Designing Fear: Bram Stoker’s Dracula

As the 20th century drew to a close, Dracula was a familiar figure with a look and story that anyone could identify at a glance. From Bela Lugosi to Christopher Lee and countless adaptations, the character seemed to be played out. That is until Francis Ford Coppola decided to breathe new life into the character with his 1992 adaptation Bram Stocker’s Dracula. 

Coppola brought a new life and depth to Dracula and with Gary Oldman’s performance, he was now more than an evil specter of the night obsessed with blood, he was also a character we could sympathize with. A new look was in order for this new kind of Dracula, and Coppola knew precisely who he wanted to create it, Eiko Ishioka

Eiko Ishioka was not known for her costume design when Coppolla hired her. Born in Tokyo, Japan, in 1938, Ishioka started her career in advertising. Know for her avant-garde and evocative ads, it is no wonder that she was hired to design the Japanese poster for Coppola’s 1979 film Apocalypse Now. He was struck by her work and developed a close working relationship and friendship. 

At the start of the production, Coppola declared, “The costumes will be the set,” making the unusual decision to put the bulk of his budget towards costumes and not sets. He wanted costumes to be visually exciting set pieces, and set the film’s atmosphere and believed Ishioka could achieve this. Although she only had two costume credits and a handful of production design credits, Coppola knew her distinct creative style was what the film needed. This collaboration resulted in animalistic features to the characters, and a distinctive east meets west to look for the film. For her Dracula, Ishioka wanted it to feel like he was continually transforming. So she didn’t make a one costume fits all previous adaptions had. Instead, she created seven distinct costumes to create a visually stunning story for Dracula. Of those four truly stand out. 

Francis Ford Coppola and Eiko Ishioka

Dracula’s Armour 

This terrifying armor suit is how Dracula is introduced to us while still the human Transylvanian prince heading off to defend his land. Ishioka loaded symbolism and foreshadowing into this suit. The crimson color makes him the center of every scene and refers to the blood he’s about to shed while also alluding to the blood be will later drink. The muscle like pattern of the amour resembles flayed skin, referring to the historical figure Bram Stoker based his count on. The silhouette is created by the armor is striking, with the helmet resembling the head of a wolf, which he would later become. Coppola uses this design beautifully during the opening battlefield scene when he backlights the set creating silhouettes of everyone on screen. 

Gary Oldman as Dracula

Dracula’s Red Robe

By the time Jonathan Harker meets Dracula, wears a long flowing robe, and a white gown with long white hair, a far cry from the strong battle-hardened warrior. The voluminous kimono-inspired crimson red robe has his family crest embroidered in gold trails several feet behind him. The look is topped off by a great wig giving him an otherworldly look. This shows how Dracula has become enveloped by his past and cannot change in his current environment. 

Gary Oldman as Dracula
Gary Oldman as Dracula
Gary Oldman as Dracula

Dracula’s London Suit

The closest Ishioka gets to a classic Dracula costume is the beautiful three-piece suit he wears upon arriving in England. While it’s a far cry from the tuxedo and cape that helped hide the intentions of previous Draculas, this charcoal suit provides the same purpose. While not as dramatic as the cape, the overcoat obscures his figure, the top hat gives him some cover, and the sunglasses hide the emotions of changing eyes.  

Gary Oldman as Dracula
Winnona Ryder as Mina Murry and Gary Oldman as Dracula
Francis Ford Coppola and Gary Oldman as Dracula

Dracula’s Gold Robe

When discussing the inspiration for the film’s look, Coppola showed Ishioka many Klimt paintings. So, when creating Dracula’s costumes, she took particular inspiration from Klimt’s painting, The Kiss, for what would be his final look. Dracula wears a gold robe when resting to recover his power at the end of the movie. Much like the painting, the robe is made of a patchwork of different gold blocks with varying patterns giving the garment richness and depth. The robe also resembles priests vestments. This becomes symbolic as Dracula reconciles his life and his relationship with God at the end of the film. 

Gary Oldman as Dracula
Winnona Ryder as Mina Murry and Gary Oldman as Dracula
Gary Oldman as Dracula

Ishioka creates a stunning, dynamic, and emotionally rich film that released Dracula from his iconic look through these costumes. For this masterful visual storytelling, Ishioka won the Academy Award for Costume Design in 1992. Ishioka created many stunning and iconic costumes until her death in 2012, but her reimagining of Dracula remains her most lasting impact on film. 

Eiko Ishioka
Concept Sketch by Eiko Ishioka
Eiko Ishioka
Eiko Ishioka’s Academy Awards acceptance speech.

Want to know more? Check out my sources.

  1. “How an Apocalypse Now Poster Led to Oscar-Winning Costumes for Bram Stoker’s Dracula.” Oscars.org | Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, 13 Nov. 2015, http://www.oscars.org/news/how-apocalypse-now-poster-led-oscar-winning-costumes-bram-stokers-dracula.
  2. Codega, Linda. “Inside the Costumes of ‘Bram Stoker’s Dracula.’” The Spool, 15 Sept. 2020, thespool.net/features/2020/09/costumes-bram-stokers-dracula/.
  3. “Eiko Ishioka.” IMDb, IMDb.com, http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0411130/?ref_=ttfc_fc_cr19.
  4. Academy, The. “How Eiko Ishioka’s Revolutionary Costumes Won Coppola’s ‘Dracula’ an Oscar.” Medium, ART & SCIENCE, 12 July 2017, medium.com/art-science/how-francis-ford-coppola-s-choice-to-work-with-a-weirdo-outsider-led-to-an-oscar-dd22bdf51e2a.
  5. “Celebrating Eiko Ishioka’s Extraordinary Costumes for Bram Stoker’s Dracula.” The Independent, Independent Digital News and Media, 13 July 2017, http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/news/eiko-ishioka-japanese-costume-designer-google-doodle-bram-stokers-dracula-gary-oldman-winona-ryder-francis-ford-coppola-a7836536.html.

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Elizabeth Joy Glass grew up on the east coast in Pennsylvania surrounded by early American history. A childhood full of fantasy, sci-fi and historical media, inspired her to start sewing and cosplaying. After high school, Elizabeth decided to move across the country to study fashion and costume design at The Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising. While in school she worked on several AFI thesis films in the costume department. Elizabeth ultimately graduated with a B.A. in Digital Cinema and decided to pursue a career in video production and screenwriting, but she still holds a love for costume design and its history.

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