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Costume Related Films in UK 2005

The Aviator (Life of Howard Hughes)

By Pauline Weston Thomas for


Costume and Fashion History of the Aviator Film


The Aviator (Life of Howard Hughes)

At 169 minutes, 11 minutes short of 3 hours, this Biographical film with a UK cinema certificate 12A was too long for my taste.  However for we costume lovers the film is first-rate and I'm pleased to have seen it.  Generally it's a very good film and I'm reviewing this film here because the 1920s and 1930s male and female costume designs were superbly done.  

London born designer Sandy Powell studied theatre design at London's Central School of Art and made the most of the budget of $2 million she had to design the costumes for the film The Aviator.  She succeeds in making the costumes look contemporary whilst giving them a look that transports us to another era as they become believable characters.  The clothes are quite historically accurate and where possible 1940's vintage fabrics like the rayon for Blanchett's well cut mustard dress were sourced from old warehouse stock.   The fashion styles worn in the Aviator are already set to make a big impact on fashion fad trends in the next year.  The costumes are all glorious in their seemingly authentic sumptuousness.

The film stars Leonardo DiCaprio who gives a very good performance as Howard Hughes the eccentric billionaire and Cate Blanchett as an excellent Katharine Hepburn.  Other cast members are Kate Beckinsale, Gwen Stefani, Alex Baldwin, Jude Law and Alan Alda.  Alda as the corrupt Senator Brewster is excellent as the smarmy politician.  In brief the film manages to capture the many facets of the life of Howard Hughes as a young man who is a pioneer and inventor in both the film and aeroplane world and also a man fighting against corporate bodies aligned with government.  This is all set against his womanising of various female leads from his film making and his inability to love fully because of his schizophrenic nature and his obsessive compulsive disorder phobia about germs.

Picture of Cate Blanchett at the 62nd Golden Globe Awards © HFPA Picture of Leonardo DiCaprio accepting a Golden Globe Award at the 62nd Golden Globe Awards © HFPA
Picture of Cate Blanchett at the 62nd Golden Globe Awards  HFPA Picture of Leonardo DiCaprio accepting an Oscar at the 62nd Golden Globe Awards  HFPA

Martin Scorsese captures every facet of the Hughes personality from playboy to pioneer to inventor to creative film maker to mentally confused.  DiCaprio has no trouble relaying to us that Hughes believed if you threw enough money at a project and thought out of the box you could achieve anything.  He was a man made for the twentieth century and exploiting new ideas to the fullest.  By overplaying the pernickitiness of Hughes in the plane scenes, Scorsese makes his point.

But if I had edited this film, I would have cut out some the airplane development scenes and those of Hughes in a state of naked angst.  In no way did it add to the film, although one can see how it is intended to make a structure for the narrative and it succeeds in chipping away at our own mental health whilst portraying the state of Hughes as he goes downhill emotionally and withdraws into himself.  I also had the feeling that the aeronautic mechanics of the plane scenes were meant to appeal to men and little boys.  They did not appeal to me or my husband (who's father was a pilot so I know it to be an area that interests him) and who agreed with me that it was just tedious at times and in places caused the film to drag.

We wondered how long we really needed to see the phobias of Hughes endlessly repeated merely to grasp he had an inextinguishable tormenting mental problem with germs and hygiene.  Although horrific, the plane scene in which Hughes crashes is cleverly done and lends credibility to his later suffering.   Edit about 40 minutes out of the mid to later stages of the film and it would be a ten out of ten film.  As it is I'd give it 7 out of 10 and one must credit Scorsese for tacking a huge subject and capturing a flavour of the man and the era.  So you will have to self edit it for there is much in it that is superb.

Costume Highlights of The Aviator Film

So to the costume highlights of the film to look out for, which is frankly why I go to see most films.

The film begins with a highlight on the upbringing of Hughes around 1914 and surmises how his phobia about germs may have started.   Next we see him filming Hell's Angels in Hollywood in 1927.  Hughes strides about wearing what we come to know as his usual usual flying gear as the film progresses.   This consists of a traditional fair isle V neck sleeveless knitted tank top in browns and fawns with colour highlights of turquoise, worn with a flying jacket in natural toast coloured brown leather and jodhpur flying pants.  Variations of this outfit appear throughout the film and it looks as if this could be a big winner in the fashion stakes when one considers that the 1930s Brideshead Revisited is to be remade this year. 

