Fashion and Cultural Telephone
By Taylor Marvin
On the occasion of the release of the new film Catching Fire, I recently revisited the first movie in The Hunger Games trilogy. While I’m not an enormous fan of the book series the films are based on, I was highly impressed by some aspects of the story. As I wrote last year, the concept of the tessera, which makes teenagers from lower-class families more likely to be selected to compete in the gladiatorial Hunger Games, is an impressively sophisticated instrument of political control that aligns the interests of the Districts’ middle class with that of the Capitol regime while preserving the Games system’s illusion of class impartiality.
On my second viewing of The Hunger Games, I was again impressed by the film’s costume designers. The series takes place at some point in the distant future, after the population of North America (and implicitly, the world) has been dramatically reduced by unspecified calamities. Given this future setting, the films’ costume designers are tasked with coming up with clothes for the residents of Panem’s rich capital city that are obviously from another, future culture, but still plausible. This is no easy task — in particular, the Star Trek franchise has always struggled to dream up civilian clothing that is far enough outside the bounds of modern fashion taste to fit the 24th century setting while not looking ridiculous. Additionally, as a decadent and politically isolated society in terminal decline, the clothing worn in the Capitol is supposed to look ostentatious. Conveying this excess while avoiding costumes that look too artificial is a difficult line to walk — “silly”, but not too silly.
As I said, I think The Hunger Games’ costume designers did a decent job. In particular, the exaggerated aesthetic of the Capitol is not particularly implausible for a small and isolated civilization living in the ruins of a once much greater forerunner. It is frequently noted that emigrants or exiles often embody their culture’s customs more vigorously than its other members, perhaps as a way of compensating for their distance from it. Assuming that the catastrophe that reduced the population of The Hunger Games’ world occurred sometime in the (from our perspective) near future, it’s not unreasonable that Panem culture would seek to imitate the fashions and customs of our richer, more populous civilization, particularly if Panem’s small population inhibits cultural innovation. Without knowing if this was an intentional choice on the costume designers’ part, it makes sense that the Capitol’s fashion would be an exaggerated replication of ours, particularly given the distorting effects of however-many generations of cultural telephone.