Are there differences in the way costumes are able to communicate with the viewers in silent and contemporary films ?

Published: 2019/12/11 Number of words: 1511

Silent films were an innovation in the entertainment industry in the 1920s, though the lack of speech meant that some of the meaning was missed. Information had to be obtained from not only the acting but also from other aspects such as the clothing, to indicate to the audience many things about the character, such as occupation, status and wealth. However, the costumes used in these films would not have been as well thought out as are the costumes in contemporary films, simply because the role of costume designer only became a creditable profession in 1968. Advances in film making, with the introduction of colour and speech, meant that films could become more adventurous, allowing for more creative costumes and harnessing the use of colour as an effective way to convey emotion through clothing. Using two examples, I will explore how film narratives can be enhanced by the costumes.

Charlie Chaplin was an influential director and actor during the 1910s and 1920s. One of his most famous films was ‘The Kid’; released in 1921, it had taken a year to make. The film is primarily about an orphaned child who is left in the care of Chaplin. The costumes worn throughout the film are used to enhance an understanding of the status of the person in society. As this film was produced after World War I, the reality of the prevailing widespread poverty needed to be conveyed through the clothing. In the film, Chaplin lives in a rundown area, and so the costumes are predominantly old and tattered, showing the audience immediately that the individual is from the lower class and most likely a tramp. ‘Pausing to remove a fingerless glove and carefully selecting a cigarette stub from the old sardine tin which he used as a case’ (Montgomery, J. 1968. p.100). In the absence of dialogue, the shabby clothing needed to be emphasized; the large, gaping holes achieve this. The actors also wear heavy makeup, allowing facial expressions to be more easily understood. The clothing presents the people as being in a vulnerable position, compared to the richer people in society. The poorer people are wearing more darkly coloured costumes that automatically make the person look grimier.

The orphan’s mother begins the story wearing tattered clothing and during the course of the film, her clothing increasingly becomes more upper class as her wealth increases, in line with the story. She is seen wearing a flapper-esque outfit with large feathers on her hat, a fashion becoming increasingly popular at the time.

The glamorous outfit not only elevates her perceived social status, but also makes her stand out, almost as though she doesn’t fit into this area. At the turn of the 20th century, art nouveau and art deco were highly influential art movements. The freedom they brought inspired women’s fashion; there was a much looser feel to clothing and its more masculine shape allowed women to feel a sense of empowerment. This really gives an insight into the orphan’s mother who has made a career for herself as an opera star (Laubner, E. 1996 p.97).

‘Combining medieval allegory and méliès tricks, they symbolize sin and all the baser human emotions: greed, lust, jealousy’ (Mast, G. 1979 p.94)

Towards the end of the film, Chaplin has a dream – set in heaven, there are angels and devils. The angels are shown with traditional wings and are dressed in white, indicating their innocence and purity before the arrival of the devils. The white clothing is the complete opposite of the clothing of the poor: it is unnaturally clean, which might suggest it is equally strange. In contrast, the devils are in dark colours used to represent the sins of humans and how life can be disrupted by them. The angels are tainted by the devils; there is the definite presence of light versus dark.

‘Alice in Wonderland’ is based in the late 1870s, but Tim Burton’s film was not produced until 2010 and so the clothing has a contemporary twist to this era. From the costumes worn throughout it is obvious that Alice is from an upper class family. The way the costume is worn with a bodice and lace gloves, and the elaborately curled hair are further evidence of upper class society. At the start of Alice’s story she is going to her own engagement party, a very upper class event, but she is not wearing a corset. This is a very rebellious act and confirms her attitude to society. A corset tightly constricts the wearer, mirroring Alice’s position in society; she feels trapped in a world that doesn’t understand her. In a world where everyone has to be moulded into the same shape, their individuality squeezed out, her only way to escape is through Wonderland. Everyone has the same style of outfit in very similar colours: pale – almost washed out – blues are used for the whole of this scene. Everyone is conforming to the society. ‘Women used corsets in an effort to get closer to a perfect physical form’ (Fukai, A. 2002. p.276). Very often the women in this era would also wear a bustle to further enhance their figure. Alice’s lack of both corset and bustle suggests a very non-conformist attitude to the fashions of the day. It shows she is not comfortable with how she is supposed to appear.

As the story develops, Alice’s clothing changes with her size: but whether she shrinks, and her clothing is bigger or she increases in size, and her clothing fits more tightly, it still remains wearable. Her clothing is much freer and looser when she becomes smaller from the shrinking potion, almost as if her constraints have fallen off. As the film develops the colour of her costume changes from pale blue (a very innocent, pure colour), to red. This is a more dominant, intense colour that is more suited to the Alice who has to defeat the queen and the Jabberwock. The dress she wears is much more modern but it doesn’t conform to any particular style. It emphasizes that even though there is a monarchy, there is much less of the social-status segregation shown previously. It gives a much more powerful appearance. The rough edges also represent the development from the very neat, properly dressed Alice shown at the start of the film. She is starting to develop her individuality and so this is reflected in her costume; she is ‘almost Alice’. The areas of white fabric represent a small piece of Alice (from the start of the film) that remains; her innocence and almost weaknesses are still prominent. The hearts placed on the dress emphasize the connection with the queen. When facing the Jabberwock, the suit of armour she is wearing gives a very masculine appearance. The media used is also descriptive – metal is strong and hard, something Alice has to be in order to overcome the Jabberwock.

The concept of costumes communicating with the audience has continued in the respect that they allow the audience to discern certain background information. It is also obvious now that colour is not the primary tool for expressing the position of an individual; for example, without colour, the devils in the dream scene were still notably the evil doers. The two films are opposites, in the sense that ‘The Kid’ is from the perspective of a lower-class citizen and ‘Alice in Wonderland’ is from the perspective of an upper-class citizen. Both incorporate the idea of a dream world, which takes each person out of their own society and social standing. The way costume communicates the narrative to the audience has changed between the two time periods. As modern filming techniques have improved, the makeup can be less intense and the textile work on the outfits can be more detailed.



Anderson Black, J. & Garland, M. (1978) A History of Fashion. London: Orbis publishing

Dorner, J. (1973) Fashion in the Twenties & Thirties. London: Ian Allen

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IMDb Unknown author (Date is unknown) ‘Alice in Wonderland’ [Online] USA: Available at: [Accessed online 14th November 2011]

IMDb Unknown author (Date is unknown) ‘The Kid’ [Online] USA: Available at [Accessed online 1st December 2011]

Laubner, E. (1996) Fashions of the Roaring ‘20s. Hong Kong: Schiffer

Publishing Ltd Mast, G. (1979) The Comic Mind. 2nd Ed. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press

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Nadoolman Landis, D. (2006) Dressed: A century of Hollywood Costume Design. US:Regan Books Warren, G. & Klein, D. (1978) Art Nouveau and Art Deco. Hong Kong: Gallery Press

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