Importance of costumes in TV and Films

Costumes in TV and films take an important role and it is a way of method for the director to use as a narrative and present in visual to tell the audience the story of the characters, for instance: what period the character is in? , what class division the character is in? etc. Costumes is also a way to tell the audiences the identity of the character through appearances. Elizabeth Wilson has commented that “fashion can be seen as ‘one means whereby an always fragmentary self is glued together into the semblance of a unified identity’ “(Street, 2001). ‘Madonna of the Seven Moons’ – 1945

‘Studies of the film noir genre have drawn attention to the function of costume in texts which can be read from a psychoanalytic perspective. Cook’s discussion of Madonna of the Seven Moons (Arthur Crabtree, 1944) shows how the central character’s ‘split personality’ – that of upper- class woman and a hedonistic gypsy- is represented through costume as a complex signifier of associated emotional and sexual themes (1996:93).’ (Street, 2001)

The quote from above suggests that film costumes can surpass the requirements of historical accuracy or the plot and it can also be used as a ‘language’ to present the ideas of the story. In order to attract and persuade the audiences, the films try to capture realistic and verisimilitude things or events. Iconography is a way to show verisimilitude for instance, when we think about gangster, we will think straight away what style the character is wearing (suits and hats). It shows how films make ‘audiences equate with their own lived experience- costumes that convince as being ‘realistic’ or appropriate to a particular situation.’ (Street, 2001) Iconography also presents the idea that film costumes are not only apply for the characters in the film, but also the audiences who watch the film as well.

The power of stardom:

In TV or films, when a star or actor wear clothes or a piece of jewellery which becomes iconic, people may started to follow what the star or actor was wearing in the film and it is one of the way for commercial as well . Jennifer Craik in 1994 and Joanne Entwistle in 2000 have suggested that film costumes do have impacts on the audiences and is so influential. On below is a quote from Melanie Hillmer and she has explained the power of stardom which affects what we wear in real lives and also how costumes in films can remind us of a specific character or stars. My Fair Lady – 1956

‘Melanie Hillmer has written:

The clothes worn by immortal stars and ling-forgotten starlets serve as a pattern for our dreams and nightmares, and for things of which we have not yet dreamed. When we take clothes out of context, we can slip into the role of Marlene, Humphrey, Audrey, James, speaking their sartorial language with our bodies. We are the copy, the variation, the improvisation, the parody. (1997:12)’ (Street, 2001)

Sarah Berry, who is an author which writes about films, media, cultural studies and designs interactive multimedia projects. She demonstrated her work on film fashions and female consumers in 1930s in America. She suggests that ‘consumer fashion and film costume are potentially subversive because they encourage fantasies of self-transformation while drawing attention to the conventional basis of social types and categories’ (Street, 2001).

Color choices of costumes is one of the significant things that need to consider as it may shows a specific or symbolic meanings to tell the audiences about the story. For instance, In ‘The Matrix’, the character Agent Smith or Neo, etc, wore black color which shows the power within the character. ‘Angel’- 1937

After I’ve read the book ‘Costume And Cinema’, I understand that not only colors of the costumes is important in films or TV, but also texture and patterns need to be consider as well as for instance, if a character wears expensive garments which made with costly fabric, it shows wealth of the character. Also different time period reflects what styles, garments and fabric or patterns they wore.


  • Street, S.(2001). Costume And Cinema: Dress Codes In Popular Film. Published by Columbia University Press

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