Traditional English country gentleman dress is overdue for revival and its now about 15 years since fair isle knits were really a fashion force en masse.   Hughes and his male contemporaries also wear the wide shoulder suits of the era with wide 1 to 2 cm pinstripes often a feature or they wear check suits such as a rusty orange subdued check on grey.

Production designer Dante Ferretti was the creator of the sumptuous scenes suggesting the Hollywood of the late twenties to the mid forties.   At nightclubs and at premieres we see Hughes alongside Hollywood starlets such as Jean Harlow, played wonderfully by Gwen Stefani.   A great feature of the film is the Cocoanut(sic) Grove Nightclub and clothes of the time perfectly translated by costume designer Sandy Powell, to be slick and appear fast and loose as the dancers shimmy the nights away. 

The nightclub scenes and the costume are truly wonderful, yet to my mind they were almost too perfectly choreographed, too perfectly attired and too perfectly groomed.  No wallflowers and everyone having a good time, including the singers who give a bizarre quality to the film.  Look out for the art deco touches in the costumes and the use of orchids everywhere.

The female clothes in the nightclub were magnificent.  Some had art deco diamond motifs, others Cleopatra style necklace and cuffs, embroidered jewel studded sleeves and hairstyles that emulated the black bob and bangs of flapper Louise Brooks, who made 24 films between 1925 and 1938.

Back in the outdoors we see Hughes wearing beige close fitting cable knit sweaters and argyle patterned socks with plus fours.  His shirts were often coloured in the film from turquoise to pink to peach, and they were teamed with herringbone tweed.

In the 'it's a wrap party' scene look out for the fleeting glimpse of the carved ice aeroplane and the use of orchids everywhere.   You'll be hard pressed not to notice Gwen Stefani as the wonderful waved blonde Jean Harlow wearing a cool ice queen look in a slinky silver satin cowl back dress, with a satin wrap.  Orchids are simply everywhere as are pearls, fur wraps and art deco diamond earrings.  It's truly a visual feast for the senses for fashion lovers.

Later we see Hughes in long term relationships with Katherine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett) and also Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale) and Blanchett's everyday outfits are so translatable into mass fashion items because they are so very wearable.  With her hair red she wears a well cut cream blazer, over rich brown trousers, a rich brown blouse with pinhead spots and mother of pearl contrast buttons on the blouse that sparkle and glow.  The trousers are beautifully cut, like good Oxford bags and throughout the film she wears trousers with this same cut, that seems to streamline her shape and cry out elegance.  In the golfing scene she looks the epitome of a woman of class, at ease with her clothing and her look.

By the 1935 scenes I noticed fur was still everywhere as were rusty colours, freckles, clutch envelope bags, blouson jackets and tree bark crepe satin fabrics.  There were also diagonal striped or diamond checked ties, round sunglasses, V neck sleeveless sweaters and Donegal tweed suits.

One coat with an oyster peach contrast lining was a lush wrap, another had embroidered panels on the coat fronts and many dresses had cowl backs.  Colours ranged from mustardy greens to turquoises to tomato reds set against rich cherry reds.  

Look out for Ava Gardner's red velvet outfit.  

Spotted blouses featured as did more Oxford bag trousers, clutch bags, interesting platform shoes with multi coloured bandings and outfits mostly worn with contrast gloves, such as red gloves with a black outfit.  

Finally for the hair there were hair ornaments and corsages all worn with beaded revers and circular jewelled collars.  Marvellous.   Go see this film just for the rich variety of the costume.

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About looks at women's costume and fashion history and analyses the mood of an era.  Changes in technology, leisure, work, cultural and moral values. Homelife and politics also contribute to lifestyle trends, which in turn influence the clothes we wear.  These are the changes that make any era of society special in relation to the study of the costume of a period.Fashion History can take no responsibility for any information on the site which may cause you error, loss or costs incurred from use of the information and links either directly or indirectly.  This site is owned, designed, written and developed by author: Pauline Thomas and Guy Thomas. This site is designed to be viewed in 1024 X 768 or higher.

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 30 June 2005