Mad Max: Fury Road, the fourth installment in the Mad Max franchise, is nothing like we've seen before. Certainly nothing like any Best Picture Nominee that's come before it. And there is, precisely, where lies its strength.
Directed by George Miller (whom had already directed the previous three movies of the franchise), this epic chase is, at its core, as simple as it gets. It hits all the notes you'd expect of a Mad Max movie, but somehow it has a magic that had not been captured before. More than a movie, it's an experience.
Precisely because the story is so simple (basically, a two-hour long chase), the movie has the time to really immerse you in the universe without any dialogued exposition or your usual tropes in fantasy worlds. And it's there where the costume design really comes into play.
From the dictatorial world of Inmortan Joe to the rebellious Furiosa and her clan; the designs manage to transport the viewer into the crazy world that the movie depicts. And by doing this, Miller manages to bring the franchise vigorously back to life.
COSTUMING THE APOCALYPSE
The costume design for the movie was created by Jenny Beavan, the now legendary designer behind the Merchant and Ivory films (for a full retrospective on her work click here). She has been nominated 10 times for an Academy Award and won two of these: the first one for A room with a View (1986, shared with John Bright) and the second one for Mad Max: Fury Road (2015).
Amongst her impressive body of work you can find The Bostonians (1984), Howards End (1989), Swing Kids (1993), The Remains of the Day (1993), Sense and Sensibility (1995), Ever After (1997), Alexander (2004), Amazing Grace (2006), The King's Speech (2010).
Looking at her filmography, her work on this movie seems a real stretch from her comfort zone, which makes her transition from period films to sci-fi/fantasy even more impressive.
But it's that same background in period that lends her an extreme attention to detail that is usually lacking in the fantasy genre, which means that none of her designs fall into the lazy, generic cliches that often ruin the designs for this type of movies.
MAX: THE SURVIVOR
Mad Max is an icon; a movie icon. Because of this, even those that had never seen the original trilogy had a vague idea of how he looks. So this made the task of redesigning it a bit tricky, to say the least. Of course, there was the option of dressing him exactly the same as in the Mel Gibson incarnations, but that wouldn't have fit in this movie anyway. Gibson's Max had a residual coolness that would feel off in this movie.
This Max has been wandering senseless for years. He is broken. He has already given up on humanity, and is far more insane than the original Max. And his clothes needed to reflect that.
His costume is, basically, made up of items that he has found and made his throughout his years wandering through the wasteland: the worn out jacket, the gloves... Some things are even incorporated throughout the movie, like the blood transfusion tube.
The other basic guideline for his costume, is that everything needs to have a use. Max lives under such extreme conditions that everything that he carries around is there for a specific use. There is nothing included in the costume that is only there to look good. The approach to these designs is not aesthetic, but purely practical. And that certainly helps to ground a movie as crazy as this one.
Despite this, Beavan still managed to work in a little throwback to Gibson's Max by dressing the character in a leather jacket modeled after the one Gibson wore. The main difference: this one has been worn to tatters, it's ragged and it's almost falling to pieces. Just like the character.
Actually, this ragged feeling is very much heightened by the on point use of grease and dirt as patinas, which also helps to create a feeling of reality.
But perhaps, the most iconic element of this Max's look is the muzzle that he wears during the first half of the movie (insert whatever Bane joke you can think of). This is meant to reinforce the idea that this society treats humans as little more than cattle.
There's really not much else to say; simplicity is the name of the game for these designs. And that's the reason why they work. No single character has more than one outfit (it would not make sense under the circumstances of the story) and all of these outfits feel very much grounded because there is nothing that is there only to look cool or aesthetic.
FURIOSA: THE REBEL
Imperator Furiosa is, quite possible, the best designed female character in a sci-fi movie in recent years (I do adore Rey's costume from the new Star Wars, but Furiosa's costume has an undeniable magnetism that it's hard to recreate). The key to her design is also simplicity and practicality. And that's why it really manages to make you believe that she can actually do the things she does.
From the bandaged breasts to the worn-down pants and the shaved head, Furiosa's costume speaks of her strength, but also her humanity. If you take a closer look, the fabric of her top is very reminiscent to the fabric worn by the wives, whilst the hard fabric of her pants is more reminiscent of the clothes worn by the many mothers. This consolidates her character as a cultural patchwork, and speaks of overcoming traumas (it is highly implied that she began as a sexual slave after she was captured, linking her even more to the wives).
