How colourful costuming in ‘Les Miserables’ brings the Barricade Boys to life

Joly, Combeferre, Marius, Courfeyrac, Enjolras, Grantaire, and the rest of Les Amis in "Les Misérables."

Joly, Marius, Enjolras, Grantaire, and the rest of the boys in “Les Misérables.”

Both on stage and in film, there are three fundamental things which can either establish a character as memorable for the audience or leave them in obscurity.  The first two of these are writing and acting, which often end up going hand in hand, but the third, costuming, is arguably just as important.

It is costuming, in combination with acting and writing, which in the recent film adaptation of The Hobbit, created thirteen distinct characters from what could have been a shapeless mass of dwarves.

In this same way, the costume designers for Tom Hooper’s adaptation of Les Misérables were able to create distinct looks for each of the barricade boys, and as a result, even new fans can distinguish them from one another and develop ideas about them based on how their personalities are expressed in things as subtle as the colour schemes of their clothing.  How did they do this?  Let’s take a look!

Aaron Tveit as Enjolras.

Aaron Tveit as Enjolras.

Of the barricade boys, the most easily recognizable character is by and far Enjolras, whose distinctive colour scheme sets him apart from all other members of the group.  While pondering Enjolras’ colour scheme, a friend of mine commented “But Enjolras can’t not be red!” and in many ways, this is absolutely true – Enjolras, in the majority of adaptations, appears to be completely and inexorably tied to the colour red.  Throughout the film, Enjolras is always dressed in reds – even his violet jacket during “Paris/Look Down” is a red-violet colour, which of course is accented by that red and orangey-gold waistcoat; later in the film, he dons a bright crimson coat – the film’s answer to the stage version’s famous vest – with a darker coloured waistcoat and dark blue cravat.  While we learn more about Enjolras through his character interactions and the things that he says and does, this colour scheme also makes Enjolras instantly recognisable at all times during the film.

Killian Donnelly as Combeferre.

Killian Donnelly as Combeferre.

While Enjolras has a very bright colour scheme with plenty of reds, by comparison Combeferre’s costuming is much more muted and neutral.  This effect becomes particularly apparent at the barricade once he strips off his bright blue coat, leaving him with the simplicity of a dove-grey waistcoat and a single pop of colour in the red patterned fabric of his cravat.  In many ways, this contrast to Enjolras’ costume, in conjunction with Killian Donnelly’s portrayal of the character, tells the audience everything they need to know about the differences between Combeferre and Enjolras and their approaches to social change.  While Enjolras is fire and brimstone, flash and awe, violence and revolution, Combeferre is careful progress and a slow rising dawn, gentleness and guiding, and so the muted colour scheme of Combeferre’s costuming reflects Combeferre’s gentle logic in contrast to Enjolras’ fiery passion.

Fra Fee as Courfeyrac.

Fra Fee as Courfeyrac.

What makes Courfeyrac’s costuming so interesting in terms of colour is the fact that his colour scheme is in many ways a blending of those of Enjolras and Combeferre.  Like Enjolras, he has reds in his wardrobe, but these are offset by the cooler, more neutral tones of Combeferre.  However, his reds are darker – more warm than bright, as are his greys and browns when compared to the pale dove-grey of Combeferre’s costuming.  As fans of the novel will recall, while Enjolras and Combeferre, the “chief” and the “guide,” are two very different approaches to revolution, who balance one another, Victor Hugo calls Courfeyrac the “centre” and he is, in many ways, where the two meet in the middle, and his clothing’s colour scheme both reflects that blending of views and the warmth of personality that Hugo refers to as making him the “centre” of the group.

George Blagden as Grantaire.

George Blagden as Grantaire.

