This Year’s Costume Design Nominees
Hello! I’m Allison, and I care about costume design. These days I mostly express that by calling out the zany Y2K looks of an old Disney Channel sitcom, but at other times in my life I’ve had the more constructive outlets of costuming theatre productions and teaching costume design and costume history workshops at a theatre camp. I’ve occasionally had to consult my friend Camille’s encyclopedic knowledge of fashion history when designing, so she’s my collaborator for this post as well (which was especially handy when she was brave enough to watch The Revenant, a task I could not stomach).
When it comes to this award, the Oscars love a period piece – since 1967, only two films have won for contemporary costuming. More recently, over-the-top designs for films like The Great Gatsby and Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland have been dazzling the Academy. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, this category has not been kind to gritty survivalist stories, which is bad news for the beautifully bonkers design of Mad Max: Fury Road and the designated haberdashery of Leo’s suffering in The Revenant. Bear those trends in mind and it seems likely that it’ll be Cinderella’s year, but there are strong nominees that could challenge it on Sunday night.
Sandy Powell – Carol
Experts’ Rank: 3
Our Rank: 3
Carol costume designer Sandy Powell is a great example of that “the Oscars love a period piece” rule mentioned above. Her painstakingly assembled recreations of the fashions of bygone eras have earned her three Best Costume Design wins (for Shakespeare in Love, The Aviator, and The Young Victoria) of twelve nominations. The woman knows her way around a costume drama. Carol is set at the end of 1951, and Powell consulted fashion magazines from the fall and winter of that year to develop a wardrobe for Cate Blanchett’s Carol Aird. Costumed in tasteful ensembles with eye-catching but elegant accessories, Carol’s sleek, stylish, and well-made clothes signal her wealth and maturity. Her status is especially noticeable in scenes with her much younger paramour, Rooney Mara’s Therese Belivet. Sensible fabrics with few fashion-forward touches dominate Therese’s wardrobe, befitting her working-class occupation, and recurring plaid in her clothes and accessories underscore the age difference in her relationship by bringing to mind schoolgirl uniforms.
Color also plays a key role in the costume design of this film. In crowd scenes, the magnetic titular character often pops in shades of red against a sea of gray and black; by the end of the film, Therese begins to stand out in red as well, an indicator of her evolving confidence. The color also signifies both women’s otherness in a homogenous world that threatens their relationship, with Powell literally using a hue associated with love and passion to mark the lovers as different. Overall, however, Carol’s costume design is subtle enough that it wouldn’t stand out to most viewers. No outfits leave the lasting impressions of pieces like the sparkling ballgown in Cinderella or the deathly mask of Immortan Joe in Mad Max: Fury Road. Though a tremendous amount of work clearly went into the film – Powell and her team made several garments and accessories by hand! – it seems like a consistently great designer on autopilot, and we’d be surprised if it took the award in a category that’s otherwise so interesting this year.
Sandy Powell – Cinderella
Experts’ Rank: 1
Our Rank: 2
Luckily for Sandy Powell, she’s competing against herself, earning nominations for both Carol and Cinderella. While Carol’s design seemed firmly in her wheelhouse – realistic period pieces like Gangs of New York, The Other Boylen Girl, and The Wolf of Wall Street dominate her résumé – her work on Cinderella is far more creative and inspires a lot more reaction and thought. Because director Kenneth Brannagh wanted to depict his version of this fairy tale without indicators of any specific historical period, Powell had the freedom to mix standout elements of multiple eras to best represent the characters.
Costume geeks will have a great time pinpointing the period references for each costume that appears. Cinderella’s gown at the ball, for example, has the sloping shoulders and voluminous skirt of the 1860’s, but every outfit worn by Cate Blanchett as her evil stepmother evokes pure Old Hollywood glam. (When is the last time you’ve seen a character in a fairy tale wearing a floor-length leopard-print velvet dressing gown?)
Powell collaborated closely with the set designers for this film to create a visually stunning design that warrants re-watch and close consideration. Those interested in a deep dive should check out Tom & Lorenzo’s two–part breakdown of the costumes.
