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Chicago: A Costuming Look at a Period Film


The movie reviewed is the 2002 movie/musical Chicago starring Catherine Zeta-Jones, Renee Zellwegger and Richard Gere. This movie takes place in the 1920’s in metropolitan Chicago. Zelwegger’s character Roxie Hart is a wannabe entertainer who envies Jones’ character Velma Kelly, who is already a popular entertainer who does an act with her sister.

Roxie is having an affair with her furniture salesman and finds out that he does not want to see her anymore. She ends up killing him ironically the same night that famed entertainer Velma offs her husband and sister. The two end up in jail together at the same time while trying to out publicize the other with their innocence.

They also cross each other’s paths while being represented by the same fast talking lawyer Billy Flynn, played by Richard Gere. This is a story of two women who are enemies and then end up beating the odds and the system to become famous entertainers.

Each character was expressed through their musical acts as well as their costuming. The first objective in creating a movie such as “Chicago” is to make the person watching the movie feel as if they are living in the same time period as the characters. This was conveyed through hair, makeup, clothing, sets, and props such as furniture.

The furniture was very early 1900’s. There were radiators in almost every scene, which is true to the twenties because there was no central heating for homes and apartments. There were also radios shown as the main form of receiving information. People during this time did not have televisions so many times they would gather around the radio to listen to news, or in the case of “Chicago”, to listen to the trials of these man hating women such as Roxie and Velma. Another piece of furniture shown was a manual winding record player.

This was one way, besides the radio, that music was acquired and listened to. Roxie frequently turned on her record player to listen to her favorite jazz tunes. Finally, Roxie was shown in a rod iron bed. This was a popular piece of furniture for people of low and lower middle class. The more heavy wooden furniture, as shown in the office of Billy Flynn, was for upper-middle and upper class citizens.

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First to be looked at is the menswear in the movie. Men in this movie wore suits that were striped which are characteristic of menswear in the 1920’s. Men also wore a version of spats over their dress shoes. Billy Flynn, the lawyer in the movie, wore these over his shoes. One suit worn by Billy Flynn was the characteristic definition of a suit. The shirt, jacket, tie, vest, belt, and hat. A full suit was popular at this time, especially for someone who wanted to convey authority or power. The men in the film also wore pocket watches, which is not necessarily characteristic of the time period.

All of the women in the movie sported waved, bobbed hair, which is a classic element of the 1920’s. In the movie even African American women had their hair in this permanent wave. The look of the dresses worn in scenes other than the musical pieces were very straight cut with low waistlines; typical of the boyish look of the time.

However, in the musical scenes the costumes were very tight fitting and characteristic of stage costuming with glittering fabrics and low cut necklines. Low cut necklines are not reminiscent of this time period. Velma Kelly wore a turban type hat, which is true to the 1920’s. In addition to the hat, she also wore a jacket with a fur-lined collar. The costuming term for this coat is a clutch coat, because it was held closed, as was the one worn by Velma. This was a popular piece of clothing worn by women in this time period.

There were some accessories in this film that correctly portrayed this time period. Light stockings were worn with garters holding them up. In the movie, the women tended to flash their garters to get attention. Also worn by the characters were fishnet tights, which were worn by people performing in cabarets. Cabarets and jazz clubs were also the focus of this film because the movie starts in a jazz club as well as ends in one.

T strapped Mary Janes were the shoe worn by all the female characters. They were even worn during performances as well as for everyday wear. For example, when Roxie goes in for her trial, she is on the stand in a characteristic 1920’s outfit. Her dress is straight cut with a low waist, her hair is bobbed and waved, and she has on t strapped high heeled Mary Janes. She also has on garters, which is known because she flashes the jury and press by “accident”.

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One particular area of costume that was true to 1920’s form was an undergarment. In the opening scene, Velma Kelly is frantically getting dressed while standing in her bustier, which is laced up the back. The term bustier is what the corset was being called. It is virtually the same thing and serves the same purpose, however, the clothing is not tight fitting anymore so the cinched in waist is only viewed by anyone who saw her in her underwear. Night wear such as lace and satin camisole nightgowns are worn in the movie. The color of the pieces are lighter colors such as pink, which is true to 1920’s clothing styling.

The characters were well represented in their clothing. Billy Flynn, the lawyer, was always in his clean-cut suit with his shirt cuffs peeking out. This showed that he was powerful, in control, and success, which his character was. Velma always tried to look glamorous, even in jail. She had her delicate lace undergarments hand washed and pressed. She also had jeweled garters that she frequently wore under her prison uniform. She also was always in t strapped high-heeled shoes. Her makeup was done heavy and her lips were blood red with lipstick.

This tells that her character is self-conscious and always feels the need to look her best, even in a bad situation or setting. She sees herself as a star and that is what her appearance conveys.
Roxie Hart has a more complicated look to her because she is simple in the beginning of the movie and as the movie progresses; she turns into more and more of a vamp.

To start out with, she is wearing no make up, but has her hair waved. The length of her hair is a longer bob and not necessarily close to her head. Her clothes are frumpy and the colors are neutral. Once she meets Billy Flynn, her lawyer, he turns her into a sexy blonde bombshell that will look good to the jury and to the papers.

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Her hair becomes a shorter, closely cut bob. Her make up is full faced completed with a coat of bright red lipstick. He picks her out a dress that portrays a flat bosom and a low waistline. Once she gets out of jail she turns into a jazz entertainer and keeps her new, vamped up look, but dresses sexier in tighter clothes with more luxurious fabrics such as fur.

There was however one character whose clothing did not necessarily reflect the look of the 1920’s. Queen Latifah’s character “Mama” was the jailhouse mother for the women in the prison that all of the murderous mavens were in. She is a tough lady who can hold her own. The styling of all her garments had an uncharacteristic element to them. All of her clothes had her bosom sticking up and out of them. This is uncharacteristic because in the 1920’s the look was to have a flat chest or at least to appear to. This element in her costuming could be due to many different factors.

The first is that in every costuming time period, not every person follows the trends or look of the moment; this may have been done to her costumes to show her toughness and rejection of fashion. Another reason may be that her breasts are just too large to flatten or to keep under wraps. This is a prime example why some people cannot follow the trends; not because they do not want to, but because their body does not allow them to.

In conclusion, the movie “Chicago” had all the elements of costuming correct. Even the sets, furniture, and props were true to the 1920’s. The storyline even represents the time period. Women killing men, jazz clubs and cabarets being a prime hang out, and performers starting to take a serious stance in the entertainment world. From large performance feathers on stage to garters and waved hair, the movie “Chicago” is one of the best representations of a time period seen in cinema.