Analyzed: Black Swan Part I, Costumes Set the Mood
With the Oscars just around the corner and speculations roaming around about who the winners will be, I’m still disappointed about the fact that Black Swan is not nominated for Best Costume Design. This happens every year—with only five nominees in the category, the Academy will never please everyone. Although Black Swan was definitely on my list of Oscar predictions, finding out it didn’t make the cut did not come to me as a surprise. It’s pretty much the consensus that the Academy has a tendency to favor period films, especially when it comes to Costume Design. Most people might attribute this for Black Swan’s Oscar snub, but more likely is the fact that costume designer Amy Westcott collaborated with Kate and Laura Mulleavy of Rodarte, who are not members of the Costume Designers Guild, therefore not eligible for a nomination. Because the ballet costumes that the Mulleavy sisters designed were an important element of the whole body of the film’s costumes, there would be too much controversy if only Amy Westcott was nominated. The controversy already surrounding the Black Swan and its costumes would extend to the Academy, and I think they chose to stay out of it. I will discuss this controversy on Part II, but first I want to analyze the costumes and the look of Black Swan and what it did for the film as a whole. If you have not seen Black Swan, first of all, you should. But secondly, I will try not to give too much away so as not to spoil it for you. But if you prefer, watch it first before reading this.
Darren Aronofsky’s psychological thriller centers around a New York City Ballet production of Swan Lake and the two ballerinas Nina (Natalie Portman) and Lily (Mila Kunis) as they develop both a rivalry and an uncanny friendship in their preparation for the production. As always with Aronofsky, the mood/feeling of the film and its aesthetic was more important than just beautiful sets, costumes, and cinematography. Therefore, the whole look of the film was very much a collaborative process between Aronofsky (Director), Amy Westcott (Costume Designer), Matthew Libatique (Cinematographer) and Thérèse DePrez (Production Designer) so that everything was connected.
As in the case of the costumes of The Wrestler (also an Aronofsky-Westcott collaboration), there was a lot of research about the world of the film before everyone even began to work on it. For The Wrestler, Amy Westcott had to know all of the details about the world of wrestling in order to get it just right. For Black Swan, Westcott started her research about 3 months before they started putting things together. In an interview with Emilia and Linda from TheBalletBag.com, she explained, “You peek your head into the business, in that world, for a long time before you structure things. […] The first part of my research was books and films. Looking at films and seeing different documentaries to get the feel for it. They were not necessarily ballet films, they were more for color or feeling, just to get the overall mood. For instance The Piano Teacher which had the same feeling, the desire of being great and being crushed by your talent. […] And a lot of my research came from talking to ballerinas and going to City Ballet and they were so helpful."
Everyone involved did extensive research for the authenticity of the film. Because Black Swan has elements of horror, drama, and paranoia, Aronofsky felt that everything had to be very realistic in order for the fantasy aspect of the paranoria to really get to the audience. So the audience must be grounded in reality in order for the story to be haunting, and everyone had his or her own way of achieving this. For the reality and haunting aspect, the director used a documentary-style of filming, like cinema vérité’s handheld camera.
In the case of the production design, one element was the idea of movement. Thérèse DePrez said “One of the important things that Darren and I really worked hard for was to get movement in the set pieces, we did not want any stagnant/still pieces. Everything has a touch of photorealism throughout.” This really brought the movement of the dancers in sync to the movement of the sets. Another example of using realism as aid to haunt the audience was the use of mirrors. Dancers are always surrounded by mirrors, they’re always looking at their reflection, so DePrez used a lot of mirrors in the production design. This was not only useful for the reality aspect of the world of dancers, but also useful for the haunting feel of the film.
Amy Westcott had consultant ballerinas that helped figure out what’s right by talking to the girls and sitting in classes at NYCB and ABT. She said “It was very important for me to make the everyday dancing realistic. To show the girls that are going to class, and making sure that they have the right layers at the right time, and they put the things on and in a way that read individualism as opposed to what people would think a ballerina would wear.” She would sit by herself in the corner of the ballet studios and just watch them, and take notes of everything they did, “I watched them take off what layers and I would take notes and notes, copious notes on the whole process, and make sketches” (theballetbag.com).
The Swan Lake ballet costumes were a collaboration of ideas between Amy Westcott and Darren Aronofsky and Kate and Laura Mulleavy of Rodarte, who then went on and made them themselves, with the exception of the ballet corps costumes, which were designed by ballet designer Zack Brown, with feather detailing added later to assimilate them with the White Swan. The Rodarte sisters also made a grey practice tutu with a matching arm warmer. For the everyday ballet gear, Westcott worked very closely with the brand Yumiko (a favorite among professional ballet dancers), who custom made things for the film due to the strict color palette. The use of this brand, Westcott said was very important for her, “in keeping with the realism” she said. For the pointe shoes, she mostly used Freed and Mirella, aside from the ones the girls would bring. Westcott said “We wanted them to use what they had. For the shoots we would have lots of Freed and Mirellas on stock, mainly for the rehearsal scenes.”
In an exclusive behind the scenes with the costumes of Black Swan on Stylelist.com, Aronofsky says “Amy kind of had the challenge of taking these ballet costumes and trying to spread them out into the real world so that everything kind of connected and came together.” In this same clip, Westcott talks about the color palette, “Everybody has their unique personality, a lot of times you see them in a wideshot and you see their personality through their clothes. Her mother has a big influence on what she looks like, it’s sort of keeping her in a childlike state. Her basic colors were really white, grey, and pink, and we were doing heavy on the pink, doing this sort of childlike thing, and really squeezing the pink out by the end. So her arc, even though is only just a couple of weeks really, was putting some black in in the end, and making sure it looks a little bit more serious. There’s one time where she wears black tights instead of pink tights and that’s that one snap when she’s finally on the other side of the fence. Lily has a sort of a sexy confidence about her, so we had to put a lot of black in her, and some silver and grey.” It is through the clothes that the story unravels, and the mood and feel of the movie comes through, as well as all other aspects of the mise-en-scène, in keeping with Aronofsky’s precision.
Stay tuned for my post on the controversy surrounding this film's costume credits.
Links for interviews used for this post:
Images courtesy of Chris Laverty, of Clothes On Film.
Black Swan (2010) Fox Searchlight Pictures | Costume Designer, Amy Westcott | Director, Darren Aronofsky.
© 2011 - 2015, Louise Junker.