IC-CUNY Hosts Masterclass With Award Winning Costume Designers

Professor Eugenia Paulicelli, Donna Zakowska, Ann Roth, Carlo Poggioli, and Piera Detassis
All photos Laurel Marcus

My Halloween night was one of those weird confluences of events that only happen in New York. Passing the window of the Amazon Book store en route to my main event – the first of a series of masterclasses at CUNY’s Graduate Center sponsored by IC-CUNY (Italian Cinema – CUNY) entitled “The Crafts of Cinema: Costume Design” featuring some of my favorite awards winning costume designers – I saw a crowd gathered.

Heidi Klum being made up in the window of Amazon Books

“Heidi Klum Halloween” read the window display. Oh wait, Ms. Klum (the undisputed queen of Halloween) was being prepped (a process which apparently took 12 hours!) for her costumed debut as some weird space alien/Bodies exhibit creature. Real dedication or some narcissistic voyeurism involved here? You be the judge…

The David di Donatello Award statue

An altogether different type of costume party revealed itself in the CUNY auditorium. Billed as a “one-of-a-kind event,” it marked the first time The Academy of Italian Cinema David di Donatello Awards (the Italian equivalent of an Oscar) has collaborated with an American academic institution. The little gold David statuette (created by Bulgari in 1955 and based on the concept of David and Goliath with Italian cinema being David) was in attendance along with a self-proclaimed “totally jetlagged” Piera Detassis, President and Artistic Director of Italian Cinema.

Donna Zakowska, Ann Roth and Carlo Poggioli

After this lovely little introduction, the main event came to the stage. Famed Costumers included Carlo Poggioli (“Silk,” “Brothers Grimm,” “Divergent,” “The Young Pope,” “The New Pope,” and “Cold Mountain”); the legendary Ann Roth (“Midnight Cowboy,” “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” “The English Patient,” “Mamma Mia,” “The Hours,” and “Cold Mountain”; and the indefatigable Donna Zakowska (“Crimes and Misdemeanors,” “Kate and Leopold,” “Original Sin,” “Romance and Cigarettes,” and of course, the TV series featured in Bergdorf’s window right now “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” Also billed as attending Milena Canonero (“Chariots of Fire,” “Marie Antoinette,” “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou,” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel”) was apparently unable to make it at the last minute.

What is the role of a costume director? “Our job is to talk to the director and the actor. You must know how to be a psychologist — often a psychiatrist,” Poggiolo said with a smile. “You must know how to dye fabric, cut a costume, and many other things.” Poggioli, Ann Roth’s former assistant, was cut off at this point by the master. “Here’s how it works,” she said as if addressing an actor in her charge playing a role. “‘ You and I are going to spend as long as it takes to find this character.'” To the audience, she added, “but you’ve already found it. That actor feels that you and he –mostly he– have found the character.” Zakowska agrees that “the human element comes in” and that “Everything says something – clothes are words. You’re writing a visual poem.”

What sorts of problems can come up? “Actors who are only interested in being themselves,” said Roth. “You have to give them the freedom to be someone else.” She illustrated this with a story about her first meeting with Dustin Hoffman for “Midnight Cowboy” on the heels of his success in “The Graduate,” a film that made him not only a star but also a dreamboat for young girls. “He wanted to be pretty. Ratso Rizzo (Hoffman’s character in “Midnight Cowboy”) fantasized of his Marcello Mastroianni role wearing a white Italian suit.” Roth complied by finding a white pair of pants in a trash pile on 42nd Street and a white jacket leftover from someone’s graduation that maybe “got spilled on or thrown up on.” (Yes, she only had one of each). “When an actor says ‘I don’t wear yellow’ I say ‘shut up! We’re not doing you! It’s about the character – that’s what I care about.”

Poggioli was on a film in Rome with Anthony Hopkins, who came at the last minute. The producers asked if he could prepare some sketches for the actor – “He has a cold, so he has to have a coat, a hat, woolen underwear,” the producer told him. Poggioli said he would talk with Hopkins, who told him, “I will do the scene naked.” “He did the scene naked,” Poggioli grinned.

