This Year’s Costume Design Nominees

cate in red

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

cate and rooney

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 ​

cate with stepsisters

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.

Lily James is Cinderella in Disney's live-action feature inspired by the classic fairy tale, CINDERELLA, which brings to life the timeless images from Disney's 1950 animated masterpiece as fully-realized characters in a visually dazzling spectacle for a whole new generation.

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?)

cate in leopard

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 twopart 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.

alicia in blue suit

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.

eddie with kiss on his cheek

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

charlize and tom

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?

immortan joe

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?


Posted on February 26, 2016, in Awards, Movies, Oscars, poll and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Terrific article, Allison. Very well written. Great insight into this years’ nominees. I had no idea the costumer for Mad Max had been nominated 10 times before for the Oscar. I would never have guessed this was their first foray into the sci-fi/action genre, they certainly seem right at home here! And I would bet good money that when Beavan accepted the job to design costumes for Mad Max, there was probably not a snowballs’ chance in hell that they ever thought this would earn them another Oscar nomination at the time!


  2. Excellent article, Allison! We love it at LeBlog when our writers seem to actually know what they’re talking about! Your explanations of some of the practical reasons for certain costuming decisions bring great understanding to the reader.

    I have to admit that I’m a real sucker for mid-century American designs like those in Carol. But I don’t think you can look at the photos that are a part of this article without recognizing the skill and imagination that went into both Cinderella and Mad Max: Fury Road. Those designers must have been extremely excited by the freedom they had to create when they got the job.


  3. Great read. I’m fascinated by the costume design aspect of movies and loved every word of this article. Traditionally, many of us in the audience probably don’t think about costumes in the less literal sense. In other words, traditional clothing is part of design and doesn’t happen on accident. You’ve given me at least, a better way of appreciating the costume element in most every movie.
    I voted Cinderella, maybe not for the best reason as it is one of the more obvious choices, but wow the teaming of Cate Blanchett with Sandy Powell results in something that looks effortlessly perfect. Last year, part of the magic of Cate Blanchett’s Blue Jasmine was the costume design of the film.


  4. Absolutely fantastic article! Thanks for the contribution. I hope you will consider writing more in the future.

    I got to skim this article first thing in the morning, but waited to comment until I had time to give it a proper reading. As others have noted, your expertise really shine through. I came away with a greater appreciation of costume design.

    As it so happens, my youngest and I watched Cinderella this weekend. We weren’t overly fond of the movie itself, but it was definitely eye catching. I think the lavish costumes were a big part of the movie’s success. There aren’t too many movies where a ballgown or slipper are more interesting than the protagonist, but Cinderella is one.

    I completely agree with your comments on Fury Road. I was very quickly sucked into the movie precisely because of the insane attention to details. I was just expecting a retread of previous Mad Max movies. But Fury Road, while calling to mind those earlier entries in the series, very quickly established its own unique identity. I’d love to see it take home the win as unlikely as that may be.


  5. Great post, therealadri!

    I always enjoy reading analysis of film costumes and second the request for more articles like this!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: