One of the most celebrated costume designers of our time, Jenny Beavan was just nominated for yet another Academy Award for her work on Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, 2015). Born in London, England, she's primarily known for her designs on Merchant Ivory period pieces such as A Room with a View (1985), for which she won the Oscar.
While beyond her usual ken, her work on the dystopian hit - and darling of the 2016 Oscar nominations - draws our attention to her. She was influenced by the styles of the the 1979 version of the film, even borrowing the idea for the football type shoulder pads in Max's leather jacket and making them even more prominent in the latest incarnation (played by Mel Gibson in 1979 and Tom Hardy in 2015).
One pad even made it to the shoulder of Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), capping her prosthetic arm. Both the metal mechanics of the arm and the pad mark her as tougher than the average woman - and a leader among them. When we contrast her costume design to those of the five wives, we can see Beavan's genius.
Capable, Cheedo, Toast, the Dag, and Angharad are dressed as sirens or goddesses from Greek myth. They wear gauzy, thin dresses, incapable of protecting them or adding strength. They are not ready to do battle. Indeed several of them are wearing strapless tops. With no straps to keep their clothes on, rigorous fighting would literally leave them topless, vulneable, naked. Most of them have exposed legs and stomachs as well - again no armor shields their vulnerability. Furiosa must save the wives, protect them, and get them to the green place - almost single handedly.
One could even assert that Furiosa's shoulder pad almost looks like a epaulet, the ornamental shoulder piece common on military uniforms. Furiosa is a soldier and even the commander of this band of women. She stands strong, an intelligent driver - in both senses of the word. Beavan explains in an article in the Evening Standard that all costume designing "jobs are the same, in the sense that you're supporting a character through clothing." Beavan reveals Furiosa as a warrior.
In an interview with Wonderlancer, Beavan states that costume designers "will have to re-read the script many times and so begin to understand the characters." She also argues, "You should never give other than your best work to any project. In fact as a costume designer you should not be concerned with putting any personal stamp onto your work, you should only do whatever is right for the particular project." And the particular character, she might have added.
In Mad Max: Fury Road, Beavan endows Furiosa with a fierce competence. The leather belting, metal shielding, dark thick denim - all soiled - convey experience, toughness, and courage. Unfortunately, the screenwriting is not as powerful. And while we must concede that Furiosa and Mad Max form a bond of trust and mutual respect, we still must argue that with his appearance she is relegated to the passenger seat - both literally and metaphorically - injured and often unconscious. He becomes the leader the deliverer of the women to the green place.
Too bad the screenplay wasn't as powerful as the costume design.