Paco Delgado – The Danish Girl
Experts’ Rank: 4
Our Rank: 5
This is our least favorite film on this list, but the costumes are not to blame. Designer Paco Delgado, nominated once before for his work on Les Misérables, uses the costumes of the film to tell the story of not just the main characters, but of the time and era as well.
Dark, heavy fabrics and the restrictive Edwardian silhouette open the movie, eventually giving way to the loose, flowy, androgynous looks of the 1920s as Lilli’s journey progresses. Lilli and Gerta’s move to Paris brings in warmer colors and clear Bohemian influences.
As with Carol, the costume designs of The Danish Girl are beautiful, well-crafted, and effective, but might not stand out in this year’s batch of more creative nominees.
Jenny Beavan – Mad Max: Fury Road
Experts’ Rank: 2
Our Rank: 1
Where do we begin with Fury Road? Imperator Furiosa’s robotic arm? Immortan Joe’s hyper-masculine, death-evoking armor? The mechanical imagery of the War Boys’ tattoos? The red jumpsuit on the scene-stealing Doof Warrior?
The film’s biggest strength may be its endlessly impressive world-building, with attention to detail so precise that the moviegoer is immersed immediately in a film with little dialogue. A lot of that is due to the inspired work by costume designer Jenny Beavan. Though Beavan is a veteran designer on stage and for the screen – she’s been nominated ten times and took home the Oscar for A Room with a View – this project was a departure for her, marking her first foray into futuristic or sci-fi costuming. Her contribution to director George Miller’s universe builds on utilitarian elements like belts, jackets, boots, and protective armor. But its real innovation lies in the style choices of a dystopian future Australia with conflict centered on machinery and fuel. Suicidal warriors etch their bodies with engines and coat their faces in chrome-colored spray paint before their deaths. Motorcycle gangs turn helmets into headdresses.
The dystopian essence of the costuming is supported by the character’s creative repurposing of mundane, everyday items as well. The armor for warlord and main villain Immortan Joe is built around a linebacker uniform, for instance. Such details highlight the desperate scrimping and reusing of a post apocalyptic world, while also very directly referencing the previous films in the franchise. And we probably don’t have time to get into the gendering of costumes in this future, from the loose and low-hanging pants of the War Boys, the Bullet Farmer’s use of bullets as clothing pieces, and the business aesthetic of the People Eater on the male side to the deliberately sexualized wives of Immortan Joe on the female side. The design of Mad Max doesn’t scream “Oscar bait” for this category, and that’s a shame. Every single costume detail in this film is fascinating, and the creativity and intent on display make it more than worthy of a win.
Jacqueline West – The Revenant
Experts’ Rank: 5
Our Rank: 4
Costumer Jacqueline West is no stranger to a stylistically complicated period piece, with Oscar nominations for Quills (2001) and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) under her belt. However, one of the most difficult things about costuming a period piece like The Revenant is the ability to make everything look not only period-accurate, but also heavily worn and lived-in. West excels at this, making every piece of clothing look as roughed-up and thoroughly used as the characters wearing them. The most interesting aspect of the costuming is the layering of fabric and styles necessitated by each character’s backgrounds and experiences with survival. One of the more complex costume characterizations in the film is that of Leonardo DiCaprio’s Hugh Glass, whose mixture of an early 19th century Western frontier aesthetic combined with a penchant for the bearskin hoods favored by the Arikara (one of the many tribes that Glass historically traded and interacted with), communicates the character’s extremely rich and personal cultural history.
Domnhall Gleeson’s Captain Andrew Henry wears filthy, yet still shapely and tailored clothing at the start of the film to reflect his leadership position (and relative inexperience) within the group. However, his style grows increasingly rough as the conflict continues, and by the end of the film he is decked out in nearly as many shapeless animal skins as Glass himself. Tom Hardy’s unscrupulous and cruel John Fitzgerald cares only for his own physical survival, made abundantly clear by the rough and baggy animal-skin cloaks he is fond of. While not as cheerful as Cinderella or as stylish as Carol, the costuming of The Revenant is backed up by well-researched historical accuracy and painstaking attention to detail. The often harsh simplicity of the costume design only reinforces the brutality of the landscape and the characters who inhabit it.
How does everybody else feel about the way the characters in these films were decorated?