Long Live the New Fashion: On the Cronenberg Look

Long Live the New Fashion: On the Cronenberg Look
Denise Cronenberg's costumes for brother David's 2011 film "A Dangerous Method," on display in TIFF's exhibition "David Cronenberg: Evolution."
(Courtesy TIFF Bell Lightbox.)

Whenever charges of misogyny are levied against David Cronenberg’s early body horror oeuvre, shorthand psychoanalytic theories like the “monstrous feminine” and “penis envy” abound. According to film critic Robin Wood, arty shockers like “Rabid” (1977) and “The Brood” (1979)— where a woman births mutant children on her body to attack her ex-husband as revenge — reveal “the ultimate dread... of woman usurping the active, aggressive role that patriarchal identity assigns to the male.”

Yet in assessing the filmmaker’s full breadth via TIFF Bell Lightbox’s “From Within” retrospective, an argument can be made regarding the power of the Cronenberg female lead, and how she, like the male scientists and self-creators seemingly at the center of a Cronenberg narrative, also wrestle with interrogating the material world. And, as TIFF’s related “Evolution” exhibition of Cronenberg artifacts and designs attests, garments help determine this power, such as the red, Spanish Inquisition-like scrubs worn by the operating surgeons and nurses in the exclusive gynecological clinic of “Dead Ringers” (1988) or the black leather fetish straps of Roseanna Arquette’s full-body support suit in “Crash” (1996).

The attire worn by memorable Cronenberg leads allows them to play out their desired power roles. Kiera Knightley’s Sabina Spielrein in “A Dangerous Method” (2011), for example, wears the costume drama’s prerequisite early-twentieth century corsetry and full skirts, but the sensuality of her see-through white lace blouses visualizes the incongruities between her psychological demons and increasing intellectual power, all of which starkly contrast the charged, extramarital sexual encounters between Sabina and Karl Jung, played by Michael Fassbinder. Yet masquerade also comes into play — just look at the lush costuming seen in “M. Butterfly” (1993), and how its theatricality hides the true gender of androgynous opera singer Song Liling (played by John Lone).

On December 8, costume designer Denise Cronenberg — who has worked with her brother, David, ever since she was a wardrobe assistant on “Videodrone” (1983) — will be taking part in a panel after a screening of “A Dangerous Method” at TIFF Bell Lightbox, alongside the director and other longtime collaborators, including the composer Howard Shore. BLOUIN ARTINFO Canada spoke with the Toronto-born costume designer on her approach to filmmaking and the inspirations and psychological motivations that have driven key Cronenberg costumes.

Your debut as a costume designer was with “The Fly” (1986). So much of that film dwells on the makeup effects involved in transforming Jeff Goldblum from dashing scientist Seth Brundle into the tragically grotesque human-insect hybrid Brundlefly. How did you approach the costumes with that in mind?

“The Fly” was so long ago. I was a fledgling designer and I just chose things for the character I liked. As the makeup effects progressed, we would try different pieces of clothing and use what worked. I needed to choose things that I could get multiples of — usually six of each costume, as makeup can end up destroying costumes. [It’s] not easy to find six of anything in the same size. It was an interesting learning experience. Clothes do make the man, even if there are a lot of special makeup effects.

So much of your brother's films are preoccupied with finding beauty in brutally ugly environments and situations. When I think about the 1980s Cronenberg female leads — Debbie Harry in Videodrone," Geena Davis in “The Fly,” and Genevieve Bujold in Dead Ringers” — they're all working, independent single women of means wearing big shoulder suits, coats, and dresses. How much of these then-contemporary looks were drawn from your own imagination, or from the personal taste of the characters?

The costumes for “The Fly” and “Dead Ringers” all came from me reading the script and visualizing what I would like them to wear, what was suitable for their character, and what wasn't. It also depended what was in stores. For “The Fly,” I shopped in New York. What they wore was deliberate on my part.

David never asks for anything when it comes to costume. He waits for the fitting and then expresses his opinion. Discussing fashion with him just does not happen. We have worked together for so long it all happens organically.

The Mantle Clinic's red surgical outfits in Dead Ringers seem to be a cross between Margaret Atwood's “The Handmaid’s Tale” and red papal vestments. What was your inspiration?

David decided he wanted that scene to have a religious feel, and we talked about color, and decided on red. Not based on anything, really. I came up with some designs, and we felt this one worked. Jeremy Irons felt it was a bit over the top at first, but David loved it.

The “M. Butterfly” costumes — all 5,979 of them! — are astounding in capturing 1960s-era Peking. A key aspect of the film is Song Liling's impersonation of a woman. Instead of dresses, though, you went with looks combining the Chinese sam and fu. How did you arrive at this?

It truly was a daunting project, and much more difficult and complicated research-wise than “A Dangerous Method.” Besides, shooting in China cannot compare to London … there were many problems, one being the language, and lack of detailed interpreters. We all felt like we landed on the moon at first.  

John Lone wanted to wear dresses of chiffon, [but] I felt they were totally wrong. I told him he would look like he was in drag and that is not the story. His body was extremely difficult to fit! I felt the costume needed to be simple and flowing and feminine, but the key word is subtlety. I like to design characters in a very subtle way, as to not take way from the acting and the character. In other words, audience [should not be] so involved in what the actor wears, but rather absorbing the clothing with the character all in one.

I was really struck by seeing the “Dangerous Method” costumes in-person in the exhibition, and how the use of lace worn by Kiera Knightley was suggestive of her character's sexuality. (Similarly, I just read how you had to source the 1950s suit fabric worn by Lee in “Naked Lunch” from a New York specialty store.) Can you talk about some of the challenges you've encountered in the past costuming period films while staying within an era's authenticity (or not)?

Designing “A Dangerous Method” was a joy. We prepped in London, and shot in London. All the fabrics I needed, and original lace, buttons, etc. were available to me. I never could have done this film here in Toronto. All the clothing (men’s and women’s) were made by Cosprop of London.  I designed and would oversee every inch of every costume, buttons, and original lace. The research was fascinating and so plentiful. We visited the Freud Museum in London, and found amazing research on the original Freud apartment in Vienna. I followed the photos closely and took no license. I would never do that in a period film.

Sabina was a different story. There were no photos of worth. I studied long and hard the clothing of each period in the film, and slowly showed the changes in women's clothing through the years. Kiera Knightley was wonderful to work with and all the clothing just worked on her. I had all things ready for her fitting and they fit beautifully.

You’re currently doing post-production on David’s latest — “Maps to the Stars.” Can you talk about how you went about interpreting the film’s contemporary Hollywood aesthetic?

Research, discussions with the actors and my knowledge of the Hollywood aesthetic helped me design this film. Really, designing to me is based on the character, and what gives the actor the help they need to become the character. Sometimes it is the shoes, or the jewelry that really helps the actor. I read the script many times and visualize all the characters and then decide how I should proceed to give them each their own identity. The first fitting really brings it all together and it’s really wonderful when the actors love what you chose. Sometimes it’s difficult on a present-day film, as the actors want to wear their own clothes, which are usually not right for the character. It is unsettling, as my name is on the film and there is nothing I can do. It hasn't happened much thank goodness!  A lot of psychology is necessary.