Eiko Ishioka: Beautiful Costumes Never Die

“Love Never Dies,” reads the tagline of the 1992 film Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Well I say “Beautiful Costumes Never Die!” Francis Ford Coppola’s melodramatic avant-garde masterpiece, Bram Stoker’s Dracula is iconic the world-over because of its stunningly unique costumes. It dresses Dracula in blood-red armor and robes, and his poor, preyed-upon women in subverting symbols of power and eroticism. The genius behind these costumes? Ms. Eiko Ishioka, a Japanese designer and art director. In this post, I’d like to celebrate the work of Ishioka on this strange, beautiful, WILD film.

First, some history: Eiko Ishioka’s work first came to Francis Ford Coppola’s attention when she designed posters for his film Apocalypse Now. She was then chosen as art director for a few Coppola-produced films before she was asked to do the costumes for Dracula. Coppola was given a smaller budget for this film than he had wanted, so he declared, “the costumes will be the sets!” Indeed, the often larger-than-life costumes in Dracula do fill the screen with more energy and character than background design ever could.

In celebration of one of my favorite films this spooky season I wanted to share some of my favorite costumes from Dracula. These incredible pieces prove that her strong design and unconventional approaches have immortalized Eiko Ishioka as one of the best costume designers of all time. Please enjoy these strange, dramatic, and often animalistic costumes that rewrite the rules of Gothic horror.

Okay, this movie isn’t exactly known for its acting performances. Keanu Reeves pretty famously…sucks in this movie. But do you know who BRINGS IT? My boy Gary Oldman of course. And he should! He is Dracula himself! And so it is no surprise that he is given some of the best costumes that help him to bring this character to life even more vividly. When approacing Dracula’s design, Ishioka recalls: “My image for Dracula should have a million faces. Almost like endless transformation.” And so, Gary Oldman is transfigured into a literal bat, a Victorian dandy, and an old count living in his castle in Transylvania. It is his costumes in his homeland of Transylvania, I think, that are most striking because it is here that he shows his true nature. The beginning of the film shows him as a Christian warrior in deep red armor, and when Jonathan Harker goes to stay with him centuries later, Dracula appears as an old man dressed in the longest red robes known to man with a menacing shadow that acts on its own. Of course Dracula is most himself in red. His first suit of armor hints at the blood he will shed on the battlefield, and its fascinating shape was inspired by an armadillo. Gary Oldman didn’t exactly love acting in such a constraining outfit, but it is so striking I personally feel it is worth it. Even more, it is this outfit he wears to say goodbye to his true love, Elisabeta, and the suit’s beautiful red color against his flowing long hair paint Dracula as sympathetic: a passionate man in love who must fight for his beliefs on the battelfield. Of course, when he loses his Elisabeta, he will renounce these beliefs and the Christian crosses around him will soon bleed blood as red as his armor.

My favorite costumes, though, are those of the beautiful Lucy Westenra, Mina’s flirtatious and unmarried best friend. I say unmarried because, well, all her suitors are soon to be beat out by Dracula himself. Lucy is introduced in an adorable off-the-shoulder white dress that sharply contrasts with Mina’s stiff, high-necked gown. But that evening when her suitors come to visit her, she is wearing perhaps my favorite costume in the whole film: her snake dress. This gown is a masterpiece. It’s the perfect springy shade of green that kind of hints to her virginal, light-hearted attitude that makes one of her suitors call her “darling little girl,” but it’s completely covered in intertwining snakes that Ishioka describes as symbols of her eroticism. Lucy is a woman coming into her sexuality and she is given the brightest colors in the film to help show it off. The snakes are the prefect symbol for Lucy in this allegorical moment: she is temptatious to the men around her, acting almost as an Eve to their Adam, but she herself will become tempted by the film’s devil: Dracula.

Lucy’s final dress is the film’s most iconic: an all-white wedding dress that she wears to her coffin as the new bride of Dracula. After being bitten by Drac, Lucy enters her new resting place in a stunning lace gown, carrying a child she is likely soon to feast upon. The gown’s high neck covers her vampire bite, and also acts as a bold accessory to her new ferocious appearance.

Taking inspiration from the Frilled-Neck Lizard, this piece especially comes to life when Lucy is confronted with Van Helsing’s cross, causing her to scream in horror and puff herself up just like a lizard. Both Sadie Frost, who played Lucy, and Gary Oldman both complained of how little they were able to move in their costumes, but this one seems perfectly suited to her new frightening appearance as a vampire. The film even pulls off an amazing reverse shot in which Lucy, much like a lizard, crawls backward into her coffin and menacingly stares at Van Helsing before closing her eyes in beautiful, vampiric sleep. This piece is absolutely iconic, and the intricate lacework makes me want to cry. This and the snake dress are the costumes I most hope to recreate one day, because the needlework aspects are just so beautiful. Imagine an embroidered piece with hundreds of intertwining snakes just like Lucy’s. Unreal.

Of course, we cannot forget our lovely Mina, played by my girl Winona. Is this a pretty stiff, weird performance from Winona? Sure. Suuuure. But does she looks stunning? YES. Most of the costumes Mina wears throughout the first half of this film are buttoned-up Victorian gowns with crisp tailoring and muted colors. But then, then! Once Mina is introduced to Dracula (and let me tell you, I LOVE it when he says “see me now”), she is transformed just like Dracula so often is. She is dressed for their first evening together in a blood-red gown, so beautifully layered and gathered that it perfectly reflects the passionate feelings she has for the prince in front of her. Dracula and Mina are the only two characters to sport this blood-red color (although Lucy comes close in her orange nightgown), and this was an intentional decision by Ishioka to tie the two characters together in their eternal passion. Red, in this film, is violent and bloody, but it is also the color of everlasting love. It is love and blood that Dracula is constantly seeking, and he is doomed by these two passions.

February 15, 2021