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Indiana Jones' origins: An interview with costume designer Deborah Landis

Discussion in 'Outerwear' started by Sloan1874, Sep 19, 2013.

  1. Sloan1874

    Sloan1874 I'll Lock Up

    Background: I had the good fortune to meet and interview top costume designer Deborah Landis when she visited Glasgow School of Art on Wednesday this week. For those not familiar with her work, her CV includes: The Blues Brothers, American Werewolf in London, Animal House, 1942, Coming to America (for which she received an Oscar nomination), The Devil Wears Prada, The Bourne Identity, Michael Jackson's red Thriller jacket, and, of course, Indiana Jones' iconic Raiders of the Lost Ark outfit.
    During her many years in the business, Landis has been president of the Costume Designer’s Guild, founded the David C. Copley Centre for Costume Design at UCLA, and now lectures and writes books about her craft, and recently curated an exhibition of Hollywood costume for the Victoria & Albert museum in London.
    Charming and witty, she was very obliging when I asked her to give me a small insight into the evolution of Indiana Jones image, a subject of much debate here and on other websites.
    It was literally a five minute interview, but she gave a very concise precis of the development of Indy's image. As such, I've presented her words as a straight transcription with only a small amount of adjustment for ease of reading:

    On Indy's jacket:

    "It’s great to be able to tell this story first-person, because it was my jacket, I created it. I had designed the 1941 costumes for Steven Spielberg, it was a big flop but I did my job the same way I always did, it was nobody’s fault [that it failed], that happens. Then I went to Chicago to design The Blues Brothers, and as you know Steven Spielberg is in the final scene of the film. So he came to the Chicago set and while he was there he said: ‘look, I’m working on a project with George Lucas, and I’d love you to design the costumes. It’s a low-budget movie, it’s a B-picture.’ I recall saying: ‘okay, so we’re are going to be A-people working on a B-picture’.

    "So he sent me the script. The script made absolutely no sense to me because it had lots of ghosts coming out of the Ark of the Covenant, and you're trying to imagine what it’s like on paper, and that's hard, right? So I read the script, and then I came back down to LA and we continued to talk about it. Steven and I sat and watched a couple of movies together. We watched China, which is an Alan Ladd picture from the 1940s; we watched the Lost Treasure of the Incas, starring Charlton Heston as Harry Steele. It was made in 1952, and he [Heston] really wears the costume, more or less, of Indiana Jones. Then I watched The Greatest Show on Earth, in which Charlton Heston wears a brown leather jacket and a brown fedora, pretty much the costume of Indiana Jones. And if that wasn’t enough, Steven used to run Saturday morning adventure serials, where a lot of these guys, because it was just post-war, were wearing flight jackets and brown fedoras.

    "So I had an archetype to work from, and if you ever look at the Hollywood Costume catalogue I wrote for the V&A, I actually have a picture in it that Steven Spielberg drew for me. It’s like something done by a 12-year-old boy, with a brown leather jacket, big boots, a brown hat and dressed all in khakis, and with the name Indiana Jones. So I knew the brief, I'd had it fixed very clearly in my head, so it wasn’t as if I had to make it up on my own. Now, that’s basic research. Every costume designer goes into a movie reading the screenplay and talking to the director, and then figuring out what this person wants, and doing research. So all those films that I watched, all that information from Steven, was my research.

    "After that, all I had to was make the costume, and that was a big journey. For instance, *digs fingers into bi-swing on the back of interviewer's jacket* you have a small action flap there. Now I knew that Harrison, or Indiana Jones, was going to be using a whip, and I wanted to be able to keep this jacket tight around the waist but able to have Harrison use his arms very fluidly and be able to really throw that whip. So this action flap on the back of the Indiana Jones jacket had to be really deep because I wanted it to be zipped in the front but to have a lot of mobility in the action. I also wanted him to have a really big hero silhouette. I didn’t pad the shoulders, but what I did do was I created a jacket that finished at the waist, and on the sides of the first Indiana Jones jacket in the first film, it has brass D-rings, which allows you to make the waist quite tight. If you do that, you create a V-shape that really makes you look like a superhero and really creates a very athletic silhouette. So to create that masculine silhouette was very much in my mind. I was creating a hero.

    On Indy jacket reproductions:

    "I've seen so many reproductions of the jacket, and they’re always wrong, the main thing is that they get the leather wrong. The first one I made, the leather was very soft. I aged it myself with sandpaper and a suede brush, and the copies never get that quite right."

    On Indy's fedora:

    "In the creation of the hat, I’ve heard Penny Rose, who’s the designer for Pirates of the Caribbean movies, tell similar stories about trying to find the right tricorn for Jonny Depp. This is very much the same process. I went to Berman's and Nathan's [in London] which is now Angel’s Costumiers, where I emptied every fedora they had, every grey and brown and black fedora, on to the floor of the fitting room. So Harrison Ford was knee-deep in fedoras, and then we went through them one a time time trying each on.

    "Now everyone knows how impossible it is to find a hat that looks good on them. Some people say ‘I’m not a hat person’. You are a hat person, because in the old days you would have had to wear one, you just don't have the availability of the right hat and you don’t have your personal costume designer to help you find it. So, we went through hundreds of fedoras, and I found the right crown height, the right brim width, which were not together on the same hat, and then I had that correct crown height and brim width made bespoke on fedora in London.

    Her last word on Indy's outfit:

    "The most important thing about the jacket is that all costume designers work the same way. We work so specifically, and we work the same way on hits and flops. But we don’t create the icons, the audience creates the icons. When you fell in love with Indiana Jones, I may have had a part in it, and Steven helped, but it’s the public that creates the image, it was the public that made him a hero."
    Last edited: May 6, 2016
    scottyrocks, samo and robrinay like this.
  2. wdw

    wdw One Too Many

    Nice one. A lovely, interesting interview.

