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Hide in Plain Sight: An Interview with Piero Tosi
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Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media 47.1 (2006) 106-121

An Interview with Piero Tosi

Drake Stutesman

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Figure 1
Piero Tosi between Luchino Visconti and Silvana Mangano on the set of Death in Venice, 1971. Note the naturalness and detail of Mangano's sumptuous day-dress. Courtesy of Photofest.

In an ideal world Piero Tosi's name would serve as a benchmark for any kind of artistic excellence. One of the greatest costume designers ever, Tosi—now in his eighties and still teaching in Rome—has worked with Luchino Visconti, Federico Fellini, and Pier Paolo Pasolini, among others. Renowned for his range, Tosi's versatility has extended from hair design (Visconti's La Caduta degli dei/The Damned, IT, 1969), to make-up (Fellini's Fellini Satyricon, IT, 1970), to sets (Fellini's "Toby Dammit" sequence in Histoires Extraordinaires/Spirits of the Dead, with Louise Malle, FR/IT, 1968); not to mention the historically precise costumes he created for much of Visconti's work and the prodigious imagination he brought to those in Pasolini's Medea (FR/IT, 1969). Though many of these films demonstrate Tosi's expertise with historical dress, he is equally comfortable with modern clothes, ensuring that they convey character, as exemplified by Terence Stamp's praise for his designs as indispensable to his part in "Toby Dammit," and the iconic costumes he devised for Liliana Cavani's The Night Porter (Il Portiere di notte, IT/US, 1974) and Eduoard Molinaro's La Cage aux folles (IT/FR, 1978). But, for all these extremes, it is Tosi's long collaboration with Visconti that remains the backbone of his career.

Visconti's films straddle the artificial and the realistic often by combining a stage setting's stark contrastive lighting, either in black and white or clashing colors, with an historically accurate mise-en-scene. Yet, within this odd mix, his stories manage to carry an almost palpable sense of the real. To achieve that, he worked with people who well understood how to create a living atmosphere from such false sources as sets, lights, and acting. That is, Visconti embellished his own genius with a genius for choosing talents such as Suso Cecchi d'Amico, his screenwriter on many films, Armando Nannuzzi and Pasqualino De Santis, two of his great cinematographers, and Tosi, his ubiquitous costume designer, whose job was as complex, demanding and subtle as any below or above the line.

The subtlety of costume design is often unobserved by an audience but nevertheless guides their unconscious through the narrative as few other elements of a film can. We make sense of the social world through clothing: its tailoring, its colors, its familiarity, or its shock anchors us in the structures of everyday life. We access someone's status or individuality through the way they wear their clothes (clean, dirty, sagging, fitted), through their clothes' textures (denim, silk, synthetic), through insignias such as hats (often revealing rank such as a crown or a veil does) or shoes, and through sartorial clues that we take for liberation or hipness (flowing, revealing, baggy, or tight) or repression (unkempt, misshapen). Film costume design must work along these profound psychic lines yet remain discreet at all times. The costume designer Gabriella Pescucci, whose work ranges from the riotous imagination of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (Terry Gilliam, UK, 1988) to the historical accuracy of The Age of Innocence (Martin Scorsese, US, 1993)—and who trained with Piero Tosi through the 1970s—declared this phenomenon plainly: ". . . my greatest satisfaction comes from having my work disappear in the film." The costume is a subliminal vehicle and it is the costume designer's "job," as Albert Wolsky, Academy Award winner for his costumes for All That Jazz (Bob Fosse, US, 1980), said, to "identify, through elimination and simplification, who somebody is." Years before, Adrian, MGM's Head of Costume from 1928–1942 revealed this interior structure of costume design as both signifier and narrative guide with his statement that "one could line up all the gowns and tell the screen story." That the costume tells the story on its own is a radical and yet valid idea...

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