Bloomsbury Fashion Central - Film and Television Costume Milena Canone

Milena Canonero

Author: Natasha Rubin

Image from the 2014 film 'The Grand Budapest Hotel'.
Figure 183.1. The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014). From left: Igor (Paul Schlase), Zero (Tony Revolori), Madame D. (Tilda Swinton) and M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes). Costume designer: Milena Canonero. Director: Wes Anderson. Copyright: TGBH LLC, Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation, TSG Entertainment Finance LLC). Image Courtesy: Maximum Film/ALAMY

The multitalented Italian filmmaker Milena Canonero has been both a film producer and production designer, but it is her career as a costume designer that has left an indelible mark on cinema. The winner of four Academy Awards and multiple BAFTAs, Canonero is best known for collaborations with prestigious directors, including Stanley Kubrick, Francis Ford Coppola, and Wes Anderson. Her contributions to visual storytelling, including the menacing “droogs” from A Clockwork Orange (1971), the 1920s British track stars of Chariots of Fire (1981), and the pastel-colored confections of Marie Antoinette (2006), have rooted themselves in the imaginations of audiences, achieving what Canonero describes as “the visual memory” of a film (Canonero 2017).

Born in Turin, Italy, Canonero’s costume education grew out of childhood experience and some formal schooling. She learned how to make clothes from the seamstress who made weekly visits to her family’s home to mend and sew new garments. Canonero was an avid moviegoer from an early age and also a voracious reader—so much so that her parents would forbid her from reading as punishment (Landis 2003). She attended university in Genoa, studying art history. At the suggestion of her mother, Canonero moved to London in the late 1960s, where she continued her studies and began assisting in commercials where she met director Hugh Hudson. Hudson gave Canonero her first break, on his short film Irresistible (1971), shot on location in Sicily. She was involved in all aspects of the production, including costume design, and found the entire process of filmmaking captivating. Her commitment to Irresistible even prompted Canonero to loan her own jeans to an actress to improve a scene. These early experiences marked the beginning of her illustrious career in cinema.

Although she considered attending film school, Canonero’s plans changed when a friend introduced her to director/producer Stanley Kubrick. Canonero was with Kubrick, and his wife, Christiane, during the editing of the landmark science fiction film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). She observed the director’s exacting style and relentless pursuit of perfection, a system of working only possible because of his autonomy from Hollywood and the studio. The most important thing that Kubrick taught her was to imagine the whole “look” of a character. She always started designing at the head, because in film (as opposed to theater), the camera is always focused on the actor’s face. Canonero learned the importance of collaboration with hair and make-up artists to achieve her characters. Through these early meetings with Kubrick, Canonero learned to recognize the director’s “key words,” and to keep the film’s concept in the forefront of her mind while designing. Inspired by Kubrick, she realized that making films would become her life’s work.

Although Kubrick was a well-established filmmaker, he occasionally welcomed fresh talent to his productions and he hired Canonero to design the costumes for his next film, A Clockwork Orange, based on Anthony Burgess’ popular novel. Canonero shadowed production designer John Barry as he scouted locations, so that she could immerse herself in the world of the film before designing the costumes. Set in a deliberately ambiguous dystopian near-future, Canonero has stated that the film was one of her most challenging. Kubrick was not interested in space-age or futuristic designs for the film’s lead Alex DeLarge (Malcolm McDowell) and his gang of delinquent droogs. Instead, Canonero took inspiration from the look of early 1970s British skinheads. Kubrick initially rejected the skinhead concept because they already existed in society, but Canonero assured him that a stylized version would be transcendent. She dropped the shaved head, but kept the heavy black boots and suspenders (braces). The costumes were influenced by a traditional British cricket uniform of white button-down collared shirt, trousers, and protective codpiece. The codpiece and the boots are the only remnants of Burgess’s description of Alex in the novel; however, it was Kubrick who suggested the cricketer’s codpiece be worn on the outside of the trousers, creating a hyper-masculine, menacing effect. In addition to the irony inherent in the “gentlemen’s game” uniform worn by thugs, Canonero topped off Alex’s look with a black bowler hat, another nod to Britain’s upper class. It is the perversion of these traditional elements that makes the costumes appear especially alarming, with the row of long lashes on just one eye adding to Alex’s unbalanced appearance. Although Kubrick withdrew the film from its UK release due to concerns of gang violence, A Clockwork Orange was a box-office success, and has since become a cult classic.

