Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Girl on Fire: Costume in The Hunger Games

This afternoon, instead of our usual column focusing on the fine arts, we are thrilled to bring you a column from the newest contributor to Fantasy Matters--Genevieve Valentine, whose novel Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti won the Crawford Award at ICFA this year.  

Costume is sometimes discounted by writers and readers who consider it unnecessary, a frivolous domestic concern (an unfortunate side effect of things traditionally regarded as within the feminine sphere). But from Red Riding Hood 's walking cape to King Theoden's horse-emblazoned armor, the message is clear: what you wear matters. Presentation is symbolic.

And in The Hunger Games, fashion takes on more importance still.  It's a marker of class and a sign of excess for those in the Capitol (embodied in pastel glory by Effie Trinket), and for the tributes of Panem, it's symbolic of both their home districts and the public persona they've assumed for the Games. Though it's only glimpsed in the movie, the Parade of Districts takes their nationalism seriously, right down to full-body fish costumes for one particularly unlucky couple.

(Above, waiting tributes. The babydoll-sexy Glimmer is already onstage, but we see the black-and-stone-grey Cato, the deceptively innocent Clove, the unfortunately Parton-esque Foxface, and Marvel, whose stylist apparently wanted to give a nod to District 1's famed history of used car sales.)

For Katniss Everdeen, fashion becomes both a transformative act (by dressing the role, you assume the role) and a subversive one (the role and the reality are often at odds).  Three costumes in particular illustrate the efficacy and the power of fashion.

1. Coal Miner's Daughter

Katniss Everdeen, being presented as a volunteer tribute  for the deathmatch Hunger Games, is from an impoverished and overlooked District, and given long odds for even making it the first day - but just as she's about to go on, stylist Cinna sets a light to her special-made black costume, and she rides out beside fellow tribute Peeta, standing tall and enveloped in flames.

It's an arresting image; the cameras follow them – a first for District 12 – and Katniss gets her first taste of fame, smiling at a crowd that she now stands a chance of winning over. But more than just a good show, the outfit is a dramatic change of pace from coal-miner's outfits of years past, and is a bid by Cinna to have the District (and, more particularly, the resentful Katniss) taken seriously – not by the Capitol audience, but by the people of the outlying and disenfranchised Districts looking for a hero.

2. Evening Gown Competition

Riding high on the unexpected success of the parade, Cinna's next move is to make the angry and repressed Katniss a crowd favorite during the interviews. His solution is an evening gown that looks at first glance like the glamorous dresses of the other tributes, but is designed to look like flames in motion – a dress designed to be as impressive as possible.

And it does its job well – the dress is reminiscent of the flames from the parade, and on the spot, the Master of Ceremonies dubs her The Girl on Fire (a nickname that distinguishes her in these Games, and after). When overwhelmed with stage fright, she offers to stand up and twirl, sending the dress into a shower of flames. The gesture wins the audience over at once, singlehandedly changing her press from hopeless cannon fodder to intriguing dark horse, and setting her on a course that sends her to the Hunger Games already a star in the public eye.

3. The Age of Innocence

After Katniss challenges the Capitol in a gambit that allows both her and Peeta to emerge victors, she's a hero to the Districts – and President Snow's public enemy #1. For her appearance in the victor's interview, she's the antithesis of the intimidating figure she presented before the Games. Her dress is yellow and cut like the Sugar Plum Fairy's day off; her hair is down and girlish. She looks like a little girl in love, and the ruse fools everyone who sees it. Almost.

President Snow, no stranger to the artifice of politics, waits until they're one on one and lifts her hair, revealing her pin of the Mockingjay – a quiet but enduring symbol of rebellion against the Capitol. That she wore it so barely disguised is much more than a design choice or sentiment for a keepsake; it's the beginning of Katniss's acceptance that rebellion is imminent, and that no matter how innocent her dress might be, she's already started the fight.


The evolution of Katniss from unwilling volunteer to the burgeoning figurehead of a revolution doesn't play out entirely in clothes, but everything she wears (particularly the things that are given to her by others) plays a part in her eventual transformation. And these aren't the only moments defined by fashion; from Prim's untucked blouse to Katniss and Peeta's matching training costumes, The Hunger Games understands the power of presentation.