Most of us who, in our growing up years, allowed the imagery of fairy tales to bleed into our fantasies and stain them forever, have a Snow White memory. Be it the porcelain vulnerability of the princess, the queen’s evil obstinacy or the loyalty of the seven dwarfs, it’s a provocative memory as fairy tales are cracked up to be. Full of fascinating costumes, bizarrely beautiful colours, incredulous hairstyles, nectar fountains, rosy apples, candy houses or giant trees with secrets. What would our imagination be without fairytales? What would fairytales be without costumes?
Japanese art director, costume and graphic designer Eiko Ishioka is no longer alive to answer that, but her costumes for Tarsem Singh’s Mirror Mirror (2012), an adaptation of Snow White from Grimm’s Fairy Tales, do all the talking. Her posthumous nomination as best costume director for the 2013 Academy Awards for this film adds contemporary footnotes. Costumes continue to be a universally understood language; they are characters by themselves, they perform too, said Francis Ford Coppola about Ishioka’s work for his 1992 film Bram Stoker’s Dracula that also won the latter an Oscar for best costume director. “…Let’s spend our money not on the sets but on the costumes, because the costumes are closest to the actors. I decided that the costumes would be the set,” Coppola told a magazine.
Ishioka lived in New York for many years and died in Tokyo last year of pancreatic cancer at 73, inspiring interpretative obituaries all over the world. These writings marked her solitary significance as an acclaimed devotee as well as a guru of unbridled artistic imagination. Two months back, when news of her posthumous nomination for Mirror Mirror poured out, (her fourth film with Singh) it made headlines in Japan. It’s a fertile country too for its artsy, globally relevant contributions to fashion and costume through Issey Miyake (architectural clothes), Yohji Yamamoto (black minimalism and anti-fits), Kenzo (the mentor of separates), Rei Kuwabuko (called the NASA of global fashion) and Ishioka.
Ishioka worked for the stage, screen, advertising and print media, carving a bridge between Eastern and Western art, in the process earning an Oscar, a Grammy and a string of other global honors and nominations. Her work was spiked with striking surrealism whether it was Miles Davis’s album cover for Tutu (1986), David Henry Hwang’s drama M. Butterfly for Broadway (1988), Björk’s controversial video for the song Cocoon (2002), costumes for the Beijing Olympics’ opening ceremony (2008), hair-raising costumes for Singh’s fantasy drama The Cell (2000) and his mythical epic The Immortals (2011); the musical Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark (2011) amongst many other creations. Japanese product house Parco’s stark ads shot with actor Faye Dunaway stand out in the memories of everyone who followed her work. And Coppola’s Dracula, of course.
Mirror Mirror became an “of course” (stunning, award worthy, incredibly original) from the time the costume director’s sketches came in, said Singh in his interviews. The costumes have a muchness in weight, size and impact that fascinate and distract throughout the film. According to an article in The Hollywood Reporter, the gowns of the Evil Queen (Julia Roberts) and Snow White (Lily Collins) measure 5’8” to 6” in circumference, they were handmade from 25-35 yards of fabric each, with huge wire cages and corsets underneath. The Queen’s wedding gown—the most publicized image from Mirror Mirror—weighed 28 kg and was 8 feet in diameter. More than 400 costumes were reportedly created for the movie, others were altered to fit in. Then there are masks, jewellery, quirky headgear and sailing ship hats. Singh told reporters that Ishioka had the clothes for the main characters made in four New York shops: Tricorne costumes, Jennifer Love Costumes, Carelli Costumes and Eric Winterling Costumes. The rest were made in her store in Montreal, using local customers and craftsmen. Each costume reveals the personality arcs of the character who wears it. For Snow White’s first appearance, Singh had suggested that the princess be “connected to nature”. Ishioka created a gown with embroidered hummingbirds, butterflies and flowers. Another scene where Snow White is seen wandering in a birch forest has her in an oversized saffron cape. Yet when she goes to the costume ball her gown has a feminine lower neckline and swan wings—indicating a desire for freedom from the Queen. In contrast, the Evil Queen’s ensembles are sharply cut and have powerful shoulders, high necks and what appear like many dozens of layers of sliced fabric. She looks evil and scheming alright, dangerous actually. Unconsciously even, a hand goes to your heart in astonishment as the film unfolds.
Will Ishioka win the award posthumously? Either way, two things seem clear: one, that the empress’s new clothes are what make Mirror Mirror a visually gripping story. Two, people may die, both those inside fairy tales and those who keep exhuming them. But some things live on also because they are unforgettably garbed.