Costumes: from tripe to chain mail

No matter the desired look, the period in question or the duration of the shoot, the tale of the costume designer continues until the final scene is shot, the final time....

No matter the desired look, the period in question or the duration of the shoot, the tale of the costume designer continues until the final scene is shot, the final time.

All this makes the children’s live-action series, The Neverending Story, an apropos title for costume designer Renee April, who is chief tweaker of clothing, headgear and accessories on the Muse Entertainment set in Montreal.

April has an impressive resume – with one of the highest-profile recent projects being the David Mamet feature Heist, starring Gene Hackman and Danny DeVito. Her peers voted her a Genie Award for her costume work on the Richard Attenborough feature Grey Owl, and she snagged a Gemini for the CBC/CBS mini Million Dollar Babies. Her designs on The Red Violin caught a Golden Satellite nomination and she’s also created the clothing look on such features as Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle and Children of a Lesser God.

The Neverending Story is set in Fantasia, without period references. ‘In 20 to 30 years of costume work, this was the toughest to conceptualize,’ she says, ‘to have a [design] thread that goes from one character to another. That the focus and style and imagery go from one to another.’

To create an otherworldly effect on Atreyu, a Fantasian Indian, ‘I took the real [animal] skins and made them like a moccasin or a tunic or leggings, but then we put them in the washing machine and dyed them – blue, purple, yellow. They still had the fringes and beads of an Indian skin, but with wild colors.’

April had to create a radically different look for Princess Moonchild. For a scene in the Ivory Tower, ‘she wears a long necklace and it’s made of 50 strands of crystal and she has a long dress and a beautiful cape, blue and silver, with hundreds of drop pearls and a white fur lining. And there’s a tiara made of crystal.

‘It’s a dream for a designer to design [this production],’ April concludes. ‘I almost create the characters with the writers.’

Vancouver’s Stargate SG-1 may be as fantastical as The Neverending Story, but the sci-fi stalwart is off a different rack altogether, as far as the demo, look and feel are concerned.

Stargate, produced in Vancouver by MGM and Showtime, is shooting its fourth season. Costume designer Christina McQuarrie has been aboard ‘since day one.’ But even she didn’t expect to be uniting regular costume materials with sheep stomachs. Yup, while the regular cast, including Richard Dean Anderson, Amanda Tapping and Christopher Judge, often wear the olive drab uniforms of the U.S. Air Force, some characters have sported tripe.

‘There’s a group called the Tokra,’ McQuarrie explains. ‘They’re first seen in a ‘sand world.’ We use a lot of tripe – cow or sheep stomach – as part of their costume. We’ve incorporated it with leather for the Tokra uniform. It gave us a lot of texture and it’s very durable. It probably would stand up to anything.

‘It’s used because it was interesting. We’re always trying to find looks not found in our contemporary world. When you see this [tripe], you say, ‘It’s perfect.’ ‘

McQuarrie says special-occasion scenes in Stargate show how costumes vary the show’s look. One episode features a meeting of eight System Lords, or evil rulers. Each lord is ‘sort of human-based, [with] some kind of historical base. For instance, there’s an East Indian Shiva type, and one who’s a Celtic god called Morrigan. In the myth, when she appeared as a raven, death was nearby. So we took an S&M twist with it. Her garb is all black and leather and feathers and studs.’

Still another system lord is ‘based on an Egyptian cat god.’ So the costume would be furry? ‘No fur! Iridescent fabric, maybe some metallic chain mail for the headdress and some ornate, Egyptian type jewelry.’

Research for these costumes involves art history and library books. McQuarrie, whose background is in theatre and period pieces, says: ‘The Internet is good for sourcing materials – we found feathers on 3,000 websites or so – but for the actual historical research, I like books.’

It’s elementary, my

dear Watson

The Net also seems an inappropriate tool to Luc J. Beland, costume designer on The Sign of Four and The Royal Scandal, two in a series of Sherlock Holmes MOWs in production through Muse Entertainment, Montreal.

Beland, whose credits include the features Le Polygraphe, Full Blast and Platinum (costume designer) and Le secret de Jerome (Genie nomination for costume design and art direction), prefers to leave computer searches to others.

Nevertheless, research in books, period art and illustrations worked well for Beland on the pair of Holmes films. Set in 1880s Victorian England, a time when the Queen’s favored phrase was ‘We are not amused,’ these movies could have assumed the era’s conservative and repressed feel. But Beland decided otherwise.

‘Because we’re working for TV, we can’t work in black and white all the time. [The film's look] is a little brighter and a little softer because the clothes and hair [in Victorian times] were very austere.’

In The Royal Scandal, Beland says, a main character is the Holmes alter-ego Irene Adler, whom Holmes refers to as ‘the woman.’ Adler, a spy and an intellectual rival for Holmes, assumes many disguises, which allowed Beland to lend some flamboyance to the costumes. Adler gets a different color with every disguise and her dresses reflect the fact that, as Beland explains, 1885 marked ‘the return of the bustle.’ The effect? ‘The silhouette in profile is a big butt.’

And what do you make of Mr. Holmes, M. Beland?

‘Watson and Holmes, they’ve been made so many times for the screen, so it’s not easy. Holmes [Matt Frewer] is a very strong character, with a long face, very expressive, and he can also be very funny. Sometimes, when he’s on duty, he’s straight like a policeman, dressed in high-collar shirts, worsted wools and cool blues and grays.

On the matter of Holmes’ famous cap: ‘I take some reference,’ Beland says, ‘from the first drawings on the back of a Conan Doyle cover. ‘It’s a funny illustration of Holmes. He’s wearing a Scottish beret with wool and looking simpatico. So I try to blend the two, the policeman and this funny guy.’

For Watson, his clothes sometimes mirror his heart. In the second film in the series, The Sign of Four, Watson, romantically attracted to client Miss Morstan, ‘wears more and more red around her, starting from a wine-red waistcoat’ under his dark green jacket.

In costume work, it seems as if a human’s heart-on-the-sleeve can be pret-a-porter, but the same could never be said of a sheep’s stomach. *