• James Kunovski

Tribute to Best Costume Design (Video)

How can you sum up costume design? If I was presenting the Academy Award, I would preface by detailing how the craft doubles as “the skin of the character,” or what is it they say, that the designers are “unsung heroes?” For the designers at the core of these Oscar-winning efforts, “Costume design is the process of taking an idea and making it come to life,” says Black Panther’s Ruth E. Carter. For legendary Edith Head, winner of eight Oscars, the label of “costumer” over “designer” is more apt. They’re someone who merely receives a script. The line is there but often these designs, especially from Golden Age Hollywood, will gently cross into the threshold of fashion.


When done right, costume design, a definition that sometimes belies its seamless incorporation, is always a reliable way to immerse yourself in the story and an impressive (and sometimes beautiful) way to accommodate a film’s visual, and emotional scenery. It’s also a personal favourite Oscar category. The Academy mostly welcomes period fashion — from history’s ninety winners, sixty have been period pieces, eight were fantasy and twenty-two contemporary. Disappointed by the lack of a comprehensive montage tributing these winners in paced detail, I took it upon myself to compile all ninety of them. You’ll certainly get an idea of what Oscar voters liked over time but also an impression of these clothes’ capability, versatility, and pure style.



 

Personal Favourites


Sabrina | 1954 | Edith Head (and Hubert de Givenchy)


Behind-the-scenes, the unrecognised collaboration between Head and Givenchy, who remained uncredited, and subsequently, Oscar-less somewhat sours an otherwise incredible wardrobe. An all-around gorgeous and elegant love letter to 1950s haute couture and a case for the riches of black-and-white design, their work remains an inventive take on a sartorially generous period.



 

The King and I | 1956 | Irene Sharaff


A true parade for crinoline dresses and slim, silk Siamese fashion, “The King and I” might not draw the interest of most 21st-century viewers but it’s a film worth watching for its gorgeous costume design alone. Sharaff, who also designed the costumes for the original Broadway production was a five-time Oscar winner. An accomplished and detailed career that could arguably be summed up in the champagne-coloured “Shall We Dance” dress, pulled off stunningly by lead Deborah Kerr.



 

La Dolce Vita | 1961 | Piero Gherardi


Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg are effortlessly chic and fashionable in this materialism-focused Federico Fellini opus. Mastroianni with his perfectly tailored suits and dark, mysterious sunglasses (often worn at night) embodies the “Latin Lover” while Ekberg creates pure glamour with her expensive and contemporary wardrobe. Both conjure up alluring sexuality, expressed solely by image, which only deepens the hedonistic angle of “La Dolce Vita.”



 

West Side Story | 1961 | Irene Sharaff


Gritty New York streets come alive with every shade in the book thanks to Sharaff’s vibrant summer wardrobe that finds itself categorically split between the Jets and the Sharks. The Jets (the white gang, for those unfamiliar) wear oranges and blues, always a great combination, while the Sharks (the Puerto Ricans) wear lavenders and reds. Perhaps it’s a clash, a decision that visually separates them, but it marries well during the wild “Dance at Gym” number. Sharaff’s work becomes an integrated component of these musical characters — talk about rhythmic explosion every time they fan kick or whip their skirts in time with the beat.



 

My Fair Lady | 1964 | Cecil Beaton


You’ll get an idea of Beaton’s intentions fairly early on. Theatregoers descend the steps of the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, their gowns painted with bright colours (someone even wears hot pink), their hats and coats house ridiculously extravagant feathers. While historically inaccurate, Beaton flexes a blend of Edwardian fashion with the brassiness of the 1960s. The Ascott Gavotte, with enough variations of black-and-white to shame “The Favourite,” is an all-time standout.



 

Barry Lyndon | 1975 | Milena Canonero & Ulla-Britt Söderlund


Canonero and Söderlund bring the 18th-century to us with an impeccable eye for silhouettes, fabric and excess. Their attention to detail guides the wardrobe into imitating a historical artefact and in turn, they create one of the finest (emphasis on capitals) Costume Dramas. Though it’s not an entirely original take, this entire film feels like a moving painting and maybe that’s why the wardrobe still wows (some items would be reused for “Marie Antoinette”) or maybe it’s just a joy to watch someone perfect their craft. Look at the detail on that baby!



 

All That Jazz | 1979 | Albert Wolsky


Whether it’s capturing Jessica Lange as an ethereal spirit draped in white cloth or body-hugging tights that ooze sensuality and movement, Wolsky creates a simultaneously heightened yet realistic version of 1970s fashion through the worlds we create on stage. Anyone who constructs a bodysuit decked in veins and a heart deserves… anyway, he won an Oscar.