Following the launch of A Clockwork Orange, Canonero continued to collaborate with Kubrick, even supervising the later dubbing of the film for foreign markets. When he began preparation for the next feature he directed, the eighteenth-century epic Barry Lyndon (1975), Kubrick hired Canonero to source a vast number of archival materials related to period clothing and other aspects of daily life. Kubrick also sent her to scout costume houses to see what was available to rent for the film. After finding only highly theatrical interpretations in the period costume stock, Kubrick realized they would have to design and construct all the period clothing. To achieve the epic scale of this build, Canonero hired Swedish costume designer Ulla-Britt Söderlund to co-design the film. Söderlund had built costume workrooms in Sweden and Denmark, and suggested that they create their own costume workshop. The designers examined original garments at the Victoria and Albert Museum and copied patterns from the collection. They sourced vintage clothing and antique trim from collectors and auctions. Canonero stated, “For a period movie where period clothes exist, you try to combine real things with things you design and make. The real thing, you can never make it as good as that” (Gross 1986, B5). By combining custom-made items with vintage clothing, the designers achieved the level of authenticity that the story required. The filmmakers took inspiration from eighteenth-century portraits by Thomas Gainsborough and Sir Joshua Reynolds, genre paintings of Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin, and the bawdy paintings of William Hogarth, among others. With a team of more than forty people, the costume department was able to create hundreds of costumes for the leads. For the two hundred and fifty extras portraying the British army, the designers created prototypes of military uniforms and then outsourced their production to a manufacturing firm. Canonero and Söderlund won the Academy Award for Best Costume Design in 1976. Barry Lyndon is still considered one of the most beautiful period films ever produced.

While she would have preferred to continue her collaboration with Kubrick, his lengthy gestation process meant that Canonero would be waiting years before he was prepared to direct his next picture. The mismatched schedules of directors and their crew often make consistent collaborations impossible. Changing genre again, Canonero designed the gritty prison drama Midnight Express (1978), directed by Alan Parker, based on the autobiographical novel by Billy Hayes. Midnight Express, was a harrowing story of an American sentenced to a Turkish prison for trying to smuggle drugs out of the country. Canonero traveled to Istanbul and played tourist while gathering research for costumes and sets including surreptitiously photographing the prison guards to recreate their uniforms. When Kubrick began preparing to direct The Shining (1980), he called upon Canonero to design the costumes. Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson), a seasonal caretaker at a vast empty hotel becomes possessed by the idea that he must kill his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and son Danny (Danny Lloyd). Canonero imagined the Torrance family as a 1970s clothing catalog. Danny and his mother share an affinity with their cheerful, child-like clothes and matching colors, belying the horror that was about to unfold. The light blue party dresses Canonero designed for the Grady twins left an indelible impression on the American horror psyche. Once again, Canonero’s costumes secured a place in the popular imagination.

Chariots of Fire returned Canonero to her early mentor, director Hugh Hudson. Set in Cambridge, England just after WWI, Chariots of Fire is the true story of two competing schoolmates and runners, first in training and then winning at the Paris Olympic Games in 1924. Canonero developed a neutral palette for her period-correct sportswear, with shades of cream, white, brown, and gray, punctuating the collegiate looks with tweed and argyle. Chariots of Fire was Hugh Hudson’s first feature film and won the Academy Award for Best Picture. Canonero won her second Academy Award and first BAFTA for the film. The costumes for the film captured the public and the fashion world’s attention. Menswear brand builder Norman Hilton offered Canonero the opportunity to design a men’s fashion line, for which she received the prestigious Coty Award.

With her soaring reputation, Canonero attracted the attention of director Francis Ford Coppola who had begun pre-production on The Cotton Club (1984). Canonero became a member of Coppola’s extended cinema family, including production designers Dean Tavoularis and Richard Sylbert, and cinematographers Vittorio Storaro and Gordon Willis. On the surface, The Cotton Club’s Harlem night club had little in common with Chariots’s British athletes. With a lengthy pre-production period due to studio complications, Canonero had time to source a substantial amount of vintage clothes for the large cast from New York, London, Los Angeles, and Rome. As was her preference, she incorporated a significant number of vintage clothes into a dazzling Jazz Age wardrobe that she designed for the screen. The Cotton Club won her a second BAFTA.