    What a great job she has.
  3. Sloan1874

    Sloan1874 I'll Lock Up

    Thanks! She was lovely. The one thing that's missing here is the amount of laughter that was going on. She was very modest about her accomplishments.
  4. Very interesting. You take any pics?
  5. Sloan1874

    Sloan1874 I'll Lock Up

    One phone cam shot that I took. I was there in my normal reporter capacity, I just took advantage of the opportunity to indulge my hobby and I thought you guys might enjoy it too.;) Anyhoo, here's the pic, apologies for the slight blur.

  6. wdw

    wdw One Too Many

    Nice to see a Hollywood type embrace grey. Says good things about her.

    Apropos nothing at all, that's my wife's alma mater, so smallish world.
  7. Sloan1874

    Sloan1874 I'll Lock Up

    Interestingly, she told us that for The Devil Wears Prada, she put Meryl Streep in a grey wig.
  8. Seb Lucas

    Seb Lucas I'll Lock Up

    She is delightful and has given many such interviews and as people on COW will tell you, Deborah's memory and narrative are not all that accurate. There are many stories from people involved about the leather and who aged it. The original jackets were by Wilson's and basically just a cheap A2 copy without knits - kept getting caught in the whip. So it was changed again and again until Steven S agreed it was ready. As I understand it Deborah had never heard of Peter from Wested - the very man who claims to have designed the original jacket (after the Wilson jackets failed) based on his James Dean leather jacket. I don't think we'll ever really know the truth about this costume cliche but there are some wonderful romances.
  9. Fanch

    Fanch I'll Lock Up

    Craig, that was a fascinating story and great write up of the evolution of Indy's jacket and fedora, and general information about the costume industry.
  10. Bunyip

    Bunyip Call Me a Cab

    That's a great read. I've read varying accounts of how Indy came to look like Indy....im always reminded of the fact that Tom Selleck turned the role down....
  11. Sloan1874

    Sloan1874 I'll Lock Up

    Thanks! I guess that old saying about success having many parents but failure is always an orphan rings true here, but it's always interesting to meet somebody who was there at the start and hear their story. I would have loved to have sat through her lecture on her creations.
  12. I'm always glad he did. To be fair, he might have been great, but Ford was just so perfect in the role.... The one other person I'd love to see give it a (whip)crack is Christopher Walken (who, of course, turned down Han Solo before it was offered to Ford...).
  13. Well to paraphrase an old proverb, "victory has a thousand fathers... failure has none". So had Indian Jones been as big a flop as "1942" there'd be no dueling claims as to who invented what. The interview was great by the way Sloan and I thank you immensely for sharing it.

  14. Secret of the Incas is a terrible film, but outfit wise, the protagonist is Indiana Jones, including light beard!
  15. armscye

    armscye One of the Regulars

    Tom Selleck tried to beat the hex of having walked away from Raiders a couple of years later, by doing a very similar adventure film in which he played, yup, a leather jacketed unshaven, neer-do-well with a big heart who rescues a winsome heroine. The film n was called High Road to China, and below is a still.

    Foch likes this.
  16. 1961MJS

    1961MJS Call Me a Cab


    High Road to China was an o.k. movie, but not thrilling. 1942 was a really hilarious movie about the great LA Air Raid. Great to have an air raid, but only one side shows up. I guess you could say that they were both flops, but Raiders IS iconic.

    Would we consider the Matrix series as flops, has-beens, or semi-iconic with the black leather trench coats? I hated all three movies, great action, but why didn't someone just type "Delete *.*;*" seriously, why didn't they??

  17. Pinhead

    Pinhead One of the Regulars

    Very cool. My brother is "in the industry" and is a well known stage actor, especially on our west coast. I find it very interesting to talk to him and his friends and try to understand how their creative minds work. My imagination is unrestricted, but a successful character or story is rarely the the result of just one person's ideas.

    (And, P.S.: Last year I purchased a quality, hand-made bullwhip, probably because of those movies alone and so I could be a manly man also. I've become semi-proficient in using it and am now the scourge (get it?) of all the dandelions and pine cones on my property. I don't need a flyswatter any more (at least where fragile household items aren't present).

    ((And, one of the first days I had it, I successfully removed a small part of my ear. It's really not a toy, even though I treat it as such.))
    Last edited: Sep 19, 2013
  18. winterland1

    winterland1 Practically Family

    Thanks for posting your interview. It is always great to hear about the hard work that goes into films, music and such. A glimse of behind the scenes.
  19. Stand By

    Stand By One Too Many

    Thanks for taking the time to carefully write all that down and present it like you did, Sloan ....
    Like many things here on the FL, I don't know the full stories - or the players involved - of what gets discussed, so I don't know what to make of certain things, and so it's interesting that Seb Lucas adds other (conflicting) point of view to the story, which I'm glad for ... so then I just took this as her perspective.
    Nonetheless, it made for an interesting and good read, there. I especially liked her comment on someone regarding themselves as "not being a hat person" ... very true.
    Thanks again for taking the time to post!
  20. Seb Lucas

    Seb Lucas I'll Lock Up

    That's right, Stand By. No one accuses Deborah Nadoolman (as she was called before marrying director John Landis)) of lying it's probably just like most of us over the years the memory plays tricks and reorganize the facts. Even the hat story is unclear. Steven Spielberg has been interviewed elsewhere saying he found the hat with Harrison who gave it the bash.

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