Deborah Landis
Photo courtesy of Deborah Landis

Deborah Landis: “Costumes are talismans”

Short Profile

Name: Deborah Nadoolman Landis
DOB: 26 May 1952
Place of birth: New York, United States
Occupation: Costume designer

Ms. Landis, as a costume designer, would you say your work has a signature look or style?

Signatures are a tricky thing! Costume design, unlike what the audience may think, is more about the conversation than about clothes. It’s really about trying to discover who the people are in the story. We create fictional personalities from text, we have to find the beating heart of the people in the text and create with the actors real, authentic individuals. How do you start to do that? The most iconic costumes were created from research and deep discussions about the text with the director… So I always hope that I serve the text and the director completely. In terms of a specific signature, I would say that I use silhouettes to great effect.

Can you give me an example?

I read the screenplay for Blues Brothers, and it was huge. I don't know how to describe it but it just felt like an epic. And I looked at it and I thought, “There's such chaos that happens around them, they just cause chaos everywhere. I think I'm just going to keep their suits really clean.” So instead of found objects, in other words, just any black jacket and any black trousers, any glasses and any hats, I tried to develop a silhouette for both of them. I tried to make each of them slimmer and taller, to really create a sharp really refined look. And by creating a more powerful silhouette, they would stand out in the frame, they'd stand out as a pair. That's why anyone can wear that costume and you’ll know who they are.

“The silhouettes helped the costumes to have staying power. It’s one of the best tools a costume designer has.”

It’s true that those costumes are visually iconic; even though they are basically just black suits, you recognize them right away as a duo.

They're a match set! And truthfully, looking back on my career, using silhouette in that powerful way was important for me. It's something that perhaps I wasn't even really aware of, but it was a tool that I leveraged throughout my career, and you can really see it in my work where something has turned into something else… Like Indiana Jones’ look, or Michael Jackson’s Thriller jacket. I mean, the silhouettes of both of those looks have helped the costumes to have staying power. If you see their silhouettes, you can recognize the character. It’s one of the best tools a costume designer has, it’s like color, texture, something like fur or plaid. Another example is Coming to America, I feel it has all of those elements in it. It has a life of its own, it has endured for decades, and it still resonates with the audience.

The great thing about Coming to America is that all the details of the costumes, the crowns, the jewelry all looks very real — which is so important to the film’s immersiveness.

Can you imagine how important that was? I couldn't possibly put anything less than perfect on James Earl Jones's head. That crown was made by a jeweller, it had real pearls, real turquoise, real Carnelian… Everything was real except the diamond which was a crystal. The neck pieces were as well. The jewelry alone for that cost $85,000. And that was 1988! But I was celebrating a kingdom in Africa; how was I not going to use a jeweller to make those jewels? I was elevating and creating something absolutely Cinderella, something absolutely amazing. So I treaded very carefully and understood that it was up to me to make it feel elegant and beautiful. And I think that’s what’s kept it beloved in the black communities around the world.

Do the costumes look different, for better or worse, in real life than they do in the films?

Well, that's a big question because we are in a theatrical career. We're big liars! I mean, very, very rarely do we use real diamonds — we partner with Swarovski. Our role is really to create authentic characters, but we do so with a lot of magic. And so it really doesn't have to be cashmere, it just has to look like cashmere. It doesn't have to be gold, it just has to really look like gold. We have to believe it! We’re cheaters, we’re liars in that way. There's a wonderful costume designer named James Atchison who won an Academy Award for a movie with Robert Downey Jr. Called Restoration, which is about Louis XIV. And when I saw his costumes in person, I was absolutely shocked to see that all of the beautiful embroidery was made with puff paint. It looked exactly like gold embroidery.

As long as it looks real, it fulfills its purpose.

Right, why wouldn't you save the money if the effect is the same? The only test of costume is the movie. We're not even really supposed to see the clothes, I mean, we can appreciate the clothes, but really, it's all about the film. And that's what distinguishes us from fashion design, because the moment you're looking at the clothes instead of listening and being entirely involved with the story, the director has lost you.

“The audience has to fall in love with the people... The clothes have no meaning without the story.”

The costumes also can’t really stand on their own; the story is really integral to the success of the costume and vice versa, right?

The audience has to fall in love with the people. I mean, the hat and the jacket for Indiana Jones would mean nothing without Harrison Ford's performance, without Steven Spielberg's direction, without Larry Kasdan’s screenplay, without all of it together — because all of it together is what made magic. The clothes have no meaning without the story. We're working on a much deeper level than simply clothes.

Is it true that Hollywood has been notoriously bad at preserving and archiving film costumes, accessories, and even the illustrations and designs?

It’s true! Hollywood as a industry was always about what's next. So once you released your movie, and you've seen what the box office made of that film, you move on to the next one, the next opening, the next Oscar campaign. Warner Brothers didn't even start the archiving of anything until the 1990s. All the studios saw was that it was very costly to store old clothes that they were not going to be using, so of course, costumes became the original recycleables. We were constantly cutting off sleeves, shortening dresses, dyeing clothes that had been used on other movies, remaking pieces…

Have you felt that tide changing in recent years?

It's taken a long time, well over a century, for the studios to recognize the importance and the value of the costumes. And that’s frustrating. I think people don't really have an understanding of what working on a film is like. It’s a 24/7 job, it’s working around the clock, and it's the least glamorous setup ever. It’s physical labor, and it takes a huge amount of stamina. So I would like my colleagues and my students to be properly remunerated for their work. I would like to see pay equity. I would like the importance of clothes and costumes to be more recognized… Because they really are talismans, they are icons, they help create a world — and that's not to be diminished.