What are some of the rewards of costume design? “It’s that magic moment when you find the actor,” said Zakowska. “It might not be the jacket you thought –- but it’s the excitement in what we do.” Roth agreed: “When there’s a room with a seamstress pinning, five pairs of shoes on the floor, fabric, a coat on the floor, and someone says ‘try the coat on the floor.’ Suddenly the character is someone else – you don’t see Meryl Streep anymore. It’s magic. There’ll be 4-5 people, including the hairdresser there… That’s the fun part — the actor loves you after that!”

What of the changes to the profession? Roth lamented the dearth of great tailors and seamstresses that existed when she first came on the scene in the mid-1950’s L.A… “There are so few of them left now – with 50 movies a week from Netflix — they don’t give a rat’s (behind) if the sleeve is put in properly – they just don’t!”

Zakowska agreed that the fine art of craftsmanship of suits and shoes is not readily available even here in New York. Poggioli mentioned that there’s less time to prep. “My last film with Fellini, we didn’t have a tight schedule as we have now,” he said. Zakowska mentioned that there’s less need or value in a costume sketch as you can create one on the computer. “We cannot make a costume with the computer,” laughs Poggioli. I guess he doesn’t work in 3D printing.

What of fashion in costume design? Clips of each designer’s work were shown throughout the evening. Amongst other examples, Zakowska chose a Fiat 500 commercial, “The Italians are Coming,” to illustrate the evening’s theme as well as that of the relevance of fashion history. “The 18th century became a camouflage for fashion. Look at Galliano and Dior. I always look at fashion – the period of 1956-59 (when “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” takes place) is a fantastic moment in clothing. We’re dealing with fashion as costume – stylizing it a bit but feeling that connection. People connect with costumes aspiring to be superheroes in their own way. It’s about aspiration and about being other than yourself.” If you’re a fan of the show, be sure to check out Bergdorf’s windows, plus there’s a coat which Zakowska created for auction to benefit the Garment District revival.

Were there any times that the costume designers said “no can do” to a job? Zakowska noted that she has never turned anyone down. However, she wouldn’t be on board with anything that’s violent or degrading to women. Roth agreed. Poggioli said he was once on a “medieval film,” were at the last minute, the director said he wanted the medieval queen in a mini skirt and high heel boots. “I said no, so I went away.” Added Roth, “I try to avoid having real conversations with producers. I don’t even remember their names.” Zakowska remarked, “We’re artists in business, so it’s eternal conflict.”

How historically accurate does a costume designer need to be? Roth told a story about “Cold Mountain,” where the dead soldiers lying in the field couldn’t have rubber soles on the bottom of their shoes. “The Smithsonian had to check; otherwise, there’d be a boycott of the film like Mel Gibson’s “The Patriot.” She extolled Poggioli’s expertise at what he does: “If you’re making a film with Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and thousands of characters, you want him. He can set up a war, get all the necessary papers to get everything through each country, he knows workrooms in Romania – he can have 800 pairs of gloves for the Southerners and 800 pairs of gloves for the Northerners, 3,000 pairs of shoes.” During the making of “Cold Mountain,” about 3,000 uniforms were stolen. They had to be remade — Poggioli went all over Romania and the Czech Republic to find the fabric, buttons, and belts to replace them.

What of the unsung costume designer’s legacy? Unlike fashion designers, they often make labeless clothing, but do they ever get credit for a trend? Roth told another “Midnight Cowboy” gem, this time about Brenda Vaccaro’s no nudity contract. Vaccaro’s character was lying in bed with Jon Voight, calling for her to be undressed. “She was hysterical! I was living in a studio on West 25th Street, and a man was selling stolen fur coats out of the back of his car. I bought a red fox coat – I believe it was less than $200, and she wore that.” The ‘fun fur’ – “ratty secondhand furs” or “orange furs” became a trend. “Everybody had fun fur – did I get credit? NO!”

Editor’s’ Note: As I walked back out on 34th Street after 9 p.m., the crowd was still gathered and Ms. Klum was still not readied, making me wonder if her Halloween party was scheduled for October 31st!

Are you interested in attending an IC-CUNY Masterclass? Click here for information.

Laurel Marcus

OG journo major who thought Strunk & White's "The Elements of Style" was a fashion guide. Desktop comedienne -- the world of fashion gives me no shortage of material.

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