Gladiator took home five little gold men at the 73rd Academy Awards…including one for best costume design.
Usually we'd be making a bigger deal out of the fact that it won biggies like Best Picture and Best Actor, but the costume thing is pretty major…because the costumes pack a symbolic wallop in this epic.
They say that clothes make the man, but Gladiator begs to differ. In fact, the steez on display in this movie usually suggests that the most sumptuous toga can camouflage the biggest scumbag. (We're talking about Commodus—who else?)
In fact, you can chart the difference between Commodus (boo) and Maximus (yay) through what they have on their backs.
Commodus is wearing something different in nearly every scene, and it's usually something elaborate: ornate breastplates, metal laurel wreaths, and a dazzling display of gold and other colors. By comparison, the first time we see Maximus, he's wearing a sensible animal fur and a simple-but-classy breastplate.
The fashion disparity between Commodus and Maximus is especially pronounced once the scene shifts to Africa, where Maximus's stripped of just about everything: his family, his career, his freedom, and his clothes. For the rest of the film, Maximus will be about as scantily clad as one can be when fighting in the arena.
Commodus' outfits, in contrast, signify that he's royalty. He's dripping with gold chains, gold embroidery, and probably—we're guessing—gold boxer-briefs. (It would explain why he's so sweaty all the time.)
The fact that Commodus has so many different outfits (as opposed to Maximus, who pretty much wears the same thing for the duration of the film), illustrates that he has choices and Maximus doesn't.
More than just a vehicle of contrast, however, clothing in this film is one of the film's most pronounced ironies. Commodus has the best clothes—the nicest fabrics, the most colors, the largest wardrobe…but he's the most despicable guy in the entire film.
Maximus is usually dirty and clad in the plainest of outfits…and yet he's also the film's clear hero. Gladiator is clearly using clothing to make a point about judging a book by its cover. It may also be making the related point that heroism can be found in the most unlikely of places.
Or hey: it could just be that we all love a good underdog story. Maximus is the same camp as Rocky, Cinderella, and Drake—maybe he didn't start from the bottom, but he certainly reached the bottom…and now he's here.