As with makeup and hair, we’re seeing costumes becoming increasingly sophisticated throughout the film industry as time goes by as well. In the earliest years, actors wore whatever they had at hand, and only for period dramas was there much effort to raid the wardrobes of theatrical companies. But, as Charlie Chaplin proved in 1914, having the right clothes on can make all the difference for a character in any time and place. Stars and character actors found that costume was especially important in the silent cinema, when all information about their characters had to be transmitted visually.
This year, Douglas Fairbanks shows up in two of our nominations. In “Wild and Woolly,” he plays a Western-obsessed Easterner, who convinces a whole town in Arizona to stage a kind of Wild West LARP session for him to get his father to build a railroad. In “A Modern Musketeer,” he plays a similar role, this time obsessed with the works of Alexandre Dumas, and the movie begins with him in an elaborate swashbuckler getup. Mary Pickford was always very conscious of her clothes, but as the rambunctious title character in “A Poor Little Rich Girl,” she transformed into a little girl who dresses up as a little boy as well. The “Judex” serial also gave a wonderful example of the use of costume to transform, perhaps inventing the first costumed super hero in its lead character, and his stylish cape and hat are put to excellent use in “The Tragic Mill,” which also sees Musidora in a bathing suit!
The nominees for best costumes of 1917 are:
And the winner is…
“The Tragic Mill!”
While it’s not as iconic as Charlie’s “little tramp” outfit, the “Judex” costume influenced early heroes like the Shadow and Batman, whose dark sensibilities seem to have come back into fashion with audiences of the twenty first century. Judex looks particularly striking as he navigates a motor boat down a river in his cape and hat, on his way to rescue his beloved Jacqueline from the clutches of the baddies, and we also see him take off his “Vallieres” disguise and become his secret identity in this episode.