Canonero’s next film, Out of Africa (1985) starred Meryl Streep as Karen Blixen, a Danish author living in colonial Kenya between 1914 and 1931. Based on Blixen’s memoir (written under her pen name, Isak Dinesen), Canonero was given access to the author’s archive of letters and personal photographs. Despite Canonero’s penchant for historicism, director Sidney Pollack wanted Blixen’s look to be sensual and engaging. Streep wore Canonero’s elegant mix of vintage and designed costumes. Her Canonero designed safari clothes were made to order in a London costume shop. Canonero amassed a large library of historical references and even called on Kenyan paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey for research assistance (Sones 1986). The tribal costumes Canonero designed were made in a Nairobi workshop, and she hired local artisans to create the jewelry needed for the tribes. The film received seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Canonero earned nominations for an Academy Award and BAFTA for her designs. The film had a sizable impact on fashion trends, sparking a Ralph Lauren ad campaign with safari clothing and lace-trimmed blouses, and boosted fashion retailer Banana Republic’s bottom line.

Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988) was based on the life of automobile entrepreneur Preston Tucker. Although based on real people and events, director Frances Ford Coppola took artistic license with the story. And for Canonero, that meant glamorizing the family. These included a few original 1940s suits designed by MGM costume designer Adrian for Joan Allen as Preston’s wife. Canonero received yet another Academy Award nomination for Costume Design. Two years later, she designed the costumes for another collaboration with Coppola for The Godfather Part III (1990).

When Coppola’s daughter Sofia Coppola directed the film Marie Antoinette (2006), she knew she would hire Canonero to design a fresh take on an old story. The filmmakers agreed that the look of the court and the eighteenth century would be from the teen queen’s point of view. The director’s inspiration was a box of French macaroons, referencing the colors of Marie Antoinette’s bedroom at Versailles. Consequently, the costumes are an Easter parade of silk and satin pinks, blues and mint green, a fairy tale palette that served Sofia Coppola’s vision. Canonero received her third Academy Award for Best Costume Design for the film. A few years later, Canonero also designed the costumes for Paris Can Wait (2016), the first feature film directed by Eleanor Coppola.

Known for his idiosyncratic and detailed world-building, populated by eccentric characters, Canonero began collaborating with director Wes Anderson on The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004). Once again, she was embraced by another film family. Anderson employs the same actors and visual collaborators repeatedly. Set predominantly in a fictional 1930s Eastern European alpine resort, the design of The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) conveys liberation via a super-saturated palette, which turns dark as war breaks out. Canonero’s choice of purple for the hotel’s livery is reminiscent of a portrait of Prince Nikolai Alexandrovich Eristoff by Tamara de Lempicka, one of multiple references in the film to the work of the artist. The film was a financial and critical smash, and Canonero won her fourth Academy Award. Other Wes Anderson collaborations have included The Darjeeling Limited (2007) and The French Dispatch (2021).

Canonero has largely made her career outside Hollywood studios. She chooses her projects by the director, rather than relying on screenplays, which may change throughout filming. She has forged creative relationships with distinguished directors including Barbet Schroeder, Warren Beatty, Steven Soderbergh, and Roman Polanski. She received additional Academy Award nominations for Best Costume Design for Dick Tracy (1990), Titus (1999), and The Affair of the Necklace (2001). Venturing outside of her feature work, Canonero is credited as co-designer with Richard Shissler for season three of Miami Vice (1984–1989), and has designed operas for the Metropolitan and the Vienna State Opera.

In 2001, Canonero’s peers presented her with the Costume Designers Guild (CDG) Career Achievement Award in Film. In 2017, she became the first costume designer to receive the Berlin International Film Festival’s lifetime achievement award, the Honorary Golden Bear.

References and Further Reading

Canonero Milena. 2017. “Berlinale Honorary Golden Bear Press Conference.”

Gross Michael. 1986. “Milena Canonero: Fashion On and Off the Big Screen.” New York Times, February 11.

Landis Deborah Nadoolman, ed. 2003. Screencraft: Costume Design. Focal Press.

Martin Nancie S. 1990. “Costume as Art.” Connoisseur, December.

Sones Melissa. 1986. “Trends: The Out of Africa Look.” Newsday. March 30.

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