Jeffrey is currently working on Captain America: The First Avenger with Anna B. Sheppard, due for release on 22nd July, 2011.
© 2010 – 2013, Christopher Laverty.