Inside the costumes of “Bram Stoker’s Dracula”
We look inside the Gothic influence and drag the legacy of Eiko Ishioka’s Oscar-winning costumes to Francis Ford Coppola’s vampiric masterpiece.
When Dracula by Gary Oldman Appears in Modern London Halfway by Francis Ford Coppola Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), it is clear that he embodies the appearance and aesthetics of “Victorianism”. Like the rest of the men, he’s buttoned up in dark colors – but his hat is old-fashioned, his hair is long and down. The colorful glasses, dark makeup, and hair all give off an ’80s metal vibe: think Ozzy in Black Sabbath, Eddie Van Halen, all of Mötley Crüe. These long haired guys are dangerous men and women cannot be trusted.
Clothes make the man. Costumes, in Bram Stoker’s DraculaThe case, do the monsters.
In Coppola’s take on the material (as in the subtext of many horror monsters), vampires embody aspects of humanity that mainstream culture finds objectionable and uncomfortable. Using markers from contemporary subcultures in clothing, in particular anime, rock and drag genres, Dracula’s costume designer Eiko Ishioka expresses the social, cultural and aesthetic danger posed by the living dead.
All along Dracula, Ishioka consistently uses markers of transgressive identity to indicate otherness and deviance. The opposition to the vampire is the Victorian man, whose typical costume consists of a dark three-piece suit, a button-down white shirt, and a modest hat. They are rarely exposed, always checked, their uniforms serving as a sign of their symbolic attachment to the patriarchal standards against which women and vampires fight.
These fashion choices end up immediately affecting vampire couture and the Gothic subculture. Stove pipe hats become the marker for rakish demons across the steampunk and vamp scenes. The most obvious place to see this influence is in Neil Jordan. Interview with a Vampire, when Tom Cruise as Lestat, who helped solidify the hat as a Gothic marker. A less direct comparison is the character of Tom Hardy in FX’s Taboo, a man who walks a very thin veil between life and death. He often wears a stovepipe hat, which is, at this point, a marker of transgressive and deviant behavior that we instantly recognize.
Printing the designs changed the landscape of Victorian Vamp fashion markers, but they were not without references. This bold and modern look, and many more Dracula‘s, recall the anime art of Yoshitaka Amano. With wispy lines, bleeding watercolors, and intricate detail, Amano’s style is legendary. By the 1980s he was already an established illustrator, working on ubiquitous franchises like Final fantasy and Vampire Hunter D.
Like Amano’s D, Dracula is radiant and Authurian in his romance, a figure infiltrated into detail. As soon as he meets Mina, he adopts his fondness for leaves and fern patterns. These ferns were also seen on Elisabeta’s dress. This detail is totally absent from the other men around him, symbolically aligning him and Mina against patriarchy, a threat to Victorian control systems.
Dracula’s armor remains one of the film’s most iconic looks; Inspired by worms and musculature, it also draws on anime lore to create fantasy and surreal armor. While the Japanese samurai had their own style of armor, the Western platemail was constantly reinterpreted by Eastern performers in the anime. Shoujo, or manga for girls, was a style that began in the early 20th century and by the 60s had seen a huge revival, full of romance and queer historical narratives. Armor, in particular, occupied a considerable place in the imaginations of Japanese women of that time.
A fine example of fantasy armor features Ryoko Yamagishi’s Fairy King from her comic book Asuka, printed in the mid-1980s. Her work is expressive and groundbreaking, and it is easy to see parallels between her work and the armor, helmets and fashion created by Ishioka. In the documentary The costumes are the sets, Ishioka said she wanted to push the boundaries of fashion and express a “hybrid culture, where East meets West”. This hybridity is a threat. This endangers the Victorian sensibilities of what “the East” is and where those distinctions lie. In the deliberate mixture of different divergent aesthetics, the armor has already conveyed danger, romance and the other oriental.
Muscle armor has remained a constant touchstone for Dracula’s adaptations. Ngila Dickson, the costume designer for Dracula Untold (2014) knew they were creating a tribute Ishioka designed with their dragon relief armor for Dracula by Luke Evans. The musculature costume horror also indicates a drag and punk sensibility – one only needs to look at Lady Gaga’s 2010 meat dress to see the impact of raw red meat attached to living flesh.
