The illusion of film is perpetuated by the idea that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Costuming is one of the more nuanced aspects of the cinematic experience. It is seldom discussed to the same degree as something like direction, acting or cinematography. Falling under the category of mise-en-scéne, costume designing is what allows a viewer to be seamlessly transported to the world of the film. It’s that suspension of disbelief that costuming helps facilitate which makes films as magical as they are. Without it, there would be a substantial part missing from the film’s overall aura.
And for period pieces, that focus on costuming is vital. Costuming allows the individual to understand pivotal information at a moment’s notice. The synaptic registration of time, place, political climate, social order and so much more is almost exclusive to costuming. It is the dress of the character that speaks to the greater diegetic world that the film lives in. Without it, the audience would be lost in a limbo of guessing games or perhaps a Beckett-inspired timelessness.
But for costume designers like two-time Academy Award-nominated Sharen Davis, the costuming of a film drives the work to a new height of diegesis that would hardly be reached without it. Davis took the time to talk to The Knockturnal about her time working on “Fences,” her penchant toward period pieces and creating an industrial Norman Rockwell color scheme.
The Film and the Play: A Love Story
As many Broadway fanatics know, Fences was originally written as a play in 1987 by August Wilson. The two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner was a renowned playwright who dedicated his life to chronicling the tragicomedy experiences of African Americans in his Pittsburgh Cycle series–a collection of ten plays, each set in a different decade, telling a different story.
The original production of “Fences” picked up seven Tony Awards, leading it to be revived in 2010. The new production was critically favored as well, going on to be nominated for 10 Tony Awards, winning three. With Wilson’s surviving spouse, Constanza Romero, serving as the new costume designer of the revival, the playwright’s imagery, ambiance and aura was palpably captured through the costuming of Troy Maxson and his family in the new adaptation.
When asked about the play’s influence on the film’s costuming, Davis said, “I did actually study the costuming of the play. I did a lot of the same things. Romero came later on after they started going with the movie so I didn’t really have the chance to talk to her.”
Speaking to the contrasts between the two mediums and the two costume designers’ tasks, Davis explained, “the difference is that the play is two dimensional as opposed to film which is fuller. The camera is right in your face whereas you’re so far back in a play. So I had to count everything down and make it more realistic.”
On Working with Denzel Washington
The two-time Academy Award-winning actor is a bonafide triple-A Hollywood star. From his work onscreen to behind it, Washington has cemented himself into the history of cinephilia. Choosing to adapt the play he had so brilliantly acted in–picking up a Tony along the way as well–the actor called the late-playwright wife to discuss the adaptation, and be granted her blessing to proceed.
“When Denzel did decide to do the film, he called me up and said, ‘The first call had to be to you. Because I want to do the film Fences, and I want to make August proud,’” revealed Romero to Deadline. The actor-turned-director extended the same sort of elegance, grace and respect to Davis who explained how they approached the work, “Denzel had amazing research. We had made books and done a lot of research and made a lot of boards of what the reality was. We used the same color palette of browns and tans [as they did in the play].”
The costume designer went on to add, “he absolutely loved the project and it was an amazing experience and to watch him do such a complex character and then turn around and say, “cut!” and start directing, taking a million questions from us… he was just so streamlined on this, he never lost the reality in ‘Fences.’ Never.”
Rose Lee Maxson: The Sunshine of the Family
Few can argue with the fact that Viola Davis is a radiant actress who can brighten up a room as quickly as she can cast it into darkness. Just like Washington, the Academy Award-winning actress had also won a Tony Award for her portrayal of the matriarch of the Maxson family on Broadway. And while the rest of the protagonists (or antagonists’ depending on your reading) wear muted colors, Davis always appears luminous presence, ready to right any wrong.
Talking of the costuming decisions for Davis’ portrayal of Troy Maxson’s wife, Rose Lee, Davis said, “she is the sunshine of that family–the bright light. Every Friday night, even if she was in a house dress, she felt put together. She wanted to be attractive and keep it fun and always have that great Friday night look.” Adding onto that, Davis explained the dichotomy of Viola’s presence. “But the other side of it is that it’s hard to make Viola look bad [laughs]. Because if you look at the clothes she had to wear, you’d say ‘those look very drab.’ But on Viola, the clothes become happy [laughs].”
On Her Love of Period Pieces
Sharen Davis’ work on costuming has been some of the most lauded in tinseltown. The two-time Academy Award-nominated costume designer has predominantly received praise for her work in films set in the mid-20th century. From “Ray” to “Dreamgirls,” Davis has a proven track-record of knowing how to create costumes that would elucidate the era.
Furthermore, Davis’ frequent collaborations with Denzel Washington seemed to have made it a no-brainer to work on the actor’s third feature as a director. When asked what drew her to this project, the steadfast Davis’ simply replied: “Denzel.” The costume designer went on to say, “I’ve worked with him a number of times and I’ve never seen him like this. I didn’t want to miss this opportunity.”
A Nightmarish Norman Rockwell Painting Set in Pittsburgh
Norman Rockwell was originally conceived as a hackneyed painter who added nothing new the lexicon of American art. His work was boring, unimaginative and almost propagandistic. As his biographer Deborah Solomon explained, “he was seen as a lowly calendar artist whose work was unrelated to the lofty ambitions of art.”
Yet, only a short-time later, the artist did indeed reach those lofty ambitions, with his 1964 painting The Problems We All Live With–chronicling an African American girl’s National Guard-protected walk to a New Orleans Elementary School that had recently been desegregated–coming to hang in Obama’s White House. From an apple pie cooling on the porch to shameful racism, Rockwell captured the quintessential Americana experience–as did August Wilson in his Pittsburgh Cycle series.
Speaking of the drabby color schemes of industrial America, Davis explained, “It was 1957, and I always go back 4-5 years. The pants were quite baggy back then and higher in the waist,” said Davis. Adding on, the costume designer said “I really desaturated all the color. I damped it out. It was either yellow, brown, grey… black [laughs]. We used a lot of texture and prints to bring out patterns. I was shocked that it was so colorful looking when I was shown the film because I was thinking the whole time, ‘this is so drab!’ but I really didn’t want the clothes to take over any of the scenes.”
And thanks to Sharen Davis’ fantastic costuming decisions, the actorial work in the film shines like few others did this year. With a milder, more muted focus on costuming, the powerful, tour-de-force performances coming from Viola Davis and Denzel Washington were a hallmark of acting. And with Davis’ astute choices, it seems like there was no conceivable way it could not have been.