Black Swan’s Ugly Duckling

The 2010 sexy psychological thriller Black Swan caused quite a stir, but not for the reasons you might think.

The media buzz wasn’t centered on Natalie Portman’s strict diet of carrots and almonds, nor the steamy girl-on-girl sex scene with Mila Kunis. The controversy centered on the costume credits or really, the lack thereof. Sisters Laura and Kate Mulleavy of the fashion brand Rodarte signed on to work in the costume department, serving as two on the thirteen-person wardrobe team. They were in charge of producing costumes for the final ballet performance at the end of the film, the dramatic grand finale. Why was there controversy? A simple search for the film credits will reveal that the lead costume design credit was given to Amy Westcott, not the Rodarte sisters. What happened?

Have you ever noticed how, at the beginning of a film, we see a flash list of some team credits? They are the “face” of production– the director, writers, producers, the headlining stars, maybe a composer. The end credits are a different experience. There are often hundreds of contributors named, sometimes in multiple columns at once, whipping up and off the screen before you can read who did what. Why doesn’t the food truck that catered these 200 people for two months get a shout-out at the beginning of the movie? The simple answer is hierarchy and prestige.

It’s worth noting that fashion has fought for its increasingly prestigious position as an art form. It’s come a long way, thanks in part to haute couture and luxury fashion. But what about everyday clothes? There is still a rift between the value of high and low fashion, fine arts versus arts & crafts, leisure versus working class. This divide is evidenced and reflected in the hierarchy of movie production credits.

Nina begins the film wearing predominantly light-colored clothing from the top down. As she becomes progressively consumed by her own psychosis, her wardrobe darkens from the bottom up.

Some of the most important, film-defining roles of a production crew are expected to blend into the background: casting, sound, choreography, hair & make-up, location scouts. The costume department is usually lumped into this category. But when superstar fashion designers join the costume department, it takes some ego-deflation to participate on equal footing with their contemporaries.

Though a few costume designers have gained celebrity status–think Edith Head and Patricia Field–the vast majority remain out of general public awareness. Fashion designers are quite the opposite these days. Fashion designers are celebrities, like Ralph Lauren and Stella McCartney. So what happens when a humble Hollywood costume designer joins forces with two fashion darlings?

Ruffled feathers.

Enter: the Black Swan costume credit controversy. When Kate and Laura Mulleavy, the sisters behind LA-based fashion label Rodarte, signed on to contribute to Black Swan’s costuming, public interest piqued and media coverage abided. Rodarte was in the limelight, yet the Mulleavy sisters were credited behind the head costume designer Amy Westcott. The public was outraged that the sisters wouldn’t be given a headline credit. Instead, their efforts were lumped in with the other thirteen costume department credits.

Just to be clear, the ugly duckling here isn’t Westcott, nor is it the Mulleavys. The ugly thing is the hierarchy of labor value. It’s high fashion versus the merit of everyday clothing choices. It’s the Vogue September issue versus Hanes socks. The ballet costumes were breathtaking and expertly done, but so was the singular leg warmer that Natalie Portman wore in rehearsal, indicating that she was treating an isolated sore muscle. So was the virginal white lace nightie Portman wears as her mother tucks her in, while she’s still docile and obedient, and the sheer black slip Lily lends her before they take ecstasy (or do they?). These sartorial choices matter just as much as the refined construction of erect tutus and asymmetrical feathered bustiers.

Photo by Autumn de Wilde.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. When you think of the movie Black Swan, you don’t swoon over memories of Natalie Portman’s grey leg warmer. The final ballet costumes are the glittering centerpiece of the film’s wardrobe. The controversy over costume credits here is part of a larger conversation about the value of individual clothing. Even if the Mulleavy sister’s costumes had been Oscar-worthy, the two designers were not yet members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. While they weren’t members back in 2010, they probably are now.

Most recently the Mulleavy sisters collaborated on Sing 2, designing animated fashion ensembles. 

So… Black Swan 2, anyone?