Combat and the Croupier: The Costume World of Pacific Rim |

19 Jul ’13

Director Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim was always bound to be a detailed visual feast of FX, sets and costume design. Nonetheless the real main players in this film wear no costumes at all, the kaiju (Japanese for ‘strange beast’) and the tower-block sized Jaeger robots (German for ‘hunter’) built to defend Earth from their attacks. As such it fell to costume designer Kate Hawley, fresh from The Hobbit’s design team, to emphasise the humanity of Pacific Rim’s smaller-scale, flesh and blood characters.

Hawley’s job was made extra difficult because most of these characters are involved in the military Pan Pacific Defence Corps, and yet we arrive (intro excluded) at the end of their story, when funding has ceased and they are cast loose from official channels. Consequently we see a resistance group of scientists, technicians, engineers and pilots; a background cast wearing muted work clothes, with little evidence of rank or decoration. In a nod to the film’s Japanese roots and the director’s multicultural career, this is an international operation with an international cast, far from the typical ‘America Saves the World’ message of Hollywood.

Idris Elba in military uniform as Marshall Stacker Pentecost. His later silhouette is reminiscent of the masculine 1930s ‘V shape’ adopted in suit jackets of the era. His trousers too are cut wide and straight.

Idris Elba would always stand out in a crowd through sheer physical presence alone, but as Stacker Pentecost he begins in a razor-sharp airforce blue uniform covered in insignia and medals, and then moves to a regular suit, similar in cut, after government support is withdrawn. Always he remains buttoned-up and formal (flippantly greeted as “looking good” at one point), a man controlling and concealing his feelings as he shoulders the burden of being Earth’s last chance of survival.

Rinko Kikuchi as Mako Mori. Note the unnecessary breast shape moulded in Mako’s Jaeger suit, a concept of supposedly ‘feminising’ armour that Hollywood still persists with.

Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), Pentecost’s aide and adopted daughter, first appears from beneath a giant umbrella in an overcoat with trousers bloused over her boots like a World War II paratrooper. It’s a mix of toughness and vulnerability which is continued throughout. She chooses high-waist, neat combat trousers with a loose epaulette shirt, a set of overalls in denim with worn edges, and following an emotional setback – and only in private – a knitted cardigan with a pattern of leaves in the same olive grey used several times in the film. She has a bobbed haircut sporting two flashes of blue either side of her face echoing the kaiju blood that pollutes the battlefields and the sky blue coat she wore as a little girl. Her blue coat picks this vulnerable figure out of the rubble of Tokyo; it has the structure and precision of Mako’s adult character, but the Peter Pan collar with hand-embroidered detail retains her innocence. With this coat she wears patent red shoes – or rather wears one and carries the other, which is symbolically handed back to her later as a symbol of trust and acceptance. Of course, there is a cinematic fairytale reference here to another lost girl… Red is a key tone repeated infrequently but effectively in Pacific Rim.

Charlie Hunnam as Raleigh Becket in worn, battered clothes that imply just how far he has fallen at this point in the story.

Raleigh Becket’s (Charlie Hunnam) clothing is ragged and frayed like the man himself. Once past the flashback introduction, we meet him on a construction site, still grieving, cocooned protectively in a funnel-neck sweater which, like Mako’s cardigan, has a slight fluffiness to the knit. The only item Becket wears that appears new is the shiny black Jaeger suit he is given to pilot the reworked Gipsy Danger. It is in contrast with the older suits he wore with his brother; they were bulkier with visible bolt heads and battered and scraped panels, the paintwork chipped from previous battles. The white-on-black angular panels also looked a bit ‘storm trooper-y’ – perhaps an intentional nod to Star Wars?

Becket’s voice-over introduction explains that the Jaeger pilots are regarded as rock stars, but he and his brother are again more reminiscent of WW II pilots, their flight jackets painted up with self-expression as the biggest military risk-takers of their time, Gipsy Danger emblem printed on the rear like a Memphis Belle A2. Each set of Jaeger pilots is given a distinct look, helping to add character in the battles. The Russians who pilot the oldest remaining Jaeger, Cherno Alpha, have a dieselpunk-Gladiatorial image, with asymmetric shoulder armour in T-34 tank colour. The Chinese Crimson Typhoon team dress in blood red with a dragon motif across their chest aping traditional Chinese robes. The Australians wear scuffed khaki versions of the newest bodysuits given to Gipsy’s pilots.

Burn Gorman in full mad scientist mode as Dr. Hermann Gottlieb. He is a hotchpotch of styles that represent his jittery personality.

For comic relief and exposition we get a double act of mad scientists (no kaiju movie is complete without a mad scientist or two). Dr. Newt Guiszler (Charlie Day) is an American wannabe rock-star dressed in skinny jeans, fitted shirts and sneakers that enhance his childlike physicality. Further down the mad scientist route is Dr. Hermann Gottlieb (Burn Gorman) in parka, moth-eaten 1940s style woollen jacket, knitted tank top and unbuttoned button-down Oxford shirt. Although both men seem to be from different centuries and bicker constantly, they team up by the finale to save our heroes from last-minute disaster.

Ron Perlman as a shady black-marketeer Hannibal Chau. Those Neo-Victorian cinder glasses do more than keep the sun out.

Last but by no means least is Hannibal Chau (Ron Perlman), an oddball, though clearly intelligent leech who provides a flourish of colour in this murky world. His costume was designed from the ground up: pointed-toed shoes with gold armour-plating effect that chink like spurs, teamed with garish purple/red brocade three-piece suit and cinder glasses – a look Perlman has described as ‘croupier on steroids in Vegas’. Where everyone else is struggling, Chau is thriving, and wears this wealth and prosperity for all to see. He is like the brightly coloured scarab beetle who feeds on shit.

Against the spectacle of robots and kaiju rampaging over land and water, the details of the human costumes pull you back to their struggle. These are desperate people a long way into their war, like Europe in 1944, battle weary but still fighting. The limited palette means accents of red and kaiju blue punctuate through scenes. Although the film does not quite succeed in showing us the emotional bond of pilots in ‘The Drift’ – the linked neural control of the robots – the clothing they wear expands their inner lives in a way you just don’t get with the Transformers franchise. Pacific Rim is an old fashioned adventure tale told in a high-tech way.

By Lesley Holmes.

Lesley is a contradictory sort – she likes movies with space and dinosaurs, and B&W screwball comedies. She is fascinated by fashion history and particularly obsessed by underwear. She sells 1940s style knickers at Dorothy May Lingerie. She also does fashion talks on various topics. She can personally verify that editor Chris Laverty mixes a mean cocktail.

Pacific Rim is currently on general release.

© 2013, Contributor.