The costume designer liaises with the actor, director, cinematographer, art director, hair and make-up stylists, and even the writer and stunt coordinator. On the set daily and/or nightly, until shooting wraps, for fittings, alterations, accidents, or additions, the costume designer is involved from a film's earliest pre-production and must do exhaustive research, even for a modern movie, regarding location, climate, class, age, taste, and fads. But, the designer must be always inventive. Historical clothing must be both accurate and believable for today's eyes. Truth, at times, must be sacrificed to ensure that an actor will look correct and the designer must determine how to make departures from strict historical accuracy appropriate both to the period and to the actor's physique. For example, the narrow shoulder lines of a nineteenth-century cowboy jacket could make a twenty-first-century actor look pinched, and so must be adjusted. This is a difficult and intuitive process because the designer must know the history well enough to tweak it, if necessary, without losing an accurate feel for the time. After research, a designer will usually make sketches, some quite artistic, and attach swatches of cloth to the paper. This becomes the prototype of the final costume.

The ingenuity of costume designers is legendary. For the Italian neorealist film Bellissima (1951), Piero Tosi asked people in the street to give him the clothes they were wearing, which, once told it was for "cinema" and "Anna Magnani," they eagerly did. For the Mafia film Casino (1995), Rita Ryack looked through the closets of Brooklyn gangsters in their homes. For the little-documented slave incident dramatized in Amistad (1997), Ruth Carter examined period American and European paintings and African cloth. For Lagaan (2001), a nineteenth-century Indian story, Bhanu Athaiya studied the climate and landscape of Bhuj, the film's locale. To bring evocative movements to the flying or fighting characters in Ying xiong ( Hero , Zhang Yimou, 2002), Emi Wada followed ancient Chinese dance costumes' cutting patterns. And to dress a cast of 10,000 in clothes from 1903 to 1969 for The Last Emperor (1987, Academy Award ® ), James Acheson studied the history of twentieth-century China for six months.

The costume designer's primary relationship is with the actor, who often feels in character once in costume but also expects the designer to exalt good features and diminish bad ones. To do this, the designer will ingeniously pad, tailor, dye, and cut minutia such as sleeves,

Tom Ewell takes note of William Travilla's memorable dress for Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch (Billy Wilder, 1955).
waists, buttons, collars, and hems. During Hollywood's studio era, costume designers often built an enduring collaboration with the actors they dressed and were associated with a "look": Adrian with Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford, Travis Banton (1894–1958) with Marlene Dietrich and Mae West, Jean Louis (1907–1997) with Rita Hayworth, Orry-Kelly (1897–1964) with Bette Davis, William Travilla (1920–1990) with Marilyn Monroe, Howard Greer (1896–1974) with Jane Russell, Irene Sharaff (1910–1993) with Elizabeth Taylor. Widely copied film outfits became, in some cases, a signature such as Rita Hayworth's infamous strapless Gilda gown (1946, Jean Louis), Elizabeth Taylor's slip in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958, Helen Rose), the tight cap-sleeved undershirt Lucinda Ballard (1906–1993) provided for Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) and Marilyn Monroe's pleated halter-top dress in The Seven Year Itch (1955, William Travilla). The designer dresses actors of every type and shape in films of every genre and must work out contradictions such as Walter Plunkett's (1902–1982) task in making a twenty-two year old, pregnant Joan Bennett look ten in Little Women (1933), Irene Sharaff's in dressing sex siren Elizabeth Taylor in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) as a desirable frump, or Lizzie Gardiner's in turning cool bad boy Terence Stamp in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994) into a dowdy transsexual. The American Edith Head (1897–1981) and the Italian Piero Tosi, two of cinema's best-known, most prolific and most admired designers, well exemplify these abilities.

For over sixty years, Edith Head dressed actors from Montgomery Clift and Elvis Presley to Sophia Loren and Doris Day. She started working at Paramount in 1923 under Howard Greer, took over from Travis Banton in 1938, and ran the department until 1967 when she went to Universal for ten years. Nominated thirty-three times and winner of eight Oscars ® , Head costumed films as various as Wings (William Wellman, 1927) and Sweet Charity (Bob Fosse, 1969). Her costumes consistently sparked lasting fashion trends including the T-shirt and jeans look she established for Paul Newman in Hud (1963).

