This is not The Cabin in the Woods. There are no big sartorial clues in Much Ado About Nothing for a switcheroo mid-point that makes you go “ahhh…now I get it”. Nonetheless, director Joss Whedon’s always inventive costume designer Shawna Trpcic could not resist the urge to pepper his film with subtle meaning. Plus everything on screen is contemporary set but shot in black and white. In costume terms it is a far tougher job to be seen and yet not seen, and even more so without the use of colour. Delicate application of fabric and pattern is vital.
“I squinted at colours as I laid out photographs of the actors in their changes from the fitting photos” explains Shawna Trpcic. “If tones were too alike I moved them around, even the textures were very important to me.”
Hero (Jillian Morgese) tries on a wedding dress with her lady-in-waiting Margaret (Ashley Johnson). Costume designer Shawna Trpcic expands on her use of fabric in the film, “I am always very aware of patterns and textures – they speak volumes – in colour or black and white – the softness of chiffon, the roughness of suede, the business of a complicated pattern that aggravate the eye.”
If a film is in black and white that does not mean the costumes will be. Actors need colour to inhabit their characters; after all these people do not live in a black and white world. Unless in this instance Whedon was trying to align his actors’ perspective with ours, intentionally evoking an atmosphere of 1940s screwball comedies? Just think about His Girl Friday (1940) for a second, how difficult is it to imagine that Hildy and Walter actually inhabit a world of colour? Consider too Mark Bridges’ work on The Artist (2011). Most of his costumes were in subdued tones anyway, or “non-colours” as he described them. The actors shot the film through an old fashioned lens despite the era itself (late 1920s) being saturated in colour. It helped instil a transferable feeling of nostalgia.
Trpcic’s own interpretation was geared more toward Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960), “The classic timeless lines of that film were in my mind. The Shakespeare play has some of the decadent flare of the film, but because of the wealth they are always in beautiful dresses and suits.”
Beatrice (Amy Acker) with her cousin Hero. Note Hero’s daisy earrings. The beautiful dresses worn by Acker and Morgese came from interesting sources: “Fox (studio) rented us many of the actors’ fill-in costumes. I also raided the actors’ wardrobes for rare finds that they had collected over the years. One dress that Jillian wore I found in Alexis’ (Denisof, who plays Benedick) wife’s closet!”
With the secondary characters, Conrade (Riki Lindhome) is unusual as her prints are bold polka dots and stripes that jar against the feminine dresses and uniforms around her. Make no mistake, she is a villain. Borachio (Spencer Treat Clark) is part of Conrade’s clique and compliments her by standing apart. He is young, trendy, casual, his clothes barely attached. Leonato (Clark Gregg) favours evening wear, his fabric covered buttons, satin-faced lapels and patterned silk scarf mark him out as an important man. Even his aide (Joshura Zar) is distinguishable by always wearing a tweed sports coat. Dogberry (Nathan Fillion) is pure comedy cop in white shirt with sleeves rolled past his elbows, chest pocket (just missing a pen) and gun holster. Once you recognise all the players it is much easier to follow the narrative.
Even in black and white there are hints to unearth in Much Ado About Nothing. To those unfamiliar with William Shakespeare’s source material, the volume of characters and intensity of dialogue can be overwhelming. Individual costume notes provide a welcome means of mapping this world without causing distraction. Beatrice is barbed and cynical yet softened by floaty dresses and sequins. Her charge Benedick is smart in dark colours but during his most vulnerable moments, after sleeping with Beatrice and overhearing the ruse of her unspoken love for him, is wearing jeans and soft jersey sportswear – in the latter of which he is basically undressed. Despite his status, Don Pedro (Reed Diamond) is most notable for being less than formal. He is a man trapped in a suit rather than wearing it. Trpcic adds, “The men’s ties are very distinct to each character – florals, geometrics, solids etc.”
Verges (Tom Lenk) and Dogberry, aka the law. There was no attempt to shout back to the play’s 17th century era for inspiration, “I wanted the costumes to be timeless, but like Firefly (sci-fi TV series created by Whedon) I was not defined or restrained by any one time period.”
Of course we are missing out perhaps the three most vital characters of the whole story: Hero, Claudio (Fran Kranz) and Don John (Sean Maher). Their costume iconography is connected via signifiers so subtle as to be almost subliminal. At certain points in the film each is seen wearing a flowers motif, and exactly which flower is important. “I very intentionally chose Don John and Claudio not to tie them in with Hero” insists Trpcic. “Hero is daisies – innocence – but Claudio and Don John were dark floral, decadent self embellishments”. During Don John’s plotting we see a close up of his necktie sporting tiny embroidered flowers. After the disastrous first wedding, Claudio changes into a leather jacket and floral shirt. Hero has flower prints on her dresses more than once but most visible are her earrings, studs that feature the delicate head of a daisy. Claudio’s love for Hero is so intense that it blinds him to the truth. Hero is destroyed, ‘killed’ by her virginity. Don John plays them like a fiddle.
Clothing in Much Ado About Nothing weaves itself into the narrative when Hero’s lady-in-waiting Margaret has sex with Borachio in her daisy lace wedding dress the night before the ceremony. The dress becomes symbolic of Hero’s supposed guilt and Margaret’s unwitting shame. It’s a beautiful dress too, refined and appropriately chaste for Hero. Mistaken or concealed identity is Much Ado About Nothing’s major theme. The party sequence relies on masks to hide characters’ true feelings, then in the last act Claudio is bound by honour to wed his new bride without being able to see her. The idea of deep character being hidden by external diversions informs Shawna Trpcic’s costume design, and as with all the most compelling diversions, its effectiveness lies in its subtlety.
With thanks to Shawna Trpcic.
Much Ado About Nothing is currently on general release.
© 2013, Christopher Laverty.