Even before Gaga, Linder Sterling, a punk musician, wore a meat dress in 1987 during a political / rock protest; prior to that, in 1982, Jana Sterback created a meat dress for an art show in Canada. All of these examples feature clothing to create a statement that defies patriarchy. In Ishioka’s case, he challenges Victorianism.
Ishioka’s execution of this trend is quite unique while building on a tradition of difficult lore. The taboo of having raw meat displayed on your body is as disturbing now as it was then, and the sculptural elements create a disturbing image of a flayed Dracula, drinking cursed blood of his own flesh.
The Brides add another element of transgressive cultures. With layers of veils and clothes, they climb out of bed, eager to drink Jonathan Harker’s blood, writhing in the middle of a low, bohemian bed and flashing lights. They are inspired by punk icons like Sousixe Soux, Cyndi Lauper and Wendy O. Williams; emblems of female sexuality and revolutionary youth.
Veils, jeweled headdresses, and flowing stola-shaped dresses were from Roman, Arab, and Rroma cultures. These markers of otherness also appear in later films, as in Van Helsing, where the actresses wear skimpy outfits adorned with Egyptian lotus flower patterns and “Arab” partings carrying the belly. This “deviant Orientalism” is repeated later in the film, when Lucy and Mina examine a copy of the Kama Sutra in private.
In addition to the orientalism displayed by The Brides, the transgressive nature of their sexualities is further complicated by the way their looks very much resemble drag costumes. Jean Harlow, a drag artist in the 70s, often donned two belly dance pieces. With exaggerated jewelry, brightly colored lights, the odd backward walk, the presentation of the brides is very similar to the pageantry of drag balls. Pushing the metaphor is the open sexuality of the scene, from the very obvious pipe to the arms of the men holding the lights in the castle, emphasizing the fetishization of the body.
While Ishioka infused symbolism into every design choice, Lucy’s wedding / internment dress perfectly epitomizes a perverted Victorian sensibility, mutated by a plurality of transgressive cultures. A major tenet of Issay Miyake and many Japanese fashion designers is that freedom comes from obfuscation. For the Victorians, everything had to be buttoned, pinned and bodied. This dress is the opposite of that and the embodiment of Lucy’s transformation.
This style of extravagant headdresses, lace, huge sleeves, train and even makeup are all elements of drag culture. It’s tailor-made to just stir it up, then add a veil, draperies and silk. The extravagance of this costume makes you forget what’s under all that fabric. This freedom by refusal to edit is exceptionally offensive to Victorian sensibility. The last decisions Lucy makes completely on her own are when she designs her dress, that beautiful, extravagant extravagance. She could have been buried in her wedding dress, but she looked fabulous.
The culture of drag has had an impact on Ishioka’s creations, either through direct reinterpretation or through cultural osmosis. Art exists without borders, and as a designer known for crossing borders, blurring them and then reinventing them, Ishioka’s sensibilities align with the culture of drag. Drag has, at bottom, the desire to make fashion a system of values.
This value system is recognized by those within the culture (among Dracula, vampires and women) while those outside this culture perceive this fashion as worthless or even offensive. In order to set the current drag camp against the Victorian Patriarchy, Ishioka designs Lucy’s serpent dress (worn when she receives three suitors) and Mina’s red flamenco dress (worn at the height of her emotional affair with the prince) , two pieces full of markers of seduction and sexuality that Victorian men would not approve of.
The theatricality of these costumes, forced into sound scenes, makes it feel like miniature drag balls, little drama and camp celebrations as each moment of horror unfolds. Each scene is a new opportunity for the costume to steal the show.
Eiko Ishioka expresses danger through avant-garde costumes, using inspirations that push, blur and cut definitions of art through visual associations with counter-cultural media. Almost all the choices she made Dracula echoed through Gothic culture, future Dracula media, and horror movies. While this extravagant version of the vampire camp seems taken for granted in modern interpretations of the vampire genre, it’s all because Ishioka has taken a collection of boundary-pushing cultural pastiche and made beautiful transcendent and surreal wings. She flew so that we could marvel at her work and, like a bat, watch it fly through future films.