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Costume in The Great Gatsby: Use Your Imagination

When glass-eyed Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) tells Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) that all the excess and splendour he drowns in is “from your perfect, irresistible imagination”, it’s hard not to see this entire film in this same light. Director, producer Baz Luhrmann and his wife, costume designer, production designer and co-producer Catherine Martin have concocted a vision of the early 1920s that did not exist yet somehow feels entirely natural. Their Great Gatsby is a twenties parallel universe; the twenties reloaded if you will.

This is a flavour of the 1920s, those details that cinemagoers with just a passing knowledge of the era can recognise: cloche hats, bobbed hair, short fringed dresses and striped blazers. From our first proper look at Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), swooping down on his boater topped head from a skyscraper; we know roughly when and where we are. Specifically, this is 1922. It does not matter that clothes at the beginning of the decade were markedly different to those at the end and that ‘flappers’ as we have come to know them did not even really exist beyond boisterous teenagers until 1924. What Luhrmann’s Gatsby does is imply a time of incredible change through money and the pursuit of hedonism. This is post-war America. No young man wanted to go back to wearing his father’s grey suits and no young woman wanted to sit at home and sew with grandma. The watchword is excess, Luhrmann’s excess. If you want steadfast period accuracy might we suggest you check out Boardwalk Empire instead?

The Great Gatsby_Elizabeth Debicki trousers front_Image credit Warner Bros

Elizabeth Debicki as Jordan Baker. Jordan is the most quintessentially twenties character in the film. Ironic considering the tone Baz Luhrmann and Catherine Martin were going for, but this also makes her the most pleasing from a costume standpoint.

How much you accept Luhrmann and Martin’s interpretation of 1922 will largely depend on how you view the role of period costume design. Basically this comes in two forms: 1) recreate the era in question, 2) reflect the era in question. Lincoln is the former; The Great Gatsby is the latter. Martin’s greatest concern was that costumes be relevant to a new audience and one way of achieving this was to involve prestigious yet modern designers in the process, hence Prada, Tiffany & Co. and Brooks Brothers. Another was to shape the clothes to be more relatable for contemporary eyes. This meant lower rise trousers, cropped too short with tight Norman Wisdom jackets (basically Thom Browne, aka the Fitzgerald cut), and dresses that fit rather than fall. Fit rather than fall covers everything Daisy wears apart from an adorable black kimono style wrap and headscarf. Don’t get too excited about the Prada name; they only design one dress for Daisy, her party frock, and it’s the least impressive in the film. The rest are seen on reveller extras.

Perhaps because Martin is also production designer, but this notion of blending past and present generally melds rather well on screen. The wild sequence where Nick gets drunk in the city is a mass of colour and transition: bright red walls, green cloche, brown tweed suit, club collar shirt, rolled stockings – it’s all there, and most of it is still available. Look out too for the Arrow collar man leering above Nick and Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki) in Manhattan, a billboard as imposing as the oculist’s eyes and a sharp touch by Martin.

The Great Gatsby_Leonardo DiCaprio white linen suit mid_Image credit Warner Bros

Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby. Nearly every item of clothing in The Great Gatsby is wearable today. Perhaps this is why the film has so dominated fashion coverage (for both sexes) over the past five months?

However bludgeoning an audience with this much information can cause us to pick apart what we see. In other words, anything that does not stand up to scrutiny infuriates like a nagging itch. Myrtle Wilson’s (Isla Fisher) red dress for example looks like something from H&M dipped in glue and thrown into a box of feathers. Maybe it’s the modern fabric, maybe the unforgiving lighting, or maybe it’s nothing. It can be risky playing with period interpretation. Jacqueline Durran took this approach with Anna Karenina and it won her an Oscar, although she did choose to reference an era characterised by classical beauty (1950s). The twenties was a mess of experimentation. We tend to view the first half of the last century as more sophisticated than our own, but this is not necessarily true. Just as many mistakes were made, it is only that black and white is far more forgiving. Take Oxford Bags, wide legged trousers originally worn by students at Oxford who would slip them over their sports kit for lessons. Oxford Bags were fashionable around 1925 and then became wider and wider until they looked completely ridiculous. Contrast this with the ever skinnier fit of men’s trousers today and you can see the correlation. Fitzgerald’s is not a classy world. Take those wild parties Gatsby throws? We are basically watching the cast of Made in Chelsea get drunk.

It would require a dozen viewings and magnifying glass to seriously analyse all costumes in The Great Gatsby, there are just so many. Nonetheless this would probably be a worthwhile exercise as Catherine Martin refused to skimp on fastidious details. Like Tom Buchanan’s (Joel Edgerton) suits, every single one apparently lined with his skull and crossbones fraternity motif (that we also spotted a zipper on Gatsby’s trousers is probably a detail Martin hoped to avoid, but who can really keep track when there is so much happening on screen?) Tom is one of the most believably period characters in the film. He wears dark suits, traditionally tailored, although does indulge a soft collar. Gatsby on the other hand wears candy pink linen chalkstripes and is ridiculed by Tom for his flamboyance. Tom knows real wealth would never wear money on their sleeve. It’s bad taste, a sign of low breeding, even rude. Gatsby, however, is noveau riche; he wears his millions like the self-made rap stars of today. Less is not more, more is more. Luhrmann’s Great Gatsby embraces this notion as a reflection of its central character, and in this sense at least it is near-on perfect.

The Great Gatsby is currently on general release.

© 2013 – 2014, Lord Christopher Laverty.