ArtSmart: The Fabulous Fashions of Milena Canonero

This month we have one of the best compilations of posts featuring the topic of fashion. If you’re unfamiliar, ArtSmart is a group of bloggers who are passionate about culture and art. We post on the first Monday of each month on a designated topic. This month we have “fashion” and you can read how my colleagues have interpreted the theme at the bottom of this post. Believe me when I say we’ve outdone ourselves this month!


A Clockwork Orange. The Darjeeling Limited. Marie Antoinette. The Grand Budapest Hotel. Ocean’s Twelve. The Shinning. Godfather III.

What do all these classic movies have in common? Four time Academy Award winner and Costume designer Milena Canonero. These popular films and the classic costumes that belong to them permeate popular culture and have become unforgettable, memorable forever installed in film history.

So why focus on Canonero and her body of work for ArtSmart whose focus is art & travel?

For one, when I look at the film titles I’ve listed a pattern emerges. I am a huge fan of Sophia Coppola, and Wes Anderson whose films take “road trips” or journeys to a whole new level. It might not be obvious at first but for me all these movies embody travel in film. In almost all cases of these movies it is the locations in both time and place that influence important factors from costume to dialogue.

Secondly, Milena Canonero was a student of art history which, to this day, influences how she shapes the costumes and therefore the characters.

“Milena Canonero is a ‘Character Designer’ who works closely with the directors for the creation of an entity [and] has an infinite precision for details whose colors reveal the character’s psychology…”

A Clockwork Orange (1971), Directed by Stanley Kubrick


Turin born Milena Canonero studied art history and costume design. She broke into the film industry by first working with Stanley Kubrick after working on operas and commercials. Little did she know that A Clockwork Orange would go on to be a cult classic, no matter how disturbing I found the movie :S.

Her work on this, her first film, won her an Oscar and was the beginning of her iconic career and development of style. In an interview with she explained that the inspiration for the characters were “Post-Skinhead” and Kubrick, her mentor, insisted she begin with the head and work her way down for both character development and completing the overall costume which in essence is the character’s psychology presented visually.

In the same interview Canonero goes on to say, “It’s not the costume itself that I like to do, of course it is interesting, but it’s more about the meaning I give to the masterpiece…”

A Clockwork Orange is a film of juxtapositions – machismo, violent culture (rape & brutality)  juxtaposed against the classical music of Beethoven. The film is chaos set in a futuristic London where thugs conduct violence against culture for the sake of it, disrupting everyday life spewing their evil on the streets like a Jackson Pollock painting.

Canonero’s costumes demonstrate the contrasts between men of culture and animalistic men of the street – the suspenders, hats and shined boots reflecting a fairly normal approach to dressing but with the long johns and briefs worn outside with the enlarged phallus symbolizes the machismo, the ultra-violent state of man.

The Darjeeling Limited (2007) & The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) Directed by Wes Anderson


Wes Anderson and Canonero have worked together on these films as well as The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou which shows Canonero’s range from subdued to the fantastic. The Darjeeling Limited is a visual indulgence rich with colour while the three main characters are dressed in grey suits. The film follows three brothers, in the wake of their father’s death, on a journey to find their mother who ran away to an ashram in the remote hills of India.


The film begins with a suicidal brother, Francis played by Owen Wilson, trying to bring his brothers, Peter (Adrien Brody) and Jack (Jason Schwartzman) together in an effort to bond and heal after their father’s death. The three literally lug around the numerous suitcases that they inherited from their father culminating in a classic Anderson slow motion scene as they chase after a train shedding their father’s metaphorical and literal luggage upon the tracks in an effort to jump aboard.


If Canonero insists that her costumes portray the emotional state of the character then in The Darjeeling Limited you must pay attention to the details. The brothers’ suits are all very similar in grey tones with one light grey, one dark and one in the middle range. The grey plays off the rich vintage colours of India – rich blue, reds, orange. But when we look at each character’s details in what they hold, what they gain over the time of their trip it keeps true to Canonero’s style. Example: Francis exterior bandages shows his need to heal internally over the loss of his father but at the same time, because of the large bandages we cannot see the severity of his wounds.

Peter insists on wearing his father’s headache inducing prescription eye glasses and carryings a box of death filled with a poisonous snake. This symbolizes that Peter is reflecting on his own mortality as he expects his first child and is running from his impending duties as a father who will inevitably face the same fate as his own. He searches for answers through the literal looking glasses of his dad.

Jack, the baby of the three, tries to face the fact that he must become a man after loosing his father. During a flashback at the funeral Jack has no facial hair but as the brothers first meet a year later in India he has a full moustache and is preoccupying himself with a love affair in Paris.

While an argument could be made that the details are merely that of the imagination of the director, in Canonero’s case she is a “Character Designer” and works closely with the director in creating a full and rounded character literally wearing their emotional journey for the viewer to see.

