Interviews Movies

Telling Stories Through Costumes

For the Tribeca Film Festival, I was able to get a press pass for The Game of Nerds and spoke with several directors, producers and actors. One of my conversations was with a costume designer.

Alexandra Engelson has been in the Costume and Wardrobe Department on her IMDb for numerals shows and films including The Equalizer, starring Queen Latifah, Shock Docs: Devil Made Me Do It for Discovery+ (about the same case from the latest Conjuring film), and a 2021 short film, Leylak

Source: Leylak Facebook

When I watched the short, Leylak about a Turkish immigrant family in NYC who deal with a death during the height of the pandemic, I immediately noticed the masks. The teenage daughter wore a bright, floral mask. Her father has on a dark fabric. This was all on purpose. Engelson explained she spoke with the screenwriter and learned it is common for immigrants would sew their own things from old fabrics to save money. So she went in search of Turkish-owned shops around NYC and found handmade masks. The daughter’s mask was made from old pajamas. The father’s mask was from an old work shirt. Then there was the presentation of the wardrobe. The father’s shirts were wrinkled, a detail lost on-screen but important for the actor. He’s grieving, tired, overworked, and underpaid. He doesn’t have time to iron his shirts and at this point, doesn’t care. 

This is one example of the work of the costume department. So much detail for a 17 minute short film that allowed an audience to know more about each character. Yet, not many got to speak with her during the promotion.

Why are costume departments often ignored? One theory is, unfortunately, sexism. A primarily female-heavy department and not perceived as tech-heavy, even though the tools used in a costume department are vital, therefore it usually has a lower budget than other departments. Engelson shared this article from Variety on how the topic is changing. Films are a collaboration because everyone is necessary and everyone deserves to get their voices heard. This article and my discussion with Engelson were about that. 

The truth is that many costume departments are not consulted, credited and don’t get residuals. Engelson explains, “Costume designers are storytellers. We work with the writer, director and actors to complete the story.”

As she continues her work as a costume coordinator and designer, she also has expanded her career to include writer and producer. She has written and is producing a pilot called, The Traveling Saleswoman. Inspiration came to her when she saw a dress. 

“I saw this and wondered, “What is the story behind the person who bought this? Why would they wear this?” 

She started writing about a woman whose husband is murdered so she decides to solve the case. 

“That was not what came to my mind, but now I want to find out more!” I replied. I mean, who wouldn’t want to watch that? And all because of a dress? 

When it comes to films and television, it takes a village. Let’s start acknowledging all the different people involved. To learn more of Engelson’s work, visit her website: https://www.aoengelson.com/

Here is the trailer for Leylak:

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