Costume designer Elsa Fischer builds characters with clothes, often through deep research and trust. In our interview series, she shares advice on how to show off your personality through the garments in your wardrobe. We met her on set for her next big project, a play for the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm.
One of Elsa Fischer’s earliest memories of clothes and garments was feeling sorry for classical musicians. “I was completely mystified by these musicians, and their choice of clothes. The dress code was anything as long as it was black. “I was only 6, but totally confused by how these artists could be so obviously sensitive and talented on one level, but have no sense of dress style. I almost wanted to go up on stage and help them.”
Now, three decades later, we meet up in a huge apartment around the corner from Hötorget in Stockholm. The location will soon turn into a stage for the Royal Dramatic Theatre and the play Evakuering, for which Fischer designs both costumes and set design together with Bente Lykke Møller. “I like to see my work place as a lab – I keep dyes and dirt in different pods. I might need 30 samples of a white t-shirt before I get it exactly right. It might be for a character whose sweat is yellow, or it’s their favourite t-shirt that has been worn over a long time. It’s not exactly glamorous, my nails are always broken. I’m really hands on – it can get messy,” she says and laughs.
It was a combined curiosity for people and clothes that eventually led Fischer to her profession. As a 17-year-old she designed her first menswear collection. “I can’t remember a time when I didn’t care about clothes. I didn’t have access to much as a child, and necessity is the mother of invention. If I wanted something, I had to make it. I still carry that with me. More often than not I find a perfect fabric, dissect the garment and add it to a new piece,” she says.
“I can’t remember a time when I didn’t care about clothes. I didn’t have access to much as a child, and necessity is the mother of invention. If I wanted something, I had to make it. I still carry that with me.”
Despite being one of Sweden’s most prominent costume designers, it is hard to find information about Elsa Fischer. She hardly does any interviews and has managed to trick search engines and social media. “When someone asks me why I’m not an ‘influencer’, my answer is ‘I don’t want to’. For a long time, I tried not to appear on Google searches, I changed the spelling of my name in productions and so forth.” (She has a similar spelling to both Ingmar Bergman’s wife Else Fisher and Sacha Baron Cohen’s wife Isla Fisher which often turned up in searches instead). But with a growing list of productions under her belt – from designing costumes for musicians such as First Aid Kit to feature films such as “Gräns” – it is hard to escape completely. The latter really put her on the map for a large audience. The film was Sweden’s Oscar’s candidate 2019, and won several awards at the Swedish equivalent.
“Gräns was a special project, I carried it with me for several years and could go deep into the characters’ background (even though the last stage was a bit rushed since the cast was confirmed late in the process). I tend to work with directors who appreciate the deep research, and who like all my questions. Regardless if I work with an artist or a character, a huge part of my work is to combine wills and ideas. I try to be quite diplomatic. At the same time, I try to really push for what I believe in, in a soft way. It’s important that there is a trust, and that the characters become one with the clothes, not ‘dressed up’,” Fischer says.
The biggest challenge with "Gräns" was fine tuning the protagonist Tina’s character, despite being the ‘freak’ we must sympathise with her. “She knows she doesn’t have the cool code, but she is still an emotional being, who is affected by her surroundings. I always try to find traits I love with a character, even if you are meant to find them disgusting. I wanted the viewer to emphasise with her,” Fischer says.
How would you say garments build identities? Can you tell what a person is like by looking at their sense of style?
– You can tell a lot about a person from their clothes, but not what they are like. You can’t see if they are kind, intelligent or funny. We like to use them to show off social background, but it is often how we would like to be perceived. What is meant to look like fancy clothes, might look obviously cheap to someone that is sensitive. I sometimes fantasised about helping the police and law enforcement - when a secret agent walks out from an airport, it takes me a second to detect them. The clothes they are wearing look normal, but to me they could be wearing a uniform. Small details give away a lot of information.
What would you say is the strongest asset clothes bring when building characters?
– I think it’s incredibly important for character building. What does an actor feel inside those clothes, how do they walk in those shoes? I work with hidden details, the way the socks are washed is not necessarily what you see, but what you perceive. You can feel it even if you don’t see it. Texture is important, and the structure of fabric, and how they relate to light. You add layers to the characters that way. You can say things without having to say them. But on the other hand – you can also keep things secret by not giving them away in clothes at all.
What advice would you give to men who want to show their personality through clothes?
– Try and take yourself a little less seriously. Don’t be afraid of colours. Prioritise good material that will age well and are a good fit.
Do you have a favourite garment or accessory you think men should wear more?
– I cannot stress it enough, personal and complimentary to you is much better than any status pieces if style is what you’re going for. And hey – men over 60 are allowed whatever accessories they want.
Words by Jonna Dagliden Hunt. "A Day's March with..." is an ongoing interview series