Benedict Cumberbatch is Doctor Strange, the Master of the Mystic Arts, in the latest movie from Marvel Studios. A disciple of mysticism and powerful magic, Strange has come to reject materialism, so it’s doubtful he’d ever claim that clothes maketh the man – but at least as far as moviemaking goes, costumes will play a huge part in telling this movie’s story and revealing its depths of character.
In the opening scenes, we meet Doctor Steven Strange as a high-powered neurosurgeon in expensive, well kempt clothes that illuminate his professional standing, his lavish spending, and even his ego. But, as carefully conceived by the film’s costume designer Alexandra Byrne, this is just the beginning of his character arc, and how it will be emotionally underpinned and illustrated by his wardrobe.
Strange’s journey to enlightenment and true power starts with a terrible car accident that costs him the use of his hands. His injuries are such that they impact his clothing choices from a practical point of view, and the audience will notice that he immediately starts to wear plainer apparel with fewer buttons.
According to Benedict Cumberbatch, Strange’s way of dressing is “not about his appearance anymore at all. He becomes obsessed with curing his hands so everything else goes by the wayside. Clothes tell a story, though, as well as his unkempt reality, with facial hair and crazy wild long hair.”
And with obsession taking hold of Strange, Cumberbatch explained, he “starts to sell everything, so the remaining things get a little bit more worn.”
During his quest for a cure, Strange travels to Nepal and finds the Ancient One’s temple in Kamar-Taj, where his life takes another sharp diversion. Now, the beaten-down and threadbare Doctor Strange becomes an apprentice in mysticism and magic. As Benedict Cumberbatch explains, the character’s ongoing transformation is reflected in his styling. “There’s this whole kind of notching up from apprentice to master that you see within his costume and his look… He earns every single item of clothing and every prop.”
Eventually, Strange becomes worthy of his iconic Cloak of Levitation. Even the basic silhouette of the cloak is instantly recognisable to fans of Marvel comics, and Byrne understood that nailing such an important element of the film’s look deserved real attention and effort. The Cloak of Levitation was given its own crew of 20 from the full costuming team of 100, marking it out as the single biggest undertaking that the department would have to face on this project. The cloak was very heavy and, after the Eye of Agamotto was placed around his neck, it was the last part of the costume that Benedict Cumberbatch was dressed in on set.
This element of Strange’s costume might enter the story relatively late, but it was still essential to create a total of eighteen cloaks for the shoot, many of them designed for specific uses under the varied demands of different scenes. As the cloak was going to feature heavily in the film’s climactic action, the costume team had to make sure some versions would be suitably durable, not to mention comfortable enough and safe for wear during stunt work.
Other versions were agreeable enough that Cumberbatch would even keep the cloak on when leaving the set. Infamously, he popped into a comic book shop during the last day of filming, and the inevitable torrent of selfies that lit up the internet showed he was still wearing Byrne’s costume in full, from its boots to its unmistakable collar.
To go with his all-fresh wardrobe, Strange also receives an important new accessory in the form of a Sling Ring. This powerful artefact is to be worn on the hand, very much in keeping with the film’s overall themes and imagery, but far from this being a simple band or set gemstone, it’s a multi-finger piece that could even be mistaken for an ornate set of brass knuckles. In truth, the Sling Ring is something far more mystical, a magical tool to help its wearer open up portals between different realities. Another relic, created, with much care, by the props team was The Eye of Agamotto. The Eye of Agamotto is particularly important to Strange. It is an amulet worn around the neck that can radiate a powerful, mystical light that allows the wearer to see through all disguises and illusions, and into alternate dimensions.
Several of the characters have their own personal Sling Ring, each of which was designed by Alexandra Byrne to fit their individual looks and personality. As she explained, matching accessory and costume designs to characters is like “adding ingredients to a cake,” introducing a mixture of relevant components but trying to seek the right flavour in balance. “You try to set up contradictions and juxtapositions so it’s kind of combined information. It’s not just one nail on the head.”
This approach is particularly visible in the design for Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Mordo and Tilda Swinton’s The Ancient One. Mordo’s robe is at once serene and fit for combat, while The Ancient One, as Tilda Swinton herself noted, wears costume that reads as “neither young nor old; only ageless. So we ended up going for something pretty raw and unadorned and modern and that has an archaic feel too; something eternal.”
Even in a practical, material sense, Byrne has built many separate layers into the Mordo and The Ancient One costumes, criss-crossing and overlapping pieces in a way that evokes the multiple shifting dimensions we see in the film’s big set-pieces. At the same time, each of the costumes is designed with a sense of the Kamar-Taj hierarchy, the different characters dressed as appropriate for their level of enlightenment or power. All the way throughout, Byrne ensured novices were dressed in grey clothing and disciples in blue, with masters allowed their own, individual choice.
Whereas the novice Doctor Strange has nothing to cover his head or face, both The Ancient One and Mordo have been given hoods. These not only protect their identities at key moments, they also give a sense that these characters might have something to hide. There aren’t just answers about the characters built into Byrne’s costumes, but questions about them too.
When audiences join Doctor Strange on his mind-expanding journey, the costume designs will subtly and powerfully reflect key milestones along the way. Perhaps most importantly, they will also illustrate the emotional transformation that Stephen Strange is undergoing. Comic book costumes can be big, and bold, and even as iconic as the Cloak of Levitation, but as Alexandra Byrne has shown on Avengers: Age of Ultron, Guardians of the Galaxy, and now Doctor Strange, their most important job is in telling the story and underscoring character.
MARVEL STUDIOS’ “DOCTOR STRANGE” OUT ON 3D BLU-RAY™, BLU-RAY™ & DVD ON 6TH MARCH 2017. AVAILABLE ON DIGITAL DOWNLOAD FROM 24TH FEBRUARY 2017