The magic and allure of Middle Earth, as a reader, always has been the fact that you can immerse yourself into this world to the point that it feels real. Everything Tolkien wrote, is so detailed and carefully crafted that every character, race, culture and location comes vividly to life in the reader's mind with spectacular clarity. Managing to capture this realism, this carefully constructed illusion that Middle Earth had existed at some point in time, was, undoubtedly, the biggest challenge Peter Jackson faced when he decided to adapt this corner stone of fantasy literature.
Every race, every character and every location needed to feel real, needed to feel like it had lived, like it had a history. And how do you do that? Through production design, photography... and costume design.
We are going to focus on that last department and the various ways in which costume helps bring this world to life. On our first entry we looked into the designs for the Rohirrim through one of the many Éowyn designs (read here), but Middle Earth has many cultures, and many races and this time we will turn our gaze to the fair elves of Rivendell.
Rivendell, the Elven city nested under the Misty Mountains, is the Last Homely House East of the Sea. It's protected by Lord Elrond and the power Vilya, one of the three Elven Rings. It's a place of peace, isolated from the problems of the world, where the otherworldly elves delve.
But behind their beauty and splendor lies a sad truth that impregnates the place with a strangely lethargic melancholy: their time is ending. The time of the elves is coming to an end. They will soon leave Middle Earth and embark to the Undying Land. And so, their light is the light of a dying star.
And if there is any character that better encapsulates that spirit is Lord Elrond's daughter: Arwen Undómiel, the Lady of Rivendell. Because of this, we will examine how they created the Elven culture through the designs of Arwen herself.
THE LADY OF RIVENDELL. PART I
Arwen Undómiel, youngest child of Elrond, Lord of Rivendell, and Celebrian, is the half-elf that captures the heart of Aragorn, rightful king of Gondor. Her character played a very minor role in the books (and was basically developed in the appendixes), but the movie played her up, which allowed us to enjoy her many gorgeous costume designs.
Today we will be looking at her "chase and angel" gown, which is the one she wears the first time we meet her character in The Fellowship of the Ring. Even though these are, strictly speaking, two dresses, I prefer to look at it as one gown with two facets.
Why? Because these two dresses are two sides of the same coin: they both represent different sides of the Elven race. Which makes sense, because the first time that we see these costumes is not only the first time the audience meets her character, it's also the first contact we have with the Rivendell elves.
Actually, the first image we have of her is this radiant apparition as she meets with Aragon and the Hobbits to help Frodo (who has just been stabbed with a Morgul blade). She's wearing the "angel" gown: a white, sparkly gown that floats around her as some sort of aura.
It's important to highlight that this look is, within the context of the narrative, and illusion, a mirage. Which explains the otherworldly feel that it has. It's how mortals perceive the mighty, immortal elves. What this design is trying to capture is the light within her, because, as she approaches the group she shows herself as an angel sent to help them.
This design captures perfectly the perception that the other races have of elves: they are above everything; creatures made of light that float above the rest. Because of this, design wise, this gown is the most fantasy-oriented (or the least grounded) costume she ever wears.
The design doesn't take from history, as Eowyn's design did, but from the western iconography associated with angels: white, simple clothing that floats ethereally around them as if gravity did not affect them. Which is a logical thing to do, given the scene and what she does; basically, saving Frodo.
|The Guardian Angel by |
Pietro da Cortona (17th century)
To create this ethereal feel, the designer used semi-translucent materials woven in with metallic thread (so that it would easily capture the light and create the effect that it emitted light) and also gave the dress a long, flowing train and a very loose tailoring, so to give the impression that it floats around her.
This is a very mystical design, and it's mean to be. Especially because, as the illusion disappears, and the character is revealed in its true form, it creates a contrast between illusion and reality that helps define the Elves themselves, as well as the character.
The "chase" gown, which is what she is actually wearing within, is quite the opposite of the "angel" gown, and consists of a light grey leather jacket decorated with Elven motives, a large silver buckle and a light grey, silk petticoats.
This design manages to balance out the elegance and grace of her race and the practicality and energy of her character. And it's through that practicality that we are able to see her unique connexion with humanity that she has through her relationship with Aragorn, which separates her from the rest of the Rivendell elves.
At first glance, the gown might not seem very practical, but when compared to how the rest of the female elves are dressed in the saga, you realize that this costume is akin to a tracksuit for the Elven standards. It certainly allows her to ride and move with a freedom which the rest of her wardrobe doesn't allow.
Similarly to the "angel" gown, the "chase" dress does not take from any particular historical influence. Actually, this is a constant for all the Elven designs. Instead of taking from history, as the Rohirrim designs do, they take their influences from pictorial art, which helps create that otherworldly feel of their race.
And the biggest artistic influence on their designs is, undoubtedly, found in art-nouveau. Especially on the motives used. Art-nouveau focusses a lot around nature, taking inspiration in plants and flowers amongst others. And so do the elves. It actually makes a lot of sense; this is a culture that is in touch (and harmony) with nature. They cherish all living things. And what better way to showcase this than integrating the natural world in their architecture and clothing.
|Detail from a work by Alphonse Mucha|
Notice how Mucha weaves the flowers into a visual motif and, most importantly, how simple the lines are in his patterns. Now compare it to the design drawn for the embroidery of Arwen's design on the top right of the picture below. The resemblance is pretty uncanny.
Though where that influence is the most noticeable is on the Elven jewelry. Compare this half-cup bracelet below with Arwen's buckle. The similarities in style are pretty uncanny: both focus on natural elements and the ingrained elegance of simplicity.
Another key element in the design is the color, which helps contrast between the illusion (white) and reality (muted grey). A contrast between their role as guardian angels of Middle Earth and the fact that they, as a race, are in the twilight of their lives. The contrast between how humanity sees them (creatures of light) and how they see themselves (they are tired of their immortal lives, they don't have the spirit to keep fighting). It's in that contrast where we find their true nature.
And that's why this dual design is the perfect design in which to introduce Arwen and her people, as it reflects every facet of both through contrast and detailing.
We hope you like it and we'll see you next time. We don't know what other designs from Lord of the Rings we 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 us and tell us!
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.