Costume designer Eiko Ishioka's fantastic farewell in 'Mirror Mirror'
I realize that this is my third post in the space of a week to mention the staggering wardrobe created by the late Eiko Ishioka for "Mirror Mirror." But since a posthumous Best Costume Design Oscar for the Japanese visionary -- a word diluted by overuse that fully applies here -- who passed away in January after battling pancreatic cancer, is going to remain near the top of my wishlist for the next awards season, you may as well get used to it. Certain feats of genius demand appropriate respect, and with so many shiny (and shinily dressed) objects still to arrive and distract viewers in the next nine months, one may as well hammer the message home early.
Accents, details and color flashes of Ishioka's "Mirror Mirror" designs still drift into my head two weeks after seeing the film: the saturated cobalt tone of Snow White's fighting gear, or the absurd detailing on the ship-shaped hats worn by Julia Roberts' literal court pawns. Not many films invite a rewatch just to drink in background garments one might have missed; here's one.
Happily, I'm not the only so taken with Ishioka's work as to devote some column space to it: costume designers aren't normally granted individual profiles in the arts pages, nor do multiple critics tend to dedicate entire paragraphs of their reviews to the frocks. Of course, much of the "Mirror Mirror" coverage has spilled over into delayed obituary territory, and the main reason I wanted to raise the subject again is to link to Lynn Hirschberg's lovely overview of Ishioka's career for W Magazine, many details of which will surprise movie buffs who knew her only for her film costuming. The lady's work spanned architecture, advertising, graphic design, music videos and even the Olympic Games: who else can claim to have won Oscar and Grammy awards for collaborations with, respectively, Francis Ford Coppola and Miles Davis?
Returning to "Mirror Mirror," Hirschberg talks to director Tarsem Singh, who explains just how much strain the designer was under while fashioning her cinematic swansong, so to speak:
“Eiko wanted to evoke a true fairy tale,” Singh told me over the phone. “She was not well during the movie; she was undergoing chemotherapy. But Eiko had only two gears: full-out or no gear at all. Her work kept her alive—it was her reason for being.” Like all of Eiko’s movie projects, the costumes for Mirror Mirror are elaborate, richly detailed manifestations of character. A lace collar around the evil queen’s neck is designed to evoke the backs of reptiles; Snow White’s gossamer gowns include touches like overlapping leaves and climbing velvet vines that subtly underscore her exile in the forest. And, of course, there is the judicious use of what’s become known as Eiko’s Red. “Eiko would say that red is the most difficult color,” Singh explained. “But in many ways, red was Eiko: strong, intense, brilliant.”
The detailing mentioned there by Hirschberg typifies the level of invention and character definition -- as opposed to merely dutiful, authentic replicas of period looks -- that costume design awards should expressly be about. (Between "Mirror Mirror" and Robert Pattinson's Belle Epoque romp "Bel Ami," I've a hunch I've already seen 40% of next year's nominee field, spanning both those camps.)
That Ishioka, after deservedly scooping an Oscar for "Bram Stoker's Dracula," never got so much as a nomination (from either the Academy or the Costume Designers' Guild) for any of her three previous, equally eccentric and dazzling, collaborations with Tarsem, is dispiriting proof that that isn't always the case. Here's hoping the next season puts that to rights.
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