Canonero’s fourth Oscar came in February at the 2015 Academy Awards for Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. In an interview with Vanity Fair Canonero cited her sources of art as inspiration: Gustav Klimt, Kees van Dongen, Tamara Lempicka and Geroge Grosz.

Gustav Klimt

Taking the example of Madame D, played by Tilda Swinton, but one of a large cast of richly adorned characters, we can see the influences listed above and how they translate into Madame D below.


Canonero explains in her Vanity Fair article, “The look of each actor has to have its raison d’être…”

Madame D’s raison d’être is to have a final great love affair and the willing maitre d’hotel, M. Gustave, helps make that come true for numerous old widows staying in the hotel. The deformed or exaggerated forms used in all the artists work above lend themselves nicely to an ageing widow clinging to an old feeling of being desired. The George Grosz piece, Ghosts (1934), also speaks to the psychology of M. Gustave as he dines women like Madame D who are on death’s door.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is certainly a film Canonero more explicitly used her art history background to enliven the characters.

Marie Antoinette (2006), Directed by Sofia Coppola

Perhaps the first time I really took notice to a film’s costume design, Marie Antoinette captured not only my imagination but also that of the judges of the Academy Awards in 2007 giving her a third Oscar. Her fourth would come with The Grand Budapest Hotel just this year (2015).


You might think that having historical records and numerous paintings to guide Marie Antoinette and her court’s costumes but more goes into the designing than just look, copy, sew. Instead Sofia Coppola wanted the colours to be pastels – no strong burgundy, purples etc. – when it comes to that main characters and the places they dwell. This makes, on of my favourite characters, Madame Du Barry (Asia Sargento) even more “sour” to look at when positioned against the rest of the cast.


Du Barry was the last Maitresse-en-tître for King Louis XV – in other words she was the last official mistress of Louis XV before his death in 1774. Marie Antoinette did not approve and as the film shows, Antoinette and Du Barry were at odds to say the least. Expertly, Canonero employs this tension within their cuture. Du Barry wears plenty of luxurious satin fabrics with rich colours like deep blue, purple, burgundy and red. Marie Antoinette on the other hand wears only pastels and neutrals. This is no accident as Canonero describes her and Coppola’s envision:

“Sophia [Coppola] gave me a box of macarons from Ladurée. We looked at them and the beautiful colors and they became a guideline in a way…” – NBC New York


With this in mind it makes the costumes even richer. With Du Barry and her dark rich colours being the opposite end of the spectrum from courtly colours, we do eventually see Marie Antoinette and her entourage depart from the classic pastels to emerald green and black when at a masquerade ball with masks – allowing themselves to be their alter egos, their oppositions to their positions at court. At the masquerade it is also when Marie Antoinette allows herself to delve into the same territory of affairs and lovers as when King Louis XV had with Du Barry.

Take a trip back to 2007 with this video of Oscars and the category for costume design.


An entire book about Canonero’s work could be written – I for one would read that book. Her work is heavily influenced by the visual world of art whether it be found in a box of macarons or upon the canvas of a renown artist.


Christina of Day Dream Tourist wrote: Peter the Great Trendsetter: National Change through Fashion

Jenna of This is my Happiness wrote: Why do Italians Always Look Good?

Pal & Lydian of Art Weekenders wrote: Fashion in The Netherlands – Exhibitions Fall/Winter 2015

Lizzie of Wanderarti wrote: Dismaland: The Fashionable Way to ‘Do’ An Art Show

Alexandra of ArtTrav wrote: The Best and Worst of Renaissance Fashion

9 Responses to ArtSmart: The Fabulous Fashions of Milena Canonero

  1. I was totally cheering for Milena at the last Academy Awards. The Grand Budapest Hotel was simply gorgeous thanks to the art directors and her costumes. She definitely does create the character with such perfect looks.

    I really like your analysis of Madame D! You’ve almost created her “look board” with the paintings you selected! 🙂

    Great stuff! Can’t wait to see what Milena’s next project is!

    • Thanks Christina. Not much is written about her work in terms of analysis so all I could do was take a few of her quotes and run with them. The Grand Budapest won me the Oscar prediction pool we did last year! Canonero is so cool and interesting, other than opera her next work is a film called Bonour Madame – and Eleanor Coppola is the director (Francis Ford Coppola’s wife). Look for it in 2016 with Diane Lane & Alec Baldwin.

  2. I hadn’t heard of her, but as soon as you mentioned those movies, my mind immediately went to the looks she created. Her designs are so detailed and colorful–certainly memorable. Thanks for this interesting look at her work! And I agree that ArtSmart is back in full force this month 🙂
    Jenna recently posted..Why do Italians Always Look Good?My Profile

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Hi! I'm Murissa and I live in the Okanagan Wine Valley of British Columbia, Canada. I enjoy traveling around the world for food and local spirits. I consider myself a Champagne enthusiast and enjoy sharing my conquests on this website since 2011. Follow along as I explore my home wine valley and dabble in the occasional globetrotting. Soon to be raising a foodie of my own come July 2018!

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