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Women, Sport, and Film - Fall 2004

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Clothing as an Image in Athletic Films

Elisha Colter

In film, directors use a variety of elements to add to characterization. One of the foremost of these is the way in which costuming is used. From Pat and Mike to Bend It Like Beckham, films about athletics are no exception.

Pat and Mike (1952), a film about a female athlete in the 1950s, uses costuming to develop the character of the protagonist, played by Katherine Hepburn. Pat is a non-traditional woman for the period. Pat mentions several times throughout the film that she is more comfortable wearing pants than she is in a skirt. The fact that she wears slacks in an era in which skirts were the norm physically distinguishes her from the more traditional women around her. When her fiancÚ makes her change out of her pants to wear a skirt, it is clear that he is trying to change her personality, namely her strong sense of independence, as well. Her clothing is a visible sign of this independence and her desire to be seen as a serious athlete rather than as just a woman.

A League of Their Own (1992) continues the trend of conflict between feminine clothing and athletic clothing. When the women in the film are first accepted into the women's baseball league, they are shown their new uniforms, which consist of short skirts. These ultra-feminine outfits are, as many characters note, hardly suitable to play baseball in. The men in charge of the league, however, seem to feel that not only would it be inappropriate for the women to wear pants to play ball, but also that the short skirts could help attract male fans. The women play in these uniforms despite their impracticality, earning a significant number of catcalls and bruises in the process. The conflict between femininity and sport is address, in part, through the clothing the characters are forced to wear.

Being about a male athlete, Rocky (1976) would appear to be a departure from these two films. The use of costumes says just as much about the characters and their sports, however. During his fight with Apollo Creed, Rocky wears relatively nondescript clothing, typical boxing shorts. Creed is dressed much more elaborately, though. He enters in an extravagant Uncle Sam outfit, revealing red, white, and blue shorts beneath. These costumes add to what the viewer already knows about the two characters. Rocky is a working-class underdog, and is thus dressed simply. Apollo Creed is a champion boxer, and is thus much more showy and richly dressed. The costumes reinforce the viewer's ideas about these two character's lives and personalities.

Another film about boxing, Girlfight (2000) continues the theme of costuming in films as indicative of the character. In this film, Diana Guzman is a young women beginning to box. Throughout the film, she dresses in nondescript, somewhat masculine clothing. She contrasts the more "girly" girls in her school who are constantly worried about their clothes and makeup. She is seen, by many people, as being not wholly feminine. There is a different contrast in the ring, however. While she wears the same style shorts as most of the boxers around her, she also wears a sports bra. Although it is fully functional, it also serves as a visual reminder that, unlike the other fighters, she is a woman. In addition, she often wears pink during fights, but very rarely outside of them. Although she is in a masculine sport and is seen as a somewhat masculine character by those around her, the clothing she wears in the ring makes the point that she is still a young woman.

Pumping Iron II: The Women (1985) differs from the other films in that it is a documentary rather than a work of fiction. The bodybuilders in this documentary wear very specific costumes, however. During competition, the women wear bikinis to show off their bodies and muscles. The bikini of one competitor comes into question, however. Rachel McLish, who is simultaneously the most traditionally feminine and the most well-known woman in the field, is ruled against twice concerning her costume. The rules of the competition state that the bikinis must be one solid color. The first Rachel presents, however, is deemed to break this rule. Rachel fights the ruling, but is told that she cannot wear the suit. During competition, she does get another bikini, but this one, too, is brought into question for being padded. Again, Rachel argues with the contest officials and again her appeal is denied. In a film in which Rachel is depicted as a ruthless, albeit beautiful, competitor and a self-described "really strong powder puff," this detail of her costuming problems adds to the character from a real-life individual. The viewer is given the impression that the problem with her bikini is not a simply mistake, but a calculated plan to increase her odds of winning. The idea of Rachel as manipulative and ruthless is reinforced through the inclusion of this detail.

Gurinder Chadha's Bend It Like Beckham (2002) uses clothing in a very direct way to illustrate the conflicts faced by the characters. Jess's track pants and soccer uniform are contrasted by the traditional Indian clothing she and her family wear for her sister's wedding. The differences in culture are a major theme in this film. Jess is caught between the two cultures, as is illustrated in the post-game scene in which her teammates try to help her put her sari back on to return to the wedding. Throughout the film, Jess is reluctant to fully take part in or give up either culture; Jess doesn't seem to care about the sari that is so important to her mother, but is also self-conscious about wearing shorts as part of her uniform. Jess's costumes in Bend It Like Beckham are used to illustrate the difficult position she is in as the child of immigrants trying to fit into two very different cultures.

In the six films discussed, costumes provide a visual commentary on the characters and their role in sports. From Pat's reluctance to wear a skirt to Jess's change from a jersey to a sari, the costumes used in these films give the viewer an image to reinforce what the narrative itself has to say.

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