Musings: John Oliver on the Cost of Cheap Fashion, plus Bertrand Bonello’s Movie Saint Laurent, and TuTu Makers

1936 january Delineator stitcher and cat

Sunday afternoon I saw Bertrand Bonello’s movie Saint Laurent at the SF International Film Festival, then came home to John Oliver’s scathingly funny report on multi-million dollar clothing labels (GAP, H&M, Walmart, Forever 21, et al.) and their lack of oversight on the sub-sub-contractors who make it possible to sell a new dress for less than $5, often using child labor. Click here to read an article about the show and to watch the Youtube video.

John Oliver Tackles Child Labor

John Oliver’s report was almost 18 (truth telling) minutes long; if you feel the urge to fast forward, don’t miss minutes 14-till-the-end, when he stages a fashion show — all items priced, as are the cheapest possible foods the models are carrying. If you don’t know how it’s made, and you don’t know who actually made it, whether the kitchen is clean, or what the ingredients are — would you eat it? Knowing it was made as cheaply as possible, with no regulation or supervision, by desperate people? Oliver wants us to think about fashion that way.

Bertrand Bonello’s Film About Saint Laurent

I know relatively little about the life of Yves Saint Laurent, but I enjoyed Bonello’s  two and a half hour biographical film, Saint Laurent.  It is not to be confused with another biographical film, Yves Saint Laurent by Jalil Lespert, released in 2014, or the documentary L’Amour Fou.

You can see the official trailer for Bonello’s Saint Laurentclick here, then click “Watch Trailer.”

The film’s director and co-writer, Bertrand Bonello, was present at the screening, along with actor Gaspard Ulliel, who played Yves Saint Laurent in the movie. Aside from the superb production values, I enjoyed the way the movie avoided moralizing — or underlining ideas — and left me thinking about the main character for hours afterward. It follows YSL chiefly through the period 1967 to 1977, with another actor playing him in old age.

Early in the film, we get a notion of the enormous pressures created by success — the more successful he is, the more work he has to do, to inexorable deadlines, even though he was emotionally very fragile even before his success. But this information is imparted almost in passing, as we get a glimpse of the actual work in a great couture house (and as he tries to sketch a collection while listening to his schedule for months to come.)

At the end, the question is unresolved:  Would his genius have been even greater without the drugs and alcohol? Or did they somehow contribute to his creativity? If he had been happy and healthy, what might YSL have created?

Q and A about Saint Laurent

The question and answer session after the screening was especially interesting, because, although I relished all the YSL designs that appeared in the movie, I was especially in awe of the superbly tailored suits Gaspard Ulliel wore. Costume designer Anais Romand didn’t just have to recreate accurate period clothing, she had to coordinate it with the progress of the character and the moods in each scene. (Ulliel not only resembles YSL, he captures his apparent shyness and charm — and misery.)

According to director Bonello, the current YSL company could not (or did not) give permission to use actual YSL runway garments, so the movie company had to set up a couture workroom and spend four months re-creating all those pieces of couture. (Ulliel said that visiting the workshop helped him understand a great deal.)

More astonishing to me was Ulliel’s explanation that one of the greatest collectors of Yves Saint Laurent memorabilia owns many of his suits, and let them be used for the filming. (After seeing Ulliel completely nude in the movie, it was hard to believe that suits custom made for YSL, who at one point in his youth weighed less than 100 pounds, could fit the actor so perfectly, and I cringed at the thought that they must have been altered, at least slightly!) Ulliel commented on his surprise at how differently suits from the 60’s and 70’s fit, compared to modern men’s suits. He said he loved how easily and freely his arms moved [in a vintage, European-tailored suit. Yes, the higher and tighter the armhole, the better you can move your arms — the opposite of the looser, American, “Brooks Brothers” fit.]

You can read an interview with Costume Designer Anais Romand – discussing House of Tolerance, another Bertrand Bonello film, set in the 1890s. There are many photos — note, nudity is involved. The film Saint Laurent also carries a warning for full frontal male nudity, sex scenes, and drug and alcohol abuse. “Rated R for graphic nudity/strong sexual situations, substance abuse throughout and some language.”

As I mentioned, the Saint Laurent film is two and a half hours long — but I wasn’t bored for single instant:  A rich experience.

Shortage of Skilled TuTu Makers?

Newsweek magazine reported that Ballet and Opera companies are running out of skilled stitchers: click here.  Do read all the comments from skilled costume technicians!

