04 March 2019
Costume designer Katarína Štrbová Bieliková (b. 1965), winner of a Czech Lion and three Slovak Sun in a Net awards, has worked on a number of acclaimed films spanning the 20th century: The Glass Room, Talks with TGM, Toman, Garden Store, A Prominent Patient. Currently working on Agnieszka Holland’s Charlatan, she says she would like to work on projects delving even further back in time, but notes that costume work on movies set in the present is often overlooked.
Interview by Vojtěch Rynda for CZECH FILM magazine / Spring 2019
Does it ever happen with retro films that viewers complain that isn’t the way people really dressed at the time?
I think people often succumb to cliches — for example, that everything was gray under communism, or everything was dark in the Gothic era. The question is how far you want to go, whether toward stylization or historical accuracy. The latter tends to be subjective, since we don’t have a lot of objective sources for distant history. With Little Crusader, for instance, I noticed two opposing camps. One very much liked how neat things were artistically, while the other thought it was too much—that’s that cliche that the Gothic period was dirty. In this case, cleanliness was a means of expression.
Which do you enjoy more: films that are rooted in a certain period and have to respect the reality of the time, like Identity Card, or ones where there is more room for stylization, like Little Crusader?
As a visual artist I enjoy stylization more, but I find reality more attractive. I really enjoyed doing Talks with TGM in an absolutely realistic manner, down to the last detail of the pattern on Karel Čapek’s sweater. I prefer to understand the characters rather than going full-on creative. With authenticity I feel more secure, whereas with stylization I sometimes worry about being able to tell where the appropriate boundaries are.
You’ve also worked on projects, like Garden Store and The Glass Room, that play out over decades. That must be challenging for a costume designer.
It is. Garden Store was a trilogy of feature-length films taking place between 1939 and 1959. With that kind of film, you have to take two things into account: The historical period changes and, with it, the fashion—but so do the people, who get older. How much do they appropriate of what is going in and out of style? I think people create a format for their own style of dress until their thirties or forties, and then they tend to stick to it.
In The Glass Room you’re telling the story of two women between the 1930s and ’60s against the backdrop of the Villa Tugendhat. What was your mission there?
Again, to watch how time goes by and the characters get older. The two women are split by the war — one lives in Czechoslovakia, the other in the U.S. — so when they meet again of course they look different. It was an extraordinary project. I had 80% of the costumes tailored from scratch. The villa itself was fascinating, too. When we were filming the year 1942 and there was a period automobile parked out in front, with the extras in historical outfits, I thought, How are we filming a period film in front of that modern building? I realized that if I had been true to history with the costumes, the characters would have seemed ridiculously archaic next to that timeless architecture. I had to stylize it more.
How hard is it to get authentic materials for costumes in historical films?
It gets harder every day, especially since the textile industry has basically disappeared here. Sometimes you can find remnants, but that’s more or less up to chance. You can still find things from not so long ago that people have stored away in a closet — say, from the ’60s to the ’80s — but clothing from the war [World War II] is a rarity. Today’s materials are totally different: made differently with a different weight, so they move differently.
You’ve covered every period from the 1930s up to the present in your work. Is there any period you like more than the others?
I’d really like to go back even further — to before World War I, or to the 19th century. That way there’s no risk of being called out by people who actually lived through it, but then again, people idealize and romanticize the days of the National Revival or the Industrial Revolution. That’s a risk for the screenwriter, too, and for the film as a whole, really. But then you also have more of an opportunity to show people the period from another perspective and show these “deified” characters as actual human beings.
You have a lot of awards at home, including a Czech Lion and three Sun in a Net awards. How exactly does one judge the quality of a film costume? By its credibility? Its creativity? Its ability to capture the character?
I very much appreciate all the awards I’ve won, but they aren’t necessarily for the things I appreciate most about my work. For example, costumes for history or fantasy films win more awards than those set in the present day. That attests to a pretty oversimplified view of things. Contemporary films where the clothing completes the character, or the colors emphasize their emotions, go unnoticed. Often, neither moviegoers nor critics are aware of it. Contemporary costumes are extremely underestimated. I’ve worked on films set in the present for years and years, but I’ve only started getting more awards now because of period pieces.
Do you feel like your profession as a whole is underappreciated?
Yes, it doesn’t get the appreciation it deserves — not only from audiences, but even among filmmakers themselves. It comes from a lack of expertise. A lot of times, even directors aren’t aware of what a costume has to offer and how it can help tell their story. I try to enlighten them when I can, and explain the possibilities, especially to young filmmakers.
What can you inject into the seemingly routine task of dressing a film set in the present?
First of all, you are characterizing a character — creating the outward image of their inner condition, defining their social standing. You are stating visually what this person is like, evoking feelings about them in the viewer. You can work with the set designer, the makeup artists, and the other departments to create a colorful ambience, to illustrate a story line where the character’s social status goes up or down, their position gets better or worse. At the same time, you’re also creating a certain point in space-time. Right now, director Agnieszka Holland and I are working on Charlatan, which begins during the First World War and ends in 1958. We agreed that the period relies on the costumes: houses might remain standing a hundred years, so the exteriors don’t change nearly as much as people’s appearances do.
Recently you’ve worked on a number of stories from the past. Apart from the ones we already mentioned, there’s Toman, A Prominent Patient, Wilson City, and the TV series Rédl. Right now there are an unprecedented number of historical films being made in the Czech and Slovak milieu. Why do you think that is?
I think it’s a need to come to terms with the past. Once again, we’re starting to fear for our democracy, and in projects like Toman or Redl there are clear parallels to what’s going on in our country right now. I sense a feeling of distress in society. This is also why I’ve taken on Peter Bebjak’s film The Report, which is about Rudolf Vrba and Alfred Wetzler’s testimony about the extermination camp in Auschwitz. It’s very difficult to deal with the Holocaust mentally, but the film feels very important to me at this time when there’s an openly fascist party in the Slovak parliament.
How large is your core team?
The core group consists of two or three people and grows from there, depending on the number of characters we have to dress. In the camp scenes for The Report, there will be some four hundred extras, so we’ll probably have about thirty costume artists.
Czech and Slovak film tradespeople are said to be top-notch. Is that also true of fitters, cutters, and breakdown artists?
There are some very good ones, but unfortunately not enough to keep the profession going. There are fewer and fewer people making high-quality historical costumes, because when they get older they leave the business, and there’s no systematic training like there used to be, when theater workshops trained people. But I have met a few young tradespeople who are involved and enthusiastic. So hopefully the tailoring trade won’t die out completely.