On premature aging

Clare M. Wilkinson-Weber, PhD, Department of Anthropology, Washington State University Vancouver
In a couple of remarks collected from costume designers in the course of my research on the making of popular Hindi films (“Bollywood”), I was told that a challenge for the designer wanting to create “real” (as opposed to glamorous or overstated) costumes was that there was no interest in or knowledge of how to age them. By aging they meant what is sometimes termed “breakdown” or “distressing” in other theatrical and film industries, or treating the finished costume so as to appear to the viewer that it had undergone anything from days to weeks to years of wear. Considering this question has led me to discussions with ager-dyers and costume designers in contexts where aging is expected and therefore conventional, and the examination of aged costumes and the settings in which they are made.
Aging ranges from more florid forms, creating torn and ragged garments, crusted with dirt, blood and so forth that are called for in specific dramatic contexts, all the way to subtle uses that barely draw any attention at all. The point of extreme aging is to assert the veracity of the experiences, some of them traumatic, of the film’s characters. Tattered, blood-spattered clothing are demanded by vigorous action scenes; dirty, decaying clothes by scenes of poverty and neglect. They speak too to the emotional drain such experiences exact on the characters. Indeed, the painstaking breakdown of costume in action films seems an essential component of the co-option of the indexicality of film images to act as, as Black puts it, a “realist guarantee for the unreal”. Consider, for example, this thumbnail description of the kind of request an ager/dyer might get from a costume designer: “it’s a late 1800s silhouette, they have caught the plague, they’re on a ship, then the ship was hit and they were burnt, and went to the bottom of the ocean for hundreds of years but then there is a good guy. What do they look like?”
At the other end of the spectrum, discreet, restrained aging of a costume can involve as little as a wash before it is worn. Workforce stipulations in Europe and the US insist on the cleanliness and wearability of costume, and some ager-dyers are unusually, perhaps uniquely sensitive to the fact that the mundane new clothing we buy in shops is not necessarily safe or hygienic to wear. But the ultimate answer to “why” the subtlest of aging is done is that in this way costumes look less fresh from the tailor’s bench, and more fished from the character’s wardrobe. The overriding, taken-for-granted assumption in such a conviction is that the plausibility of a costume emerges from the extent to which it seems even minutely ‘lived-in.’ It is in the unconscious recognition of the worn collar and cuff, the shiny knee on the trouser or elbow in the coat, the softer folds or resilient creases of a washed and rewashed blouse, that realism is confirmed.