A costumers’ group I belong to exchanged several mails, pointing out that the article exemplifies the confusion most people (including the Newsweek writer) have between the worlds of retail fashion and theatrical costuming — and suggesting that finding skilled costume technicians isn’t difficult — if you pay them according to their specialized skills and training, and don’t expect them to come from a school of retail fashion. You can find university programs in Costume Design and Technology all over the U.S. at the USITT website, Costume Symposium. Click here.



Filed under 1960s-1970s, Menswear, Musings, Vintage Couture Designs, Vintage Garments: The Real Thing

5 responses to “Musings: John Oliver on the Cost of Cheap Fashion, plus Bertrand Bonello’s Movie Saint Laurent, and TuTu Makers

  1. Wow! Only four months to build all the couture clothing for the movie! That seems really short! I wonder how many costumers they had to build in their shop.

    I could go on and on and on about the lack of stitchers for theatre (and film). I am one of the few costumers in my area who actually sews well enough to be hired as a stitcher (many costumers can barely sew a button on).

    I spent the last few months at the Dallas Opera building period menswear from scratch. One of the biggest problems is people not understanding how long something takes to build, even among other professionals who work in theatre and film outside the costume department. (A tailored man’s period suit takes at around 80 hours of multiple hands’ labor hours to properly build & fit from scratch.) Costumes “just happen” in most people’s minds – something we can partially blame on fast-fashion and the ability to just go out and “buy” whatever we want. The most recent opera’s schedule kept getting pre-production time reduced, so when all was said and done, we had only 9 days with actual actors to fit and finish everything. It was insane and stressful and completely taken for granted by all but the designer, director, and the actors.

    Sometimes, the money just isn’t worth the stress and stupidity. I know one costumer who recently gave it up to work retail alterations just for a stable job with benefits and reasonable 9-5 hours. And I know many others who have been trying to find different career paths for years.

    Let me just sum up by saying, there is a lot of inside political crap that goes on behind the scenes for costuming that makes it really unappealing work (especially for those fresh out of school). When you have to constantly fight to get the overtime pay you deserve and ridiculous union rules all at the same time while not getting benefits, we all find ourselves questioning why we do what we do. It is very unglamorous and under-appreciated work.

    • Once, when I asked a director/artistic director why the costume budget
      was always underestimated (compared to scenery,) even in shows with
      one set and dozens of costumes, he looked confused for a moment and
      then blurted, “Because scenery is so BIG!
      Ever since I read Peter Brook’s The Empty Space, in which he says that all that is required
      for theatre to happen is an actor, an audience and an empty space,
      I’ve been reminding people that the actor will have to wear something
      (nudity will make its own statement to the audience,) and that whatever
      he or she wears will affect the audience’s interpretation of the
      things that happen and are said in that empty space. (The actions of a
      man in a business suit will be interpreted differently from the same
      actions performed by a man in a black hoodie — as we know to our
      In fact, an audience gets much more information (“exposition”) from
      the actors’ clothing and hair than they do from the scenery. I could
      go on about this for hours, (and frequently have!)
      I agree that it’s frustrating when union members don’t have the skills
      that union membership is supposed to guarantee, but without unions,
      actors would still be getting stranded (unpaid, or paid with worthless
      checks) in towns where shows close, and technicians would be
      required to work far into the night — or all night — during tech
      week, or called to do one hour’s work (for pay that won’t cover the
      cost of travel to the job) instead being paid the union minimum of
      four hours.
      Thanks for sharing your experiences with us — what we do is hard to explain to people — even people in the theatre!

      • Sadly, so many people think actors can just dress themselves. I agree that union wages make a huge difference – I’ve worked both ways and union is usually better. Unfortunately, the secrecy & politics even among my fellow union members just adds to the frustration and doesn’t benefit anyone.

      • And one of the great costuming misconceptions is that “modern dress is cheaper.” HA! One smart costume designer’s suggestion was to have the person who says that make a list — out loud — of everything he (it’s usually a ‘he;’ but not always) is currently wearing. Then she asks, “How much did you pay for those shoes? How about the socks? Trousers? belt? shirt? watch? ring? glasses? jacket? undershirt? (and there will be more than one undershirt and shirt supplied for Equity actors…) Then she totals it up. After that, a budget of 50 to 70 dollars per costume for modern dress does not seem so ‘generous!’ I think some producers believe that all actors supply their own wardrobe. I’m certain some critics believe that.

      • Oh my goodness yes! Shoes and accessories kill the budget faster than anything! And there are always actors who will wear their socks & underwear home expecting to be (magically) provided with more the next day.

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