 

Amadeus | 1984 | Theodor Pištěk


Pištěk, who is also a painter has made more than a few conceptual triumphs in that field. He has likened a painter to “a free man in his creation” and costume design as a mere “job.” For someone who seems to cut designers’ efforts short, he was, in his own right, very good at the job. What he meant was that costume designers are always adapting to certain themes. In the case of “Amadeus,” Pištěk takes the freedom of the artist’s stroke by creating a candy-coloured and very *liberal* 18th-century fashion plate that meshes spectacularly with the punk ‘80s. If “Barry Lyndon” is your gateway into historical accuracy, then “Amadeus” is pure visual adrenaline.



 

Bram Stoker’s Dracula | 1992 | Eiko Ishioka


Fantasy might have a special category at the Costume Designers Guild Awards but the Academy rarely awards the genre. Unfortunate, because building a world, by scratch, is not for the faint of heart. “Dracula” is elevated and magical. Eiko Ishioka’s foray into fantastic medieval wear and turn-of-the-20th-century unordinary, ‘ordinary’ wear, results in one of the most innovative costume films of its time. Coloured with broad features through its rich red armoury, white frilled lace gown and a striking silver suit-adorned Gary Oldman, “Dracula” infamously received some flack upon its release but the timeless mastery of the late Ishioka’s designs persevere.



 

The Age of Innocence | 1993 | Gabriella Pescucci


Aside from constantly being overlooked in Martin Scorsese’s filmography, “The Age of Innocence” has positioned itself as an aesthetically quintessential period drama. Something that the Academy would fawn over, and did. On the surface, the clothes might just look like a well-executed necessity — something to dress the handsome cast — but the devil is in Pescucci’s authentic detail. Opulent, upper-crust New York society gets the treatment you’d expect; where appearances matter most it’s a battle of bustles and a marathon of embroidery. Netflix, in a bid to relate everything to a buzzword, describes the film as “understated.” Though it pertains to the overall film, it’s also a sign that the costume designer has succeeded when the clothes seamlessly sit with the scenes and look like something the characters have worn their whole life.



 

Titanic | 1997 | Deborah Lynn Scott


An example when the costumes become as iconic and memorable as the movie it decorates. We know about the ship, its history and the class differences but we need someone to fill in the gaps of our imagination. Scott masterfully adorns the era with as many authentic garments as possible. The result has ingrained itself with the film’s legacy. How can you think about “Titanic” without picturing Rose’s reveal, behind that larger-than-life majestic bowed hat, or the sound of the ruby red beaded dress against the stern’s railing, or even the emblematic Heart of the Ocean necklace?



 

Moulin Rouge! | 2001 | Catherine Martin & Angus Strathie


Martin and Strathie’s valentine to the spectacle of costuming fits like a glove in Baz Luhrmann’s flashy vision. They’re deliberately immodest, free and worthy of a museum exhibition. We are in Belle Époque Paris but the wardrobe instead mirrors a fever dream of opulence, sex and vivid imagination. Where else can the courtesans wear diamond-encrusted corsets, or the dancers embody the pleasures of male fantasy? Where else, but at the Moulin Rouge?



 

The Grand Budapest Hotel | 2014 | Milena Canonero


Seemingly fulfilling a vision that conveniently aligns with the visual magic of Wes Anderson, Canonero paints a picture of costume design as an aesthetic, one which looks devilishly fashionable and (funnily enough) delectable. Bathed in a sea of pastels, from which mauve stands most prominently, the designs are stylised but also believable. Where Anderson is drawn into decorating his worlds with symmetry, Canonero, (who also worked on the upcoming “The French Dispatch”), precisely forms a bridge that couples history and fiction.



 

Mad Max: Fury Road | 2015 | Jenny Beavan


“Fury Road’s” win in this category was a bold yet crucial step away from the eye-popping fanfare of period design that voters usually favour. It’s no easy feat to create a new world, especially when it resembles less a runway and more a post-apocalyptic society that moulds its people into bare essentials. Beavan succeeds remarkably, creating a microcosm of material that reflects its wearer. Essentially, most costume designers do this but rarely in a unique spell that combines weathered fabric and metal into a camouflaged shade of desert. If the heart tells us anything about the soul of the character, this company wears it proudly on their sleeves — maybe cower if a man wearing an ammunition helmet drives your way.



 

Phantom Thread | 2017 | Mark Bridges


Being a costume designer and receiving an invitation to dress for a fashion house in 1950s London would cause most to pass out. The opportunities are endless — it’s the era of haute couture, a time when silhouettes were being reinvented and glamour at the forefront of the period. Bridges diverts away from the sartorial temptations of the decade to create something that reflects the flawed man at the helm of House of Woodcock’s designs. If you watch “Phantom Thread,” you’ll notice something off about the wardrobe. Their creator is supposed to be lauded, renowned and sought after but his works can be simple, clashing or dated. It’s the point though, Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) might think himself a genius but the essential focus a craftsperson needs has wavered one too many times — a similar point was made by Cláudio Alves over at The Film Experience. On the other hand, most interviews with Bridges end up with the interviewee commending the wardrobe’s sophistication to the nines. Maybe that’s why it works so well. Through endless creative process and a thick thread of personnel, the costumes have morphed their way into interpretation, and truly become a limb for the film’s power.