Making costumes look more “real” responds to a distinct aesthetic associated with very specific traditions and genres of filmmaking. The subtleties of this aesthetic are captured in the following quote, wherein a designer who had worked in North American film describes how the aged costume acquires qualities absent in the freshly made garment:
“An aged costume will be realistic and it will be beautiful. I think fabric that is worn, a garment that is worn has something about it that is far more beautiful than a new one. It takes on the shape and movement of the wearer, it starts to hang and to drape in a different way. Think of a shirt that you have worn and washed, perhaps it’s cotton and it has become soft, it’s almost a friend. This is what a good ager can achieve. An aged costume lights differently, moves differently. It’s just a different garment.”
In fact, the transformation of the article that aging entails does not simply make it a different garment, but a different kind of “thing” from other garments.
How to age a costume.
The techniques of aging emerge from theatrical practice and the person responsible for aging costumes is called variously the ager-dyer, costume breakdown artist or textile artist. The contradiction that they are called upon to resolve is that industry practice dictates that, with a few exceptions, theatrical and film costumes worn by principals should not have been worn before. Film’s “reality effects” derive from its ability, as Christian Metz argues, to create “a semblance of life.” In order to impart the illusion of a life already lived, costumes must therefore be imbued with a life they have never had. How the ager-dyer contributes to this illusion is to speed up time so that the costume enters the film’s narrative like the character, in medias res.
The care instructions that are attached to shopped clothes, or are imbibed as part of a kind of “clothes lore” by consumers (for example “don’t wash wool in hot water”) are intended to prolong a garment’s life. By extension, therefore, the ager-dyer shortens the garment’s life by contradicting almost every care recommendation, replacing solicitation almost entirely with abuse. As if in acknowledgement of the lack of an actual wearer, the costume itself is relentlessly personified, as we see in the use of strikingly emotive metaphors: at one end a costume is merely “relaxed” by being put in the laundry; at the other it is “distressed” by being painted, ripped, snagged, or abraded with sandpaper to lift up a texture. In Deborah Dryden’s authoritative handbook for costume design, the ager/dyer is advised to put woolen coats in a washing machine to “force the ‘innards’ of a coat to shrink differently from the coat itself.” Aging does not cease at the point the costume goes to the set, since the most violent breakdown – painting on blood, simulating bullet holes, shredding to the point of complete dissolution – may be done here. Distressing is literally an assault on the garment, and it is perhaps no accident that during costume production, the processes of “building” or making a costume may be visually and spatially separated from the activities that age them. The cutter, who feels the greatest attachment to the garment, sometimes cannot bear to see the garment “get hurt” at breakdown, and will get the stitcher to take it to the ager-dyer instead. Regrets may also surround the ruin of shopped clothes, detoured unexpectedly from the path of consumption where their physical, monetary and brand qualities had served, to use Robert Foster’s insights, as an apparent guarantee of “love.”
Aging invariably carries with it the risk that it fatally degrades a garment’s integrity. The utmost care must be taken to make sure the job is done right; a costume has to be able to last as long as it’s needed for the film or play to be completed. At the same time, a costume must be safe and acceptable for the actor to wear. So while it’s possible to make a costume look dirty by literally making it dirty, this is not always or necessarily done because of the risk it poses to both principles. Aging thus replicates but does not necessarily reproduce the abuses of wear. Instead, agers make extensive use of paint, dye, and glue to masquerade as mud, sweat, blood and so forth.
Aging is, in other words, a set of procedures that indexes actual wear but is not identical with it. Reversing the usual recommendations of care, and impersonating some abuses of wear, the work of the dyer/costumer can thus be regarded as an example of faking, in which practices of dissembling add false value to the object, comparable to efforts to add false patina to art works, or the transmutation of mundane African sculpture into ritualistic art objects through the addition of stains, fake blood and spitted seed described by Christopher Steiner. A burned costume, for example, is not literally burned (which would make it far too fragile to use) but the impression of burning is produced with dye and paint. True, its value is only ambiguously enhanced; however these alterations are an essential component of the costume’s value as a factor in production, the use value that is used up to produce realistic illusions.
These are not the new magical techniques of computer generated imagery, but the old, labor-intensive technology of the devices of theatrical “magic.” Even in a film with as much computer-generated imagery as The Matrix, costume aging was an indispensable component. Costume aging is an effect that enters into the film pre and not post-production, and is thus distinct from most “special effects” Like magic, the job of aging, as Alfred Gell put it, involves “technical strategies that human beings employ in order to secure the acquiescence of other people in their intentions or projects.” It is important here to acknowledge that what the ager-dyer accomplishes is, in itself, incomplete. If the “point” of the aged costume is to elicit the agreement of the viewer that “this looks real,” and more than that, effortlessly “real,” then this involves the systematic concealment of the collaborative effort that includes the actor, the lighting engineer, the cinematographer and so on and so forth. Even in theater, the “real” is the costume under lights, in movement on the actor’s body, apprehended by the audience. With respect to the visual image it is tasked with generating, the aged costume is incomplete; indeed, the costume itself may be “incomplete” clothing (patches, work-arounds and cut corners are all part of the effort to save time) because its uses are incompatible with those of “real” clothing. Proximately, the aged costume must satisfy the costume designer, the actor, the director and select others in the production, even if the audience is its ultimate “consumer.”

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