The hardest and most challenging task that any fantasy movie has to face is to make the audience believe that their world could, and does, indeed, exist. Without this, there is no investment on the viewer's part and, therefore, no interest. The failure to do so has been the doom of many epic productions through movie history.
In fantasy books, the task is much easier; generally, it's up to the reader's imagination. But in a movie, everything needs to be specific. In a book, you can say "she looked angelic with the traditional veil of her people". In a movie, you need to see the veil, and it has to be both believable and unique like it could only belong to "her people". That need for specificity affects, mostly, two departments: production design and costume design.
This is what is called "world-building", and in recent memory, one movie has become the ultimate referent when it comes to it: The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (Peter Jackson, 2001-2003).
This movie took upon itself the daunting task to adapt the "unadaptable book" (as Tolkien's work was known amongst the movie industry for many, many years). And, while story-wise this was no easy feat, it was also a major challenge for the production design team, as well as for the costume designer.
Not only did they have to create a new world from scratch, but they had to bring life to the many races and cultures that populated that new world. From elves to hobbits, Tolkien's work is infused with details and complexities that needed to be reflected on the screen.
This amazingly difficult task fell into the hands of costume designer Ngila Dickson and props creator Richard Taylor, who worked hand in hand to infuse life into these different cultures and create the impression that they have inhabited this world for centuries.
And, partially, this movie has become such an icon thanks to their incredible work in that regard. Everyone knows how a hobbit, an elf or a dwarf, is supposed to look, and that's because they did such an extensive work, creating every race and culture in all their glorious detail.
Because of this, It's only high time I devoted my time to talk about such a relevant movie (design-wise). In an attempt to try and atone for that, I've decided to start a long-term series entirely dedicated to their designs and how they managed to create such a large and yet, cohesive, world.
And even though, the logical and reasonable place to start would be with the Hobbits, I am neither logical nor reasonable. Because of this, I've decided to start instead with my favorite character: Éowyn. It's a simple preference, but, worry not, I will eventually get to the poor Hobbits.
A SHIELD MAIDEN OF ROHAN. PART I
Éowyn, daughter of Éomund and Theodwyn, younger sister of Éomerand, niece of King Théoden, is one of the most memorable characters in the trilogy and has some of the most gorgeous designs. And the first of those that I am going to be looking at is the "green gown", which happens to be my personal favorite. Yes, once again, it comes down to that. I apologize.
This design is particularly important because it's the gown she wears the first time we are introduced to her character and because it's one of the first designs we see in Rohan. Because of this, it's extremely important that it manages to present the character and set the tone and feel of the culture more swiftly and directly that the designs that are to come.
|The Rohirrim Flag|
Rohan is one of the realms of Middle Earth created by J.R.R.Tolkien. It's a grassland which lies north of Gondor (the other main Human realm) and north-west of Mordor, and it's inhabited by the Rohirrim, a people of herdsmen and farmers who are well known for their horses and cavalry. Their land is a rough one, and so are their people. The Land of Rohan is also referred to as the land of the Horse Lords.
All of these elements had to be reflected, one way or another, into the costumes of the Rohirrim. And Éowyn, being one of the central characters in Rohan, is a perfect example to analyze how they translated that cultural background into specific elements of the dress.
First of all, let's look at the design itself; it consists of a dark green velvet gown with long, dangling sleeves, a gold-embroidered neckline and a gold belt. The cherry on top is the drawn-up skirt that reveals a lighter green, embroidered under-skirt.
The first thing you can notice is how worn out the velvet is. This is a dress that has been lived in, a lot. This is what I mean by turning text into specific details. The people of Rohan are not extremely rich and are going through bad times. How do you translate that to the screen? Well, have all their clothes, even those of noble birth, be worn in and look a tad old and ragged. It's a gorgeous dress, but you can easily tell that she doesn't have a ton of dresses and that she wears them until they are useless. If you get close enough, you can actually see the tears and scratches on the velvet.
Another important specificity that you can see only by looking at it is how heavy and warm it looks. Again, details are important. How do you show the audience that this is a cold and rough land? Well, they dress warmly. The dress looks like it can stand cold. Such a simple detail helps to underline the roughness of the land she lives in, as well as the cold and earthiness of it.
