by Deirdre Clemente, M.A., Museum Studies ’04
Photograph: Warner Bros. Pictures
What’s so great about Gatsby?
Jay Gatsby’s name evokes images of flailing limbs and spilled champagne. His creator has been (somewhat fairly) cast as a fair-haired, Princeton party boy. What endears the character and the author to our collective psyche goes beyond Bacchanalia. As cultural icons, both Gatsby and Fitzgerald represent an emerging America, where a bootlegger and a bookworm born into the “wrong” class can recast themselves. Or can they? Despite his best efforts Gatsby still didn’t pronounce Oxford in a manner that made it clear he had attended. Fitzgerald “could never forgive the rich for being rich,” and amid fortunes lost and gained, he was born and died penniless. Class. For Fitzgerald and all of his characters, clothing is about class.
As a graduate student at FIT, I wrote my master’s thesis on clothing as cultural history and character development in the early fiction of Fitzgerald. In March 2004, I fled the city with a backpack full of books to Beverly Hills, where I wrote the MA thesis over Spring Break on my best friend’s couch. Eight years and a PhD later, my FIT classmate and friend, Tae Smith, called me up and told me to get my postpartum body to New York City. She was the costume researcher for Baz Luhrmann’s production, and they wanted to talk to me. Postpartum body, baby, and books got on an airplane and went to New York. When the high priestess of costume design, Catherine Martin, calls…umm, you go.
An afternoon in May 2011, Tae and I waited for Miss Martin in an oversized closet filled with vintage 1920s clothing. The design team had collected beach pajamas, sequined shawls, and mound of accessories from all over New York to be used for inspiration. In that room, Tae and I didn’t talk. We just touched, and sighed, and flicked over the still-remaining price tags, and pointed out dates that we knew the vintage dealer had gotten wrong. No white gloves; no meddling curator, just me and the stuff.
What Catherine Martin wanted from me was not epistles on Fitzgerald’s cultural context or my thoughts on his underwhelming female characters. She wanted specifics: “Was it this silver fabric or this one?” “Well, it has to be this one because the other is a synthetic that didn’t come out until the late 1940s.” “Can we change Nick’s white flannel pants to a tweed suit?” “Hell, no. Those flannels tell everyone at that party that he is a man of the Ivy League.” Sketches hung on the wall, fabric swatches strewn across her desk, and a gorgeous Australian woman with long, shiny black hair presented Martin with the team’s latest vintage find: a black suede clutch with an ivory greyhound’s head. I still have dreams about that woman’s hair and that clutch. It’s not often I am jealous of someone’s job. The life of a professor lets me research, write, and teach. But that day, I was jealous of Catherine Martin’s job, the black-haired beauty’s, and Tae’s.
Two years later, I am one of the many Fitzgerald fans and fashion lovers who await the arrival of The Great Gatsby. My website, Fitzgerald & Fashion, is a manifestation of the thesis I wrote nearly ten years ago on that couch in LA. Maybe the website is not the most traditional form of academic publishing, but arguably the next phase of it. A blog under “Gatsby News” offers the latest happenings with the film and my own analysis written from the perspective that this film is an interpretation of a novel.
When the film is understood as an interpretation, what matters is not that the hemlines match our picture books or that the spectator shoes are brown. If you’re looking for historical accuracy, hit up a couple episodes of Downton Abbey. What matters with this film is that Luhrmann uses costume in the same way Fitzgerald used fashion—as a means of distinguishing between old money, new money, parvenus, self-made women, and working girls. The meaning of the clothes mattered to Fitzgerald and as my time in that oversized closet confirmed, it matters to Luhrmann and Catherine Martin, too. We’ll be talking about the costumes not because they are beautiful (which they will be), but because they are the social context of the film. In fiction, film, and real life, clothing is social context.
Deirdre Clemente served as a historical consultant for the costume on the forthcoming The Great Gatsby. She is a historian and curator of 20th century American culture, specializing in fashion and clothing. She is an assistant professor of history at University of Nevada Las Vegas. Dr. Clemente earned her MA in Museum Studies from FIT in 2004 and remains an active and proud alum. Read more about Dr. Clemente at www.deirdreclemente.com.
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