Will everyone please chill out about Gatsby?!

June 15, 2013 in Costume, Fashion, Textile Addiction by alliemcc

*This article was republished at The Mercurial!*


So many people have their vintage panties in a twist about the apparent lack of historical accuracy in Baz Luhrmann's long-awaited interpretation of The Great Gatsby, the novel every high school student in the United States has read.

F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel has been made into a film at least 5 times since its publication in 1925. It's also been adapted as an opera, a ballet, a stage play, and no less than 3 computer games. To say it has captured the popular imagination is an understatement.

catsby t shirt

The first rant I came across was in Collector's Weekly, in which Lisa Hix takes aim at not only Luhrmann's apparent magpie-tendencies toward all things glitzy, but also Fitzgerald's own failure as a writer to accurately portray his female characters. She provides us with a thorough cultural dressing-down and  the authority of someone who clearly has the telltale chip-on-the-shoulder of someone who was ridiculed for their enthusiasms as a child.

Yet she negates her own angle by stating the crux of the matter, the very reason the film industry exists, and the reason we keep making Gatsby movies:

Of course, given his directing style, Luhrmann would be drawn to a classic tale of intrigue, betrayal, and reckless excess that allows him to create a stunning, opulent Art Deco tableau. The Roaring Twenties possess an undeniable magic—a brief, giddy period of time when America wasn’t at war and wasn’t broke.

Forward to last week: Colin McDowell's column for The Business of Fashion opens with Colin's own rant on Luhrmann's film– like Lisa Hix, taking aim at the novel itself as well as the director's apparent endorsement of conspicuous consumption. In fact, modern, twenty-first century self-indulgence and excessive acquisition is what he claims this Gatsby adaptation is really about, and that makes his awkward segue to the real thesis of his article: the far more urgent and important topic of pornographic, misogynistic imagery in fashion marketing.

This bizarre coupling of subjects weakens both of McDowell's critiques, making his view on Luhrman's Gatsby sound like a shrill rant, and taking us on a meandering path through too many paragraphs before his otherwise really strong critique of violent imagery in fashion. Nothing a good editor couldn't have easily fixed. (Where were you on that, Imran?)

The common thread between Hix and McDowell's reviews is that "Hollywood is trying to sell you stuff", in this case, Prada dresses and Tiffany jewelry.

Chris Laverty at Clothes on Film has a much more well-rounded and thoughtful take on the sets and costuming.

This is a flavour of the 1920s, those details that cinemagoers with just a passing knowledge of the era can recognise: cloche hats, bobbed hair, short fringed dresses and striped blazers. […] If you want steadfast period accuracy might we suggest you check out Boardwalk Empire instead?

How much you accept Luhrmann and Martin’s interpretation of 1922 will largely depend on how you view the role of period costume design. Basically this comes in two forms: 1) recreate the era in question, 2) reflect the era in question. Lincoln is the former; The Great Gatsby is the latter. Martin’s greatest concern was that costumes be relevant to a contemporary audience and one way of achieving this was to involve prestigious yet modern designers in the process, hence Prada, Tiffany & Co. and Brooks Brothers. Another was to shape the clothes to be more relatable for modern eyes.

Be sure also to read this interview with Catherine Manning, the costume designer, set designer, co-producer, and Baz Luhrman's wife.

I don’t know why anyone would be up in arms about Baz Luhrman’s interpretation of anything. If you’re familiar with his style of filmmaking, set design, and costuming, you know he’s all about fantasy, and a collage-like re-interpretation of whatever subject or time period he’s presenting:

blog luhrmann ballroom

A still from Strictly Ballroom


A still from Romeo and Juliet

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A scene from Moulin Rouge

Most films are primarily entertainment, not historical re-enactment. We go to the movies for fantasy. We go to museums for historical accuracy.

At this stage in the evolution of our culture, if you’re upset about commercial product placement in Hollywood films, you should buy a camera and make your own.

Some Fitzgerald/Gatsby lore:

Gatsby fashion inspiration:

I've curated some Art Deco decor and style inspiration that's more than just sparkly mini dresses, over at Pinterest.