How Eiko Ishioka’s revolutionary costumes won Coppola’s “Dracula” an Oscar
Necessity is the mother of invention, or in this eye-opening case, inspiration.
When Francis Ford Coppola was told he wasn’t going to receive the budget he wanted for the 1992 film Bram Stoker’s Dracula, he infamously declared, “The costumes will be the set.”
Enter Eiko Ishioka, who would fulfill that vision and create the most memorable costumes ever made for these familiar characters.
Ishioka, a Japanese-born graphic designer, had never really taken on the role of costume designer for a project as grand as a big studio Coppola film, starring the likes of Gary Oldman, Winona Ryder, Anthony Hopkins, Keanu Reeves and Tom Waits.
Her career started with a successful run in advertising in the ’60s that would span two decades and include campaigns that didn’t actually show a product.
In one 90-second TV commercial, she had Faye Dunaway peeling and then eating a hard-boiled egg.
Coppola and Ishioka had known each other for almost 20 years when he finally asked her to be the costume designer for his production of Dracula.
It All Started With A Poster Series
In 1979, Ishioka designed a striking Japanese poster series for Apocalypse Now that caught the director’s eye. She was coincidentally tapped to design the Japanese edition of Eleanor Coppola’s book Notes: On the Making of Apocalypse Now.
Five years later, Francis Ford Coppola executive-produced Paul Schrader’s film, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, a highly theatrical, historical drama with Ishioka serving as production designer.
The pair reunited in 1987 when Coppola directed the Rip Van Winkle episode of the television series “Faerie Tale Theatre,” with Ishioka providing the artistic concepts for production designer Michael Erler.
And Now For Something Completely Different
Coppola affectionately called Ishioka “a weirdo outsider with no roots in the business,” and it’s that quality he believed set her work apart.
She was ideal to deliver something that would not be the prototypical Halloween-store Dracula familiar to audiences from earlier Universal and Hammer vampire films.
Their collaboration also allowed her to take advantage of her gift for mixing Eastern and Western cultures, and the result is a decadent, surreal atmosphere through which the richly layered mysteries of each character are unveiled.
Coppola’s would be an adaptation of the well-known legend that was told, Ishioka said, as though everyone had taken LSD.
Drawing on a deep well of inspiration, the designer chose a rich color palette and sumptuous fabrics that were sculpted into bold forms and patterns embellished with symbolic details.
Ishioka’s eerie and moody mise-en-scène complements Coppola’s storytelling, and it was due to this personal and professional history that Coppola turned to Ishioka, someone he knew and trusted, once he determined the importance of costumes to his production of Dracula.
But First, A Wooden Stake To The Black Cape
Determined to modernize the main character, Ishioka transformed one of the story’s most familiar tropes — the black cape that Dracula uses to shield his actions from the eyes of others.
Ishioka banished the hackneyed wrap and instead costumed Gary Oldman in a crimson red robe that billows behind him as he prowls about his castle.
A fantastic red suit of armor that resembles a flayed human also contributes to his aura of power. The color of both costumes symbolically associates him with the blood that he craves.
Nature was a primary source of inspiration for Ishioka, who injected organic details into many of the film’s costumes.
For example, Tom Waits’ character, Renfield, is confined in a mental hospital in a quilted straightjacket constructed of rough gray fabric that makes him look like a tortured insect.
The peppermint-green party dress worn by Sadie Frost’s character, Lucy Westenra, is embroidered with intertwining snakes as a symbol of her character’s eroticism.
Most memorably, Lucy’s spectacular wedding dress was inspired by the Australian frilled lizard (Chlamydosaurus kingii), a creature that unfurls a collar of skin when threatened.
In Ishioka’s hands, the lace collar creates the illusion that Lucy’s head is disassociated from her body; her jeweled choker draws attention to her neck, the erogenous zone that is the focus of Dracula’s attention.
Two Very Different Wedding Dresses
Lucy’s costumes reflect her wealth and liberal sexual mores and contrast with those of Winona Ryder’s Mina Murray, a middle-class teacher who lacks Lucy’s sophistication.
The contrast is perhaps most obvious in the wedding dress that Mina wears to take her vows to Jonathan Harker, played by Keanu Reeves.
Where Lucy’s wedding dress is a study in texture designed to identify her as a creature not wholly human, Mina’s bridal costume is a sedate Victorian-era garment. Rendered in a soft, gray-green fabric, it reveals her character’s modest nature with its high neckline and structured construction.
This dress contrasts sharply with the costume she wears when Dracula finally seduces her.
Revealing and blood red, Mina’s dress features an open neckline and three-quarter length sleeves with romantic open cuffs.
Ishioka’s color choice ties the two lovers together in a burst of passion that cannot be contained.
These drawings, and many more, are part of the Margaret Herrick Library’s Eiko Ishioka papers and can be viewed here.