While describing Grantaire and his dynamic with Enjolras in the novel, Victor Hugo makes the statement that “a sceptic who adheres to a believer is as simple as the laws of complementary colours,” and the costume designers for Les Misérables almost certainly had this in mind when they decided to make Grantaire’s primary costuming a forest green waistcoat in contrast to the reds of Enjolras’ clothing.  Another aspect of Grantaire’s costume that is of note is the complete lack of any bright colouring, particularly red.  While his cravat is black with small, red stripes, these are barely noticeable, and the red in his hat at the funeral is dull and subdued.  It hardly seems to be coincidence that alone out of the barricade boys it is the sceptical, cynical Grantaire who is without a splash of bright colour in his costume.

Alistair Brammer as Jean Prouvaire.

Alistair Brammer as Jean Prouvaire.

Jean “Jehan” Prouvaire, in the novel, is noted as “dress[ing] badly,” and while it appears that the film brings us a slight better-dressed than usual Jehan, it does appear that the costume designers have made a conscious effort to have Jehan do a few things with his clothing that the others do not.  For instance, it can be noted that for the most part, waistcoats and coats are always of differing colours, however Jehan wears a waistcoat that is not only the same colour as his coat, but is also very nearly the same shade of blue, rendering his outfit unfashionable when put into juxtaposition with the rest of the cast.  In addition, the choice of blues and then vivid and lighter blues over dark, more solemn blues for his clothing creates an interesting illustration of his personality.  He is described as being delicate, a poet and an intellectual, but also as being intrepid, and in the same spirit, his colours are vivid and bold, but also lighter and gentle, more like Combeferre’s than Enjolras’.

Gabriel Vick as Feuilly.

Gabriel Vick as Feuilly.

The most interesting thing about Feuilly’s costuming is not his colouring but his use of pattern.  Apart from Marius, he is the only barricade boy who extensively uses patterning that is not stripes or stripe-like texturing.  However, Feuilly not only uses plaid, he uses largely monochromatic plaid, and his colour choices are very low-key and down to earth.  Even more revealing about his character is the straw top hat that he dons at Lamarque’s funeral, which does not match the rest of his outfit and makes him very visible, but which also is a visible status symbol.  The donning of a formal top hat, albeit one made of straw rather than wool or felt, is one that Feuilly, as one of the few decidedly lower class members of the group, would have viewed as a major gesture of respect, and so through that gesture, we learn both about what he values and receive hints as to his background.

Stuart Neal as Bossuet.

Stuart Neal as Bossuet.

Of the barricade boys, Bossuet’s outfit is the simplest both in colour and design.  His costuming consists of a simple black waistcoat with a bright red cravat, sometimes with the addition of a light brown coat; however, his simplified colour palette is also a classic one.  While his clothing lacks the flash and fashionability of his companions’ outfits, Bossuet’s style demonstrates both a consciousness of how he looks and a practicality which reflects his financial circumstances, as in the novel he is described as being essentially penniless and sometimes homeless, making his clothing something of a lesser priority than for his more wealthy peers.

Iwan Lewis as Bahorel,

Iwan Lewis as Bahorel,

Bahorel’s costuming is interesting in that it directly mirrors different layers of his personality.  Early in the film, he is shown in a brown, almost mahogany coat, bright royal blue cravat, and newsboy style cap, reflecting the exterior of his personality as Hugo describes it: “bold to the verge of effrontery […] had daring waistcoats and scarlet opinions” and “loving nothing so much as a quarrel, unless it were an uprising; and nothing so much as an uprising, unless it were a revolution.”  The most visible part of him is that which most reflects his brashness and his devotion to Enjolras’ style of revolution as well as his good-natured personality, as reflected in the fact that the brown of his coat is less of a plain brown and more run-through with reds tones (to say nothing of his striped trousers).  However, Hugo also notes that “in reality, [Bahorel] had a penetrating mind and was more of a thinker than appeared to view” and this side of his personality is reflected in his waistcoats, which are in greys and light brown colours at varying points in the film.

Hugh Skinner as Joly.

Hugh Skinner as Joly.

