A Streetcar Named Desire:
The Importance of Costumes in the Viewer's Perception of Characters

     Whether in a play or a film, the aspect of costuming is integral in the development of the viewer's perception of the personality of the characters. Especially in a production where the costumes are well done, the viewers of the play or film may not actually realize how the clothing each character wears contributes to the ability of the audience to believe in the story enough to be transported into the plot. In Tennessee Williams' 1947 play, A Streetcar Named Desire, remade into a film by Elia Kazan in 1951, the clever use of costumes to differentiate the personality characteristics of the primary characters adds exponentially to the audience's understanding of the identity of each role.

     For instance, one only has to glimpse Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski to perceive that he typifies the tough, unprivileged working class male of the time period that this film depicts. His clothes, when he is wearing them, are common work clothes--often soiled, sweaty, or grease-spattered. This image conveys to the audience that Stanley is a man who is untamed by convention and unconcerned with gentlemanly attributes or manners (an aspect that is further supported through his speech and actions). His clothing suggests to the viewer he is a man that must work hard in order to attain the things he needs or wants. If he has clothes that he considers "special" (his pajamas, for example), he uses them only for "special" occasions. By wearing them on the night of his child's birth, he demonstrates that this is not a normal habit of his--that he only "dresses up" when he feels there is a momentous reason for his doing so.

     Likewise, the wardrobe of Blache DuBois (Vivien Leigh in the movie) typifies the image, without the use of words, of her personality. Blanche's clothing is luxurious and ultra-feminine, including furs and elaborate party dresses inappropriate for the lower section of New Orleans or her small hometown of Laurel. The image portrayed by Blanche's clothing tells the audience that she is a woman concerned with her beauty and femininity, while at the same time indicating that she may be unaware (whether through mental distress or personal nature) of what is appropriate at certain times. Her apparent need to "outdress" everyone else paints a picture of unbalanced insecurity, which is precisely her problem.

     In contrast to her sister, Stella Kowalski (Kim Hunter) dresses in rather plain common-sense clothes of the time period. Stella's personality, much like her clothes, is sensible and accepting of her situation. Stella makes the best of her living circumstances, regardless of whether she really likes them, and does her best to use common sense in dealing with the conflict between Stanley and Blanche.

     Even the image of Mitch (Karl Malden) is depicted through clever costuming. His well-buttoned shirt and jacket provides a neat, wholesome appearance that contrasts with Stanley's carelessness, even though they are good friends. To the audience, Mitch's wardrobe conveys an immediate image of gentlemanly manners and moral standards, before this can be established by his dialogue. The "same-but-different" images of Mitch and Stanley, portrayed through their costumes, provide a distinction between two types of men living in similar circumstances (location, work) and the way they see the world around them.

Melody Enoch

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