How an Apocalypse Now Poster Led to Oscar-Winning Costumes for Bram Stoker's Dracula
Francis Ford Coppola said that James V. Hart’s script for their 1992 movie Bram Stoker’s Dracula
required the costumes to be the set. By collaborating with graphic
designer Eiko Ishioka, Coppola fulfilled that vision and their work
together resulted in some of the most memorable costumes ever made for
these familiar characters.
was not the Dracula familiar to audiences from earlier Universal and
Hammer vampire films. It would be an adaptation of the well-known legend
that was told, Ishioka said, as though everyone had taken acid. Her
audacious designs provided much of the film’s drama and
otherworldliness. Drawing on a deep well of inspiration, the designer
chose a rich color palette and sumptuous fabrics that were sculpted into
bold forms and patterns embellished with symbolic details.
and Ishioka had known each other for almost twenty years when he asked
her to be the costume designer for his production. In 1979, she
designed a striking Japanese poster series for Apocalypse Now and was coincidentally tapped to design the Japanese edition of Eleanor Coppola’s book Notes: On the Making of Apocalypse Now. Five years later, Coppola executive-produced Paul Schrader’s film, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, a highly theatrical, historical drama with Ishioka serving as production designer.
They came back together in 1987 when Coppola directed the Rip Van
Winkle episode of the television series “Faerie Tale Theatre,” with
Ishioka providing the artistic concepts for production designer Michael
Erler. Ishioka’s eerie and moody mise-en-scène complements Coppola’s
storytelling, and it was due to this personal and professional history
that Coppola turned to Ishioka, someone he knew and trusted, once he
determined the importance of costumes to his production of Dracula.
called Ishioka “a weirdo outsider with no roots in the business,” and
it is that very quality that sets her work apart. Their collaboration
also allowed her to take advantage of her gift for mixing Eastern and
Western cultures, and the result is a decadent, surreal atmosphere
through which the richly layered mysteries of each character are
Determined to modernize the main character, Ishioka
transformed one of the story’s most familiar tropes – the black cape
that Dracula uses to shield his actions from the eyes of others. Ishioka banished the expected cape and instead costumed Gary Oldman in a
crimson red robe that billows behind him as he prowls about his castle.
A fantastic red suit of armor that resembles a flayed human also
contributes to his aura of power. The color of both costumes associates
him with the blood that he craves.
Nature was a primary source of inspiration for Ishioka, who injected
organic details into many of the film’s costumes. For example, Tom
Waits’s character Renfield is confined in a mental hospital in a quilted
straightjacket constructed of rough gray fabric that makes him look
like an insect.
The peppermint-green party dress worn by Sadie Frost’s character,
Lucy Westenra, is embroidered with intertwining snakes as a symbol of
her character’s eroticism.
Most memorably, Lucy’s spectacular wedding dress was inspired by the
Australian frilled lizard, a creature that unfurls a collar of skin when
threatened. In Ishioka’s hands, the lace collar creates the illusion
that Lucy’s head is disassociated from her body; her jeweled choker
draws attention to her neck, the erogenous zone that is the focus of
Lucy’s costumes reflect her wealth and liberal sexual mores and
contrast with those of Winona Ryder’s Mina Murray, a middle-class
teacher who lacks Lucy’s sophistication. The contrast is perhaps most
obvious in the wedding dress that Mina wears to take her vows to
Jonathan Harker, played by Keanu Reeves.
Where Lucy’s wedding dress is a study in texture designed to identify
her as a creature not wholly human, Mina’s bridal costume is a sedate
Victorian-era garment. Rendered in a soft, gray-green fabric, it reveals
her character’s modest nature with its high neckline and structured
construction. This dress contrasts sharply with the costume she wears
when Dracula finally seduces her.
Revealing and blood red, Mina’s dress features an open neckline and
three-quarter length sleeves with romantic open cuffs. Ishioka’s color
choice ties the two lovers together in a burst of passion that cannot be