The collection of Hunger Games costumes and props currently on display at the Palace of Fine Arts highlights the astonishing level of detail that went into turning Suzanne Collins’ best-selling books into four blockbuster films. But it also drives home the fact that it takes more than gorgeous clothes to create real heroism, feminism and revolution.
[Warning: major spoilers follow]
Heroine Katniss Everdeen — a teenage girl from dirt-poor District 12 — is introduced as a skilled hunter who sneaks outside district boundaries illegally to bring back game. Her hunting clothes are among the first things visitors to the exhibit see, including a scuffed leather jacket, worn cotton pants and roughly knit cowl. Katniss’ father died several years before in a mining accident (District 12 is the coal-producing region of the Hunger Games’ world, known as Panem), and she has assumed the role of protector and provider for her younger sister and their mother. To the story’s credit, Katniss’ practical clothes are emphasized over her looks at this point in the story, although it’s clear that her strength and competency come from her father, not from her mother, who apparently fell apart after his death.
But on the day of the reaping — the day when one boy and one girl from each of the 12 districts is picked to fight to the death in an arena for Panem’s apparent amusement and to somehow keep the peace — Katniss is transformed into something more feminine. “To my surprise, my mother has laid out one of her own lovely dresses for me. A soft blue thing with matching shoes,” Collins writes. This blue dress is highlighted in the Hunger Games exhibit, along with her sister Prim’s girlish costume. The transformation suggests that Katniss must look ladylike for the big day. And indeed, as all the children of District 12 file into the courtyard in front of the district’s Justice Building, the boys are in button-down shirts and pants, while the girls wear dresses.
Once she’s whisked away to the Capitol to prepare for the Games, Katniss is scrubbed, plucked, manicured and introduced to her stylist, Cinna. Cinna, we learn later, is actually part of a rebel group that wants to overthrow the Capitol, and fashion is his form of propaganda. He styles Katniss and her District 12 counterpart, Peeta, in matching skin-tight black outfits — and Katniss in an elaborately braided hairstyle and heavy makeup — that appear to give off living flames. Later, for a televised interview, Cinna dresses Katniss in a fancy gown that turns to flame when she twirls. She is a literal Cinderella, smoldering into live fire.
This deep-red dress, along with another key gown, are central to the exhibit. Visitors also see Katniss’ would-be wedding dress, which turns into a winged “mockingjay” outfit when she twirls. Because of her controversial success in the first Hunger Games, Katniss has been dubbed a figurehead of a burgeoning rebellion, named for the genetically engineered mockingjay birds found in some of the arenas. This dress appears after the Capitol’s dastardly President Snow effectively calls off Katniss and Peeta’s wedding and sends them both back to the arena, hoping Katniss will die and put an end to any uprising. Cinna intends the gown as a commentary on Katniss’ derailed life, and on the fact that she’s being reborn as a symbol of revolution. He’s killed by Capitol guards just as Katniss returns to the arena, suggesting that Panem’s leaders really didn’t appreciate the commentary.
After Katniss and several other tributes escape the arena, she wakes up in District 13. This region was thought to be long abandoned, but turns out to be a bustling underground military base and ground zero for the revolution. The district’s leaders convince a reluctant Katniss to formally accept the “mockingjay” mantle — partly by showing her designs from Cinna’s sketchbook that include an elaborate, impractically armored costume he intended for her to wear in a series of propaganda pieces. Even though they ultimately discover that Katniss performs her best when put in real-life, dangerous situations, she’s still tasked with delivering incendiary one-liners while wearing the getup Cinna designed. The uprising’s architects value her much more for how she looks and what she says than for her actual skills.
The exhibit closes with a lineup meant to convey Katniss’ journey from hunter/provider to leader up an uprising: her hunting clothes, her wedding gown, her mockingjay dress and the armored mockingjay garb, complete with a bow and arrows that can explode into flames. Only one of these outfits, the hunting ensemble, is something she chose for herself.
It’s deeply strange that these costumes would play such important roles in the story of a supposedly powerful heroine — or that Cinna would be stoking the flames of a revolution through evening wear and armor. Granted, elaborate fashion is the lingua franca of the Capitol, but the Capitol isn’t Cinna’s intended audience; the poor districts with their shabby, practical clothes are. At one point in the exhibit, visitors are told that Cinna based his designs on Katniss herself; her personality, her background. But nothing about the character we meet at the beginning of the books suggests that she’s much of a spitfire, or that she harbors a passion for princess gowns. Instead of bolstering the message of Katniss as a strong, feminist heroine, the Hunger Games exhibit reminds visitors of just how little say she had in the events that supposedly made her a hero.
The Hunger Games: The Exhibition runs through July 31, 2016, at the Palace of Fine Arts’ Innovation Hangar, 3601 Lyon Street, San Francisco. Tickets: $27.50 adults, $25 seniors 65+, $22 children 3-11.