By Lina Goelzer
On Sunday, February 28th, 66 year old Jenny Beavan accepted an Academy Award for costume design in the most scene-stealing outfit of the night: jeans, and a leather jacket emblazoned with a skull insignia. The skull was an homage to Mad Max: Fury Road, the film for which she received this high acclaim, while her explanation for the jeans was that she “didn’t want to scare the LA natives with [her] legs”. Though it might be easy to underestimate this self-described “older lady from London” 1, she now has 10 Oscar nominations and 2 wins under her belt. As a costume designer, her work has influenced both film and fashion.
Beavan’s unconventional outfit may have gone viral, but it’s her work in Mad Max that deserves the attention. Not only does it lie in stark contrast with the “corsets and petticoats” work that Beavan is known for, but the film and production process were also unconventional and challenging in every way. Beavan had to make thousands of costumes for the 150 stuntmen playing multiple characters, all while keeping in mind the harsh weather conditions in the Namib Desert, where the film was shot. 2
The original three Mad Max films— made in the 1980’s and characterized by leather jackets and fetish-punk ornamentation— were highly influential not only to other science fiction movies, but also to the world of fashion. However, Mad Max: Fury Road opted a different look than that of its predecessors. It’s rougher, grimier, and more worn, all without abandoning the bizarre details that characterize the post-apocalyptic universe. Beavan describes it as “organic, mad, and eclectic.” The costume design team brought dozens of boxes full of bots of metal, cloth, and spare car parts from Australia, as well as locally sourced cotton and leather from Namibia. They worked with local artisans and used this miscellaneous “stuff” to piece together a unique yet practical costume for each character, as they presumed one would in a post-apocalyptic universe3.
Each character’s costume tells a story. Beavan says that Tom Hardy’s Max costume “is absolutely based on the iconic Mel Gibson one with additions from an unknown war”4 , with a much more rugged and tattered aesthetic. Imperator Furiosa, played by Charlize Theron, is a soldier who rebels against tyrannical leader Immortan Joe, orchestrating the escape of his concubines. Furiosa’s shaved head, football style shoulder pad, and leather corset show toughness and practicality, while her prosthetic arm indicates a violent past. Immortan Joe, the film’s antagonist, has one of the most fantastical and disturbing costumes, his rotting skin covered in white powder andplexiglass armor, and his face covered in a mask modeled after horse-teeth. The Organic Mechanic, the “doctor” employed by Immortan Joe, is covered in sadistic-looking tools, piercings, and metal ornamentation, but his costume is based on a business suit, since he had been a banker before the apocalypse. Yet, perhaps the most striking costumes were the simple ones, specifically those of the“Five Wives”, Immortan Joe’s concubines who were liberated by Furiosa. The gauzy off-white material they wear is reminiscent of torn wedding dresses, and their ethereal beauty gives them an angelic appearance. However, their scars and the heavy chastity belts they wear are signs of torment and abuse.
Of the “Five Wives”, two were played by former supermodels (Abbey Lee Kershaw and Rosie Huntington-Whitely), one of the film’s many subtle links to the fashion industry. After the film was released, Vogue, along with multiple fashion blogs, assembled slideshows of Mad Max inspired fashion from the runway. The styles drew on both the punky leather of the previous movies and the rugged, understated look of Fury Road. It is interesting to see how some of the film’s more extreme looks serve as inspiration for wearable everyday style.
The link between fashion and costume design is quite obvious: they both serve as ways for people or characters to express their identities and reflect the environment in which they exist. While it is possible to create costumes based on societal norms and period-appropriate trends for films set in the past and present, there is much more guesswork and imagination involved in creating costumes for a film set in the future. It is clear that in Mad Max’s post-apocalyptic society, fashion still has immense significance. It is used to differentiate the gender, hierarchy, role, and experiences of the characters. Even the craziest costumes make sense in the world of Mad Max: Fury Road.
Costume designers like Jenny Beavan have long served as mediators of the timeless relationship between fashion and film. Despite the challenges that she faced, she was able to use clothing to tell the story of every character. Her costume design for Mad Max: Fury Road made it one of the most visually striking films of the year. For that, she can wear whatever she wants to the Oscars.