Piero Tosi describes the "essence of costume design" as "the willingness and humility to accept each project as a new venture" (Landis, p. 149). Known for his thoroughness and acute aesthetic sense, Tosi's ability to bring realism to the narrative, no matter what the epoch, is almost unparalleled, even for working class, post–World War II Italian life ( Rocco and His Brothers , 1960), nineteenth-century German royalty ( Ludwig , 1972), or Sicilian aristocrats ( Il Gattopardo [ The Leopard , 1963, Academy Award ® nomination]). For the mythic Medea (Pier Palo Pasolini, 1969), Tosi took inspiration from North African, Micronesian, Greek, and Bedouin fabrics and headdresses. Terence Stamp praised Tosi's designs for him in the surreal "Toby Dammit" sequence in Histoires extraordinaires ( Spirits of the Dead , Federico Fellini, 1968) as vital in helping him play the part. Tosi's versatility has extended to creating hair, makeup or sets for some films, including the dreamlike makeup for Fellini's ancient Rome extravaganza, Satyricon ( Fellini Satyricon , 1969).

The costume designer must work closely with the cinematographer's needs. To handle a dark nocturnal fight scene in Rocco e i suoi fratelli ( Rocco and His Brothers , 1960), Tosi used a white line in Alain Delon's sweater to highlight his head. In Shanghai Express (1932), the milliner John Frederics (d. 1964) similarly buoyed Marlene Dietrich's face in a night shot by using egret feathers formed into a V. Film stock itself also posed obstacles. Until color was introduced into features in the late 1930s, it was conveyed by shading and designers had to use whatever fabrics best suggested it. A famous example is Bette Davis's dress in Jezebel (1938), which had to be perceived as red. After many experiments with blacks, blues, and reds, Warner Bros. designer Orry-Kelly used a reddish brown, high-sheen satin, which, in monochrome, gave an illusion of scarlet. More complex problems occurred with color film. Designers had to work with the color spectrum as it appeared on celluloid, not as it really was. A gorgeous blue might translate to poor gray on film, requiring the designer to screen-test every garment. Other technical advancements necessitated adaptations: the talkies exaggerated the sound of noisy fabrics like taffeta or beaded materials, and Cinemascope's vast detail showed machine stitching, forcing some clothes to be hand-sewn. These difficulties were so notable that the Academy Award ® for costume, begun in 1948, was originally divided into two awards, one for black and white and one for color. Starting in 1967 the category incorporated both. New color problems have arisen for the costume designer with the green screen backdrop necessary for digital projection.

Production design or art direction and costume often contain such an essential aesthetic link that many designers, such as Piero Gherardi (1909–1971), Mitchell Leisen (1898–1972), Natacha Rambova (1897–1966), Carlo Simi, Piero Tosi, Patrizia von Brandenstein, and Tony Walton (b. 1934) have done both. Rambova's sets and costumes were especially attuned and her interpretations of Aubrey Beardsley's drawing for Salome (1923) are some of cinema's most extraordinary examples of this homogeneity.

Directors can assign great importance to costume. The designer Anthony Powell (b. 1935) revealed that George Cukor, with whom he worked on Travels with My Aunt (1972), often would re-block or re-light a scene to accommodate an unexpectedly striking outfit. Many designers work continually, or for a cycle of films, with one director, creating well-known partnerships, some through choice, others through the serendipity of a studio-formed relationship. Some key ones have been between Natacha Rambova and Alla Nazimova, Travis Banton and Josef von Sternberg (through Paramount), Edith Head and Alfred Hitchcock (through Paramount), Bill Thomas (1921–2000) and Douglas Sirk (through Universal), Piero Tosi and Luchino Visconti, Piero Gherardi and Federico Fellini, Shirley Russell and Ken Russell, Carlo Simi and Sergio Leone, Emi Wada and Peter Greenaway, Jeffery Kurland and Woody Allen, Ruth Carter and Spike Lee. These collaborations often orchestrate a total look that can promote an auteurist agenda. In Jungle Fever (1991), for example, Lee and Carter made unusual use of such a collaboration when he and Carter conceived an overall color scheme through the costumes' vivid colors and a persistent bath of golden light, trying to effect a harmonious tonality as a counterbalance to the story's racist-inspired anger.

Another collaborator is the costume house. Western Costume Company in Los Angeles (founded in 1912, originally for cowboy films) and Sartoria Tirelli in Rome (established in 1964) are two of the most notable. These businesses typically have huge stocks of period costume as well as research libraries and facilities for making accessories or clothes.

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