Also, last but not least, notice how both Max and Furiosa wear this protective shoulder pad over their costumes. This is meant to visually highlight the similarities between the two characters. They are both people hardened by the cruelties of their world, but their humanity is still quite intact. They both armor themselves against the world, but they are still vulnerable to emotion.
Just as Max's design, Furiosas is really simple and really practical, which is not something that you tend to associate with sci-fi female costuming (unfortunately).
THE WIVES: THE UNTOUCHED
The costumes for the five wives are the only ones that are designed without taking into account any sort of functionality. Their white gauze wraps are created with the sole purpose of being aesthetically beautiful, the same way that the wives have been chosen by Inmortan Joe only because of their beauty. Their "husband" treats them as objects, and therefore they are dressed as such.
Their clothes feel blatantly out of place in the dirt and the harshness of the wasteland, but they should. Their flimsy white wraps resemble wedding dresses in a way. But instead of giving off a positive vibe, like most wedding dresses do (being a symbol of love generally), these feel strangely perverse. This is not the type of clothing you would wear into this wasteland by choice, and its mere presence indicates some degree of coercion. In their impracticality, these dresses speak to the violence perpetrated on them. And so, whilst their white clothes speak of their innocence, they simultaneously evoke their unspeakable traumas.
These women have been completely stripped of their agency for so long, that at first the audience might think they may never get it back. But as the movie progresses, we see their slow recovery. And that change is seen also through how these dresses, symbols of their oppression, evolve. As their clothes get dirtier and more ragged, they start to tie them up in more personal and unique ways, easily differentiating themselves from the rest of the group. That stylistic difference points to their ongoing efforts to reclaim their stolen agency.
THE VUVALINI OR THE MANY MOTHERS
The matriarchal society of the many mothers is, when we meet them, reduced to a band of survivors. That is visually shown through their clothing by mainly pandering towards practicality. Everything they wear on themselves is designed to meet the desert's demands: scarves, goggles, boots... basic items needed to survive.
But what differentiates them from everyone else, including Max, is color. These women are the only characters that sport some accents of color: mainly green. This is meant to create a visual connection to the home they lost, the mythical "green place". And it also creates a certain sense of hope within this barren world.
INMORTAN JOE: THE DICTATOR
The hulking presence that is Inmortan Joe sets himself apart at a basic visual level. In the world that George Miller presents us, mostly everyone is either half naked or wearing very basic clothing. But not him. Instead, he encases himself completely, and sheathes his body in a plexiglass molded transparent body armor.
That transparency suggests that he is still accessible: see through. But, in reality, he is untouchable; he is a God.
But there is another key element essential to create that godlike presence: the muzzle of the breathing machine. By covering half of his face with the mask, he dehumanizes himself. He is not a man. He is something more, a God commanding men. But the reality is as ugly as his blistered, raw skin that is hidden behind the plate; he is nothing but a bad man. He is no God.
THE KAMICRAZIES: THE BLINDED ONES
Like any God, Inmortan Joe needs followers. And he finds them in the young deformed warriors that call themselves the Kamicrazies. They are, basically, Inmortan Joe's cannon fodder. And, as such, they are hardly clothed; a very basic set of pants and a lot of war paint.
They wear no armor because there is nothing to protect. They're only worth in this society is to die on the Fury Road.
Mad Max: Fury Road is a thrilling movie, filled with amazing characters and astonishing action sequences. But it somehow manages not to dull the emotional impact of the story with the roar of the explosions. This was the action movie that no one imagines we were getting when they announced this new installment on the Mad Max Franchise.
The Costume Design for this movie was completely on point and managed to capture and reflect the feverish nightmare that is the world these characters inhabit. And yes, this year there were also other nominees that deserved the award, but this was the one that needed to win.
Why? Because the Academy tends to award this to historical pieces, as if fantasy was not hard to design. Mad Max was the first not historical movie to win since 2003 (that year the award went to The Return of the King) and the last sci-fi movie to win was in 1977 (when Star Wars was awarded). Because of this, this win feels like a nice reminder that sci-fi and fantasy deserve to be noticed costume-wise. It's profoundly difficult to costume a historical piece, but is not easier to costume a fantasy piece.