Jean Paul Gaultier's rich history as a costume designer deserves praise

For as long as movies have been made, costume designers have been indispensible to creating a film's look and defining characters. Yet prior to this year, the last costume designer to sit on the Cannes jury was the spectacular Eiko Ishioka, who made her mark on films such as The Cell and Immortals, way back in 1996.

Who better, then, to thaw the 16 year fashion chill at Cannes than Jean Paul Gaultier? The designer's selection as a jury member for this year's film festival not only serves as a reminder of what Gauilter himself has offered cinema over the years but also draws attention to a relationship between fashion and film that is as old as the medium itself.

In filmic terms, Gaultier is probably best known for designing the hyper ostentatious garments in The Fifth Element, Luc Besson's futurist sci-fi in which Bruce Willis helps subvert an alien invasion. For moviegoers, the impact of Gaultier's flamboyant wardrobe in that film was instant, as well as enduring, if warrior-chic of The Hunger Games is anything to go by. As well as being sensational, his designs perfectly matched the absurdity of Besson's characters and instantly stamped the gulf between their lavish world and that of Willis' downtrodden cabby. Gaultier had been displaying similar playful effrontery on catwalks since the late 1970s, with several pieces in his 1985 'And God Created Man' – in which Gaultier introduced the male skirt – being instantly recognisable in The Fifth Element.

Though fashion writers and costume designers have a tendency to drive a wedge between fashion and costume – the former often considered purely concerned with the clothes, the latter about characters - Gaultier's work has persistently shown this distinction to be far from palpable.

In the late 80s, female sexuality inspired his seductive, semi-fetishistic attire for Helen Mirren in Gaultier's first film as designer, Peter Greenaway's The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover – most notably, these came from his interpretations of Victorian cage dresses and crinolines as top garments. Quoted as saying of his design ethos, 'to show the relativity of what's good taste and what's not is something I like to play with', it is of little surprise that Gaultier went on to find a kindred spirit in the Spanish enfant terrible Pedro Almodovar. For his 1993 film Kika, Gaultier designed the gowns for twisted vamp Andrea Scarface. His gory costumes humorously accentuate her bloodlust and sexual aggression – plastic breasts shot out of her dress like blood-splattered bazooka holes. Clearly borrowing from his 1989-90 show 'Women among Women', his style for making bras a centrepiece was epitomised in his conical bra for Madonna's 1991 tour.

Gaultier and Almodovar worked together again on Bad Education and The Skin I Live In, in which Gaultier utilised a version of his all over bodysuit that he first launched in his 1991 Paris Winter show.

Of course, Gaultier was by no means the first star fashion designer to be hired to create costumes for a major film. In 1931 Samuel Goldwyn reportedly splashed out $1 million to bring Coco Chanel to MGM. Due to changing waistlines and hemlines, which yo-yoed during the 1920s and 30s. With her first film Palmy Days, Chanel developed the technique still used by designers today of adjusting or completely remaking costumes for each angle of a scene in order to get the best out of the shot and the clothes. But Goldwyn is said to have lost 1000s of feet of film because, by the time the movie was released, the dresses in the film were considered out of date. Goldwyn had hoped Chanel would predict the Paris trends and save him a lot of money in unnecessary re-shoots.

In the other direction, trained costume designers have long had a direct impact on the high street. Gilbert Adrian, who created costumes for the Wizard of Oz (including those red shoes) and styled Hitchcock's Rope, slapped fashion, costume and film closer together when he designed the first ready to wear outfit for Letty Lynton (1932), the white ruffle gown worn by Joan Crawford. By the end of the 1930s cinema and fashion were inseparable as movies seen by millions were having as big an impact on high street fashion as Paris fashion houses had previously – legend has it that Clark Gable's bare chested appearance in It Happened One Night led to an immediate drop in sales of men's vests of nearly 30 percent. And in many cases a character's style can spark an entire look that comes to epitomise an era, as with Annie Hall, which were actually Keaton's own clothes.

Given that the job of a costume designer is to rigorously analyse a film's tone as well as the mood of a character in each scene, then interpret that visually, it's odd their insights aren't solicited on film juries more often. Hopefully Gaultier's selection will set a precedent for future festivals.

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2012

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