La La Land: A Drama of Dresses [Part I]
Damien Chazelle’s musical masterpiece La La Land is a technicolor tapestry, replete with the prismatic sunsets, dreamy landscapes, and vibrantly bold costumes characteristic of classic Hollywood. Through such vivid visuals, the film achieves a look that is irrevocably timeless, despite its contemporary setting. Indeed the visuals — especially the use of color — are essential to La La Land. The film itself opens with a black & white shot before it explodes into color at the downbeat of the opening number. Color is what literally brings “The City of Stars” (Los Angeles) to life, and color is responsible throughout the movie for reinforcing the escapist, dreamlike nature of La La Land.
Because of La La Land’s emphasis on color, the film’s costume designer Mary Zophres remarks that “...having costumes that pop is very much the theme of this movie.” Accordingly, as Mia, the female lead (portrayed by Emma Stone), pursues her dream of acting, the color and style of her clothing reflects the progression and maturation of her character, thus highlighting the intimate relationship between dresses and their wearer. (Warning: this article contains spoilers)
Mia (in the blue) is eccentric and sarcastic; she is innocent and bold; she is flirty yet witty. Nevertheless, in the first act of the film, Mia is just another “someone in the crowd ready to be found” — another young immature actress waiting to be discovered. This sentiment is clearly reflected in one of her earliest outfits — a bright and bold blue halter dress that has just the amount of swing to the skirt for her to sashay. Although the color of the dress mostly communicates positive qualities about Mia — that she is happy, confident, and optimistic — the simplicity of the dress’ monochromatic design says something a little less flattering: Mia lacks sophistication. As wonderful as she may be, Mia is still young and somewhat inexperienced. After all, this dress appears in one of the first few scenes of the film — hardly enough time for Mia’s character to develop much nuance and depth.
The blue dress reflects Mia’s search “for a place where [she finds] who [she’s] gonna be,” especially because the dress is just a variation on a theme to which the dresses of all her peer aspiring actresses also subscribe. All the other young Hollywood actresses are also bold in character, yet naive in youth, and so Mia just blends into the crowd; it is only on her own that she sticks out. And indeed, standing out is exactly what she does in this dress when Sebastian (portrayed by Ryan Gosling) lures her into the restaurant with his impassioned piano playing. The world around her and Sebastian literally disappears, and while the other guests are all taken aback by Sebastian’s gaudy performance, she is the only one in the crowd with the courage to compliment him.
When Mia crosses paths again with Sebastian, she is sporting her iconic yellow canary dress, which clearly continues the “young Hollywood actress dress” theme mentioned above. The youthful yellow and the scrawled doodles further reflect Mia’s boldness and relative immaturity, especially since she completes the outfit with a red tote and blue heels. Of course, she then appropriately changes into her two-tone dance shoes to coordinate with Sebastian’s as they start to dance in the foreground of twinkling Los Angeles lights — a true City of Stars — and swirling violets and magentas blend to define this moment of budding romance. Mia and Sebastian’s shoes serve both fashion and function in this aesthetic masterpiece of a scene. Every step and tap in their carefully coordinated dance duet aligns with the orchestra, synchronizing the score with the screen, which in turn emphasizes the growing synchronization between Mia and Sebastian.
When Sebastian surprises Mia with a visit to her barista day job the next day, Mia is again adorned in a mix of bright colors, yet these colors are slightly more subdued, and the style of her clothes is a bit more developed. Likewise, Mia’s character is a bit more developed in this scene. As she strolls down the street with Sebastian, she reveals the rather innocent reason she wanted to become an actress in the first place: she did not start acting out of a desire for fame, but rather because of a childhood dream of starring in her very own play. In return, Sebastian confides to Mia his own dream of saving jazz by opening up his own club. The two of them part with not only a next date in plan, but also with a renewed consciousness of their dreams.
The emerald dress marks an important transition for Mia. In terms of color use, it is the last instance in which we see Mia donning the “young Hollywood actress” motif, yet in terms of style, the emerald dress marks the first instance in which we really see Mia wearing a more mature look. Although the green is still in line with the theme of bold colors in Mia’s wardrobe, the V-shape of the front and back that flatters Stone’s figure and the shape of the dress, along with the accessories she chooses to complete the outfit, all communicate a greater sense of elegance and sophistication.
Furthermore, this wardrobe transition underscores Mia’s relationship transition in the film. Mia starts her emerald evening at dinner with her boyfriend Greg but she soon abandons this immature relationship for good and spends the evening dancing through the stars with Sebastian. Likewise, this is the dress in which Mia finally breaks off from her relatively simple look of the first act, reflecting her maturing character and sophisticating style.