With the recent passing of Debbie Reynolds, it seems appropriate to shine a light on one of her most famous movies, Singin’ in the Rain. In this article, Helen Beaumont explores how costume design was used expertly in Singin’ in the Rain, to create a timeless movie musical that many still love today.
Singin’ in the Rain
Released in 1952, Singin’ in the Rain was a musical comedy which was only a modest hit at first, but has now become iconic. It starred Gene Kelly (who also served as choreographer) as the popular, but humble, silent film star Don Lockwood. Then-emerging talent Debbie Reynolds, who saved most of the films costumes in her collection years later, starred opposite Kelly as voice dub artist Kathy Selden.
Set in the 1920s, Singin’ in the Rain chronicles the tale of three stars – Don, Kathy and actress Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen), as they transition from silent films to talkies. This jukebox musical featured tunes like ‘Singin’ in the Rain,’ ‘Make ‘Em Laugh’ and ‘Good Morning.’ Singin’ in the Rain has become so popular, that the American Film Institute named it the fifth greatest movie of all time in 2006.
Walter Plunkett, who had previously created Scarlett O’Hara’s wardrobe in Gone with the Wind, served as the costume designer on Singin’ in the Rain. Despite how elaborate Gone with the Wind was, Walter said that Singin’ in the Rain was the most work he ever did. Debbie Reynolds concurred, saying that along with childbirth, Singin’ in the Rain was one of the hardest things she ever did in her life.
Walter faced two challenges. First, he had to design costumes capable of surviving both vigorous dance routines and the downpour featured in the ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ scene. Secondly, Walter had to convey 1920s styles accurately to an audience that remembered this period, leaving no room for error. Walter had experience designing period costumes on Gone with the Wind, but Singin’ in the Rain required more of elaborate, ornate clothing and he had to develop roughly 500 costumes in total.
Walter created somewhat authentic costumes for Singin’ in the Rain. It featured classic ‘20s styles, like dropped waist and flapper dresses, pleated skirts, geometric patterns, knitted jumpers, fur collars and high-waisted trousers. Also the yellow rain slickers featured in Singin’ in the Rain is now truly iconic, while the wool suit donned by Kelly in the film’s finale, has become a very valuable collector’s item.
But, the Fine Tailoring blog argues, Singin’ in the Rain’s costumes represent Hollywood’s extreme view of the ‘roaring ‘20s.’ For example, it suggests that the first suit worn by Kelly does feature plaids, which were popular in the 1920s, but it was also adorned with cartoonish colours. Meanwhile, “every extra is wearing a heightened impression of ’20s fashion.” This includes, the blog argues, wildly patterned suits, tightly fitted dresses and too much fringing, none of which are necessarily true to the era.
The funny thing about Singin’ in the Rain is that in many ways, it has shaped our perceptions of 1920s fashion. We see the decade as the roaring 20s, known for its ornate jewellery, vividly-coloured flapper dresses and gentlemanly styles, which doesn’t necessarily reflect reality. In Singin’ in the Rain, we see that a costume designer really does have the power to influence pop culture for decades to come.
About Helen Beaumont
Helen Beaumont’s career started at Camberwell College of Art, where she studied the History of Art and Design, specialising in costume during her final year. After completing study, Helen became a costume buyer for theatre and opera. She has since become a professional costume designer, with a keen interest in period clothing. Throughout her career, Helen has created authentic costumes for prestigious companies such as the Universal Studios, Disney, BBC, Tiger Aspect and the Young Vic Theatre.