That's how important the choice of materials is: a type of cloth, a texture... choosing one or another can actually change what the dress transmits to the audience.
The other element that really pops up is the neckline, with all the embroideries in golden thread. This helps to highlight her royal lineage. Even though her dress is old, she is important enough to have a whole chunk of the dress embroidered.
Still, it's a very simple detail; it's far from pompous, which helps to transmit the idea that her character is quite humble. She really doesn't care about her looks and is close to her people and the land. The golden details of the dress never feel too much: its beauty lies in its simplicity, which is always the order of the day with the designs of Éowyn and her people.
The Rohirrim are very simple and humble people, and the fact that every element of the dress transmits that is proof of how much care went into the designs.
Hands down, the smartest and most compelling element of the design is the inclusion of the drawn-up skirt, which, once again, shows just how important is to turn general concepts into specific details. In the source material, we are told repeatedly that Éowyn is a very practical character and she likes to do things herself. She is Shield-maiden of Rohan. She is no lady. She wields a sword and is a masterful rider. It's only logical that her clothes would allow her to do this.
Even though in late medieval times the sporting of said drawn-up skirts ended up being a stylistic choice; the drawn-up skirt, in its inception, was created to allow women a larger range of movement, so that they could walk around the court with the skirt down but, when it came to ride or move swiftly, they would draw up the frontal piece in order to be more comfortable.
It's only logical then, that the ladies of Rohan, who are traditionally brought up as fighters and riders as well as courtiers, would adopt such a practical style.
And so, by adding the detail of a drawn-up skirt, the design is highlighting a certain practicality of the character and is drawing attention to her willingness to do things herself.
Another clever element that might easily go unnoticed is the inclusion of long, dangling sleeves. Allow me to explain myself.
Any given culture, through time, ends up being influenced by the cultures surrounding it. Rohan, in this case, is influenced from the North by the elves at Lothlórien and, from the South from the human realm of Gondor, which is also heavily influenced by the elves through their Númenórean Kings (which are from elvish descent, click here for more detail). The elves also happen to be the oldest culture to populate middle earth, which means that it would, undoubtedly, cast a certain influence on the other cultures if only because they've been there for much longer.
Look at the following designs for Arwen and Galadriel (the most significant female Elvish characters), respectively, and look at what they have in common.
You guessed right; long, dangling sleeves that fall straight from the elbow and give the characters a whimsical sense of majesty.
It seems like a logical choice that noble lineages of other races would adopt said style in order to liken themselves to such godly creatures. But Éowyn's sleeves are heavier and less long than those worn by elves, which helps to transmit the idea that this is still a human character: this is their version of Elvish fashion.
Last but not least, is the choice of color itself: a very dark green that helps underline the claustrophobic and sickness of the Court, poisoned by Grimma's ill-advise.
To finish off, I will take a quick look at the historical influences, most of which center around Anglo-Saxon tradition. But, visually, the clearest influence for the design is, undoubtedly, the northern European, early Renaissance fashion for the late 1400s, as shown in the "Lady and the Unicorn" tapestries.
This is a series of six tapestries woven in Flanders in wool and silk at the turn of the 16th century. Several of the ladies represented in the tapestries, wear similar dresses as the one designed for Éowyn: from the drawn-up skirts to the long, dangling sleeves and the embroidered underskirt, the influence is almost transparent.
To wrap this up, just highlight once again the importance of detail when trying to create the look of a culture from scratch. This design is a magnificent example of it, as it manages to capture the feel of the Rohirrim, of Éowyn herself and of Middle Earth trough clever detailing.
But, undoubtedly, its biggest accomplishment is that it manages to find a balance between feeling part of the Rohirrim culture and still feeling like it belongs to the same world as that of the Hobbits or Galadriel.
I hope you like it and I'll see you next time. I don't know what designs from Lord of the Rings I will be covering yet. This will function more or less the same way that the Padme series works (improvising basically) but if you want to request any specific design from the Trilogy don't hesitate to contact me and let me know!
Also, I have an announcement: The Costume Vault has a Tumblr account!! Join me here!!! I hope to see you there as well.
All the images of the dress used in this article (and many more)
can be found in the amazing collection of movie costumes
that is The Costumer's Guide.
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