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A Colourful Tale: The Costume Canvas of Dick Tracy

A preview of Clothes on Film editor Christopher Laverty’s article on the vibrant costume design of Dick Tracy for Arts Illustrated magazine.

Truly unique, Dick Tracy is as close to a comic strip brought to life as any film before or since. This was director and star Warren Beatty’s goal; not to interpret the comic, but to paint it directly onto a cinematic canvas. He achieved this by embracing the superficial qualities of the painted page, the bright colours, exaggerated structures, madcap caricatures, and placing them front and centre. Dick Tracy is an all knowing pantomime.

The original Dick Tracy comic strip first published in the United States in 1931, to which Beatty was and remains a huge a fan, was drawn using a then characteristic palette of four or five primary colours. Beatty endeavoured to recreate this template for the big screen, although some exceptions were made, particularly with costume design. Academy Award winning costumer Milena Canonero (who recently worked on the equally vivid The Grand Budapest Hotel) extended her wardrobe to a maximum of ten colours. Red, yellows and greens were used most, with additional colours – or ‘exceptions’ – intended as primary shades such as turquoise and purple. In a practical sense creating costumes from only five colours for the amount of characters in the movie, and to sustain this over a 105 minute running time would have resulted in an ironically flat visual – the exact opposite of Beatty’s intention.

Al Pacino as Big Boy Caprice at his red, i.e. powerful, costume point in the story.
Al Pacino as as Bib Boy Caprice at his red, i.e. powerful, costume point in the story

Even though the comic has been running for over eighty years, Canonero chose 1931-41 as her setting for costume. This gives everything a distinctive boxy aesthetic, with all suits and coats following a triangular or ‘V’ shape, contouring from wide shoulders to a slim waist. It implies a muscular build on typically slim men, an archetype popular in Hollywood noir movies of the 1940s. Dresses are slinky and tight, but cleavage is reserved for making near arrestable statements. Madonna’s Breathless Mahoney personifies a Gilda esque hourglass temptress, while Tess Trueheart (Glenne Headly) is more homely in broad shouldered jackets with little embellishment. By Trueheart’s own admission, she doesn’t like “dames”. Dick Tracy is a fantasy however, so preservation of period is more to keep a semblance of continuity than anything else. Overall there is a twenties Art Deco feel to the film, yet Richard Sylbert’s production design featuring skyscrapers that seem to arch at the tip, are inspired more by peak era German Expressionism – again from the 1920s. There is no attempt to blend the matte painted backdrops with brightly lit human characters in the foreground. As an audience we are supposed to notice this apparent incongruity and immerse ourselves in the narrative because of not in spite of it.

Read the rest of this article by purchasing a copy of this month’s Arts Illustrated magazine (hard copy or online).

© 2015, Lord Christopher Laverty.