Joly, who within the novel is noted as being “the gayest of them all”, has the overall warmth of his costuming to reflect the same in his personality in the film.  Rather than the bright blues and reds of some of his companions, Joly’s wardrobe is made up primarily of brown and beige, with hints of red both in the stripes of his waistcoat and his cravat, making his appearance less striking than Enjolras or Jehan, but more down-to-earth.  In addition, his costume is altogether more put-together and coordinated than many of the other students.  Rather than several very different colours, he chooses a dark brown coat that complements the lighter colours of his waistcoat, which in turn compliments the colour of his cravat, making him arguably the most colour coordinated member of the group.  Perhaps most interesting is the cut of his coat, which mimics the cut of a doctor’s lab coat – something that was almost certainly a conscious costuming choice for the character, who is a medical student.

Eddie Redmayne as Marius Pontmercy.

Eddie Redmayne as Marius Pontmercy.

Last but not least, Marius Pontmercy’s outfit is interesting less in terms of his personality than in regards to the conflict between his background and his current situation.  On the one hand, Marius wears a plaid waistcoat in multiple shades of blue and grey as well as a royal blue cravat, both of which look not only well-made, but rather new in comparison to those around him.  On the other, drab brown coat is of a decidedly different make and looks more worn than the rest of his outfit.  In a way, this mimics the duality in Marius’ current situation; his background is decidedly upper class, as reflected in the new appearance of his waistcoat and cravat, yet he is currently estranged from his wealthy family and has thrown his lot in with Enjolras and his quest to win the right of the people on their behalf, something which is reflected in the drab colouring and worn look of his coat.  In this way, the audience gets little hints, even before Éponine points it out explicitly, that Marius is only pretending to be a member of a social class other than his own.

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9 Responses

  1. In the analysis of bahorels costume, thats actually not iwan in the hatnand red coat during lamarques funeral- bahorel was wearing a brown coat with striped pants- iwan even confirmed that that is chris milf that everyone is mistaking for Bahorel.

  2. This was an EXCELLENT addition to Mis Week! As a huge fan of the costuming (and significance of colours within) of any show in general, this was greatly appreciated. With enough views of the stage show, one begins to see the same sense of scheme with les Amis there also. In the newer touring show, of COURSE the “Xylophone” sets Enjolras apart. However, watching closely, one begins to appreciate the deep and striking blues of Marius’ jacket, the ever-present floral motif of Jean Prouvaire, and the dusky brown and worn out great coat that turns the generally comic character of Grantaire into a dramatic and, though I don’t wish to spoil, tragic figure by the second act.

    • Oh! Actually now that you mention the stage show – I actually had a weird thought and gone around and looked at some (not current) shots, just to see if the green and red turned up again with Grantaire and Enjolras, and it did! (I was inordinately excited about this – you know me)

      That said, I really need to track down a chance to see a live production in person (read: force my mother into going with me in August probably).

  3. One point about Joly’s costume that you might have missed out. Joly is a medical student. And, if you look at his coat, it actually resembles the doctor’s white lab coat.

    • Thank you!

      I did know that that Joly is a medical student, but I hadn’t caught the resemblance to a doctor’s lab coat (which is a shame on me because I own a lab coat). Honestly, I adore that kind of detail, so thank you again for pointing it out to me!

  4. This is such a cool idea. I hadn’t thought too much about how this sort of thing transmits to the audience. Do you happen to know the historical significance of red for France? I mean the red flag the tricolor and all that but I don’t know much about France.

    • Well, from very early on (as early as the Middle Ages) the colour red, when used in flags (or in streamer flags on ships), has been used as a flag of defiance – usually to indicate a willingness to fight to the death (cities and castles under siege would raise it to indicate that they would not surrender).

      Fast forward to the French Revolution, where it was adopted, discarded, and re-adopted several times, with various symbolic connotations (martial law, the blood of martyrs killed by the government, etc).

      Overall, if I had to go with an overwhelming historical significance for red, I would have to go with not the later use of the red flag, but with the original use of it as a symbol of defiance and refusal to surrender by a town or castle (or in this case, a people, or a barricade) under siege.