Movies that feature contemporary fashion, particularly high-end and particularly for women, are a tricky sell costume wise. While men’s semi-formal to formal attire is generally shaped around the fundamental guise of the lounge suit, women’s clothing has a lot more avenues and possibilities. In addition to colour and pattern there is shape and form, which can vary dramatically for the fashionable wearer. What can vary dramatically can also date dramatically and this can be major stumbling block for costume designers. Films centred around the world of fashion, or those that include a lot of fashionable garments such as The Devil Wears Prada (2006), Clueless (1995) and Funny Face (1957) are at the mercy of a strict philosophy: look current but not so innovative that, a) garments will appear dated when trends alter and b) prioritise costume over character (unless that is a narrative point or personality facet). Tricky in the extreme, then, but the good news is that Ocean’s 8, which is set in the same glitzy, uber-cool world as director Steven Soderbergh’s trilogy, does not drop the ball in this regard. Or should that be stitch?
Even though Ocean’s 8 does not prioritise costume (in the same way as the Fast and the Furious movies do not prioritise cars – seriously they don’t), it still plays to an expectant gallery. A film with a heist set during New York’s Met Gala and requiring the actual designing of a dress as pivotal to the plot needs to be about clothes. Looking at the creations during the Met Gala scenes is part of the fun – it’s fantasy wish fulfilment combined with judgy wedding guest. Anyone who has worked even close to the fashion industry can attest it is judgmental in the extreme. Clothes, bodies, skin, hair, all are pored over with an often unpleasant abruptness. Ocean’s 8 allows us to do the same, but because the tone of the film is so light and endearing we are more inclined to “coo” and “ahh” than mutter “what the hell is that thing?” or “girl, that’s not your dress”.
Costume designer for Ocean’s 8, Sarah Edwards, had a tough job. She needed to fill an entire Gala full of outfits that would feel both correct on the supporting artists (some of whom were asked to buy their own dresses) but not too showy, plus character specific ensembles for the central cast. Edwards also had to manage ‘help’ from major fashion houses keen to be involved in a high profile movie. She was provided with ensembles from Prada, Givenchy, Zac Posen, Valentino, among others. The relationship between all involved was presumably amicable, however having interviewed many costume designers about ‘requests’ to use fashion houses in clothing a film (or more likely the lead actor), such harmony is not always the case. Credit is taken where it’s not given, garments are late and not to spec and sometimes need to be re-worked entirely. Not to say this happened with Ocean’s 8, although if Edwards did manage to successfully negotiate the fashion / costume collaborative minefield she should be commended because the results are spectacular. The Met Gala is set in 2018, but without a rigid adherence to trends it’s just lots of glitz and glamour and shiny things. It’s a big party, whenever.
In addition to the Met Gala, Edwards was required to establish seven (later eight) new characters, all intended to be aspirational and relatable, and all with very different personalities into a cohesive unit. Ocean’s 8 feels almost exactly like Soderbergh’s trilogy in every way, and surely it cannot be coincidence that this all female line-up resembles the original movies’ team so overtly. Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock) is the sister of Soderbergh’s lead protagonist Danny Ocean (George Clooney) after all. Plus, although Lou (Cate Blanchett) might not be related to Danny’s right hand-man Rusty (Brad Pitt) there is no denying a similarity in their personalities and mode of dress. Both are the frappé chilled eccentrics of their particular crew. Rusty favours actual snakeskin shirts and shoes to match with pale Med suits, while Lou is practically always in trouser suits festooned with necklaces and rings. It takes a special kind of attitude to pull off Lou and Rusty’s look. They are so impossibly laid-back and extrovert you will find yourself either wanting to marry them or be them. Interestingly Lou is – by traditional and arguably outmoded gender interpretations – positioned as subtly masculine while Rusty is subtly feminine. Even Lou’s stance replicates the kind of penis proud guy who sits on a packed train carriage legs open and apart. This helps Lou to own the room, and not because she is trying to emulate a man, but because she is not bound by gender stereotypes. In short she will sit how the fuck she wants and YOU can deal with it.
The rest of the Ocean’s 8 team are just as decisively drawn with regard to costume. Nine Ball or ‘Baller’ (real name: Eight Ball) is perhaps the most defined by her heritage and lifestyle. Hacker types don’t wear pleated slacks and button-down shirts, or we certainly don’t expect them to, so Nine Ball rocks a Caribbean inspired Bob Marley retrospective of crochet ‘tam’ hats, oversized knits and an army jacket. One amusing scene shows resourceful Tammy (Sarah Paulson) arriving at Heist HQ with a rack of Gala dresses for the crew. Eight Ball collects hers as if she’s being handed a week old kipper and saunters off with her arm outstretched to keep the stinky item as far away as possible. It’s not that Eight Ball looks bad in a fancy gown, far from it as we will eventually see, she just does not want to wear one. Jewellery maker Amita (Mindy Kaling) on the other hand could not be more excited about getting dressed up for once. A multifaceted group of women represented in a crew that feels believably in tune.
What’s cruel for a costume designer is that rarely will he / she get any say in how their garments are presented on screen. There have been many behind-the-scenes tales of beautiful ensembles that were only shot from the waist up or just seen for a split second. This is the craft; costume designers are ultimately at the mercy of their director’s vision. Still, it must have been a real bummer for Sarah Edwards that Lou’s baroque green trouser suit worn for the Met Gala appeared in Ocean’s 8 for about three seconds. In contrast Tammy’s wide-leg cropped jeans get plenty of screen-time because it makes sense for them to. Not the most glamorous of attire but practical and true to her character. Even in the make-believe world of the Ocean’s movies (all of them), to bond with the characters we need to recognise them as real people. This is what great costume does; we can salivate over incredible gowns but in actuality costume is even better when we do not notice it at all. Subtleties that may or may not catch our eye can provide an extra level of meaning, but nothing should be lost if they don’t. There’s a nice little touch along these lines in Ocean’s 8 when we see Debbie wearing the same dress she is released prison in during the flashback sequence. For those eagle-eyed enough to spot the garment it was a hint as to what was about to go down. Debbie, actually. That the dress feels very ‘2013’ (notably the mesh features) demonstrates Edwards’ knack for detail, coupled with the nautical hints to ‘Ocean’ she later incorporated into Debbie’s Met Gala gown. Style and trends have their place in film but only to serve the story. The costumes in Ocean’s 8 are fun, functional and just the right amount of contemporary. Time will be kind to them.
Ocean’s 8 is currently on general release.
© 2018, Lord Christopher Laverty.