No one who has seen Mad Max: Fury Road should be surprised by the attention it has received from the academy, which nominated it for 10 awards. Though Mad Max has a shot at all of them—including Best Picture—it’s entirely possible that it will come up empty. If it does, it may be because its gestalt overshadows the contributions of its various nominees. Fluid and seamless as the film is, its parts sometimes shine more dimly than the whole. But for all that, the film’s costumes still stand out.
Its characters’ grimy outfits can almost seem to vanish into the other elements of the (also Oscar-nominated) production design. Their garments sometimes feel as if they were part of the scenery—like the long sleeve thermal tee Max wears throughout the film, many are made from heavily textured fabrics that seem to draw in and hold the titular road’s pervasive dust. This is how the film’s post-apocalyptic world marks its scarce survivors, camouflaging them in its drab shades.
Subtle as they are, choices like this bear witness to the considerable thought and care the film’s costume designer, Jenny Beavan, brought to the production. Beavan’s creativity doesn’t come as a shock; there’s a reason she’s earned nine previous Academy Award nominations. In the past, however, she’s mostly worked on period pieces—Jane Eyre, Gosford Park, and their kin—familiar entries into the Oscar bait canon. Her contributions to Mad Max arguably have to do far more work, summoning a whole world, and not just an era.
It’s no accident, then, that Mad Max often introduces its protagonists’ clothing before it introduces the characters themselves. The camera approaches Imperator Furiosa, Immortan Joe, and Max himself from behind, showing us what they’re wearing before we glimpse their faces. Taciturn as all three are, their clothes speak for them, suggesting stories that they cannot bear to tell.
Look, for example, at Max’s jacket. It’s modeled on the black leather one that Mel Gibson wore in the franchise’s earlier installments. Peter Pound, Fury Road’s storyboard artist, found the original abandoned in the basement of a studio building, “with green mold growing on it.” His discovery influenced the new film’s styling, marking one of the clearest links between the new film’s Max and his predecessor. The jacket that found its way to the screen looks much like the garment Pound salvaged must have, battered and rough, Gibson’s tough guy cool long since scoured away. If this really is the same Max, he’s been worn to tatters, ragged as the clothes he wears.
Where Beavan’s costumes nod to the interiority of Fury Road’s characters, they also capture something about the relationships between those characters. Max and Furiosa fight when they meet, grappling on the desert floor. Nevertheless, it’s clear from their first appearances onscreen that they share something, a commonality slyly signified by the football shoulder pads that both wear over one arm. No mere aesthetic detail, Furiosa’s padding serves a practical purpose, “part of her prosthetic arm mechanism,” according to one interview with Beavan. Furiosa may be very different from Max, but they both armor themselves against the world in similar ways. They’re partially protected, but still always vulnerable.
By contrast, Immortan Joe, the film’s antagonist, encases himself more completely. Sheathed in Plexiglas molded to his hulking form, he’s literally bulletproof. Like translucent plate mail, his apparel suggests that he’s accessible to his worshipful subjects. In practice, however, this impenetrable shield keeps them at a distance, even as its unusual composition—no other character wears anything of the kind—sets him apart.
That effect gets at the importance of material more generally in the film. According to Fury Road’s art companion, the design team worked under the assumption that, in the absence of livestock, the film’s characters would have to make their leather goods from the flesh of their fellow post-apocalyptic survivors. To convey that effect, they shaped items like the masks worn by raiders from wet goat leather, since it resembles tanned human flesh. While the detail is surely lost on most viewers, the fact of it lingers, an unnerving reminder of just how fully Max’s world differs from our own.
Other fabrics compound this climate of alien dread. Take the gauzy, white wraps that Immortan Joe’s “wives” wear as they flee captivity. When we first glimpse a character in one of these garments, it resembles nothing so much as a wedding dress. Not the sort of thing anyone would wear into the wastes by choice, its mere presence indicates some degree of coercion. In their impracticality, these flimsy things speak to the gendered violence that Immortan Joe has perpetrated on the women he pursues. Allegorizing innocence, their clothes simultaneously evoke unspeakable traumas.
But even as these garments point to past hurts, they also suggest that the fugitives are recovering. George Miller, the film’s director, apparently wanted the women wrapped in material that looked like “crepe bandages.” The demand is apt, since it acknowledges that the “wives” are wounded, but also suggests that they might already be on the mend. Miller and Beavan encouraged the actresses to find their own ways of winding the textiles around themselves. The resulting stylistic differences point to their characters’ ongoing efforts to reclaim their stolen agency.
Late in the film, we get a sense of what their journey toward independence might look like when it’s finally complete. The many mothers, a matriarchal society that survives in the wastes, clothe themselves with an eye toward practicality, their outfits supposedly designed to be convertible into tents, their accessories chosen to meet the desert’s demands. Meanwhile, the deep olive accents on some of their garments—rare hints of color in this barren world—offer remembrances of the home they’ve lost, an almost mythical “green place,” long since swallowed by the radioactive bogs.
In this light, Furiosa’s costume indicates her central role. Both ensconced in leather and wrapped in gauze, she stands somewhere between the escaped “wives” and the free women they might yet become. It’s a sartorial mash-up that helps make Furiosa as powerful and patchwork as the film itself.