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The 2017 Best Costume Design Nominees

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Hello again! I’m Allison, and I love writing and costuming. So I’m thrilled to be back on Le Blog for a second year of discussing the Oscar nominations for Best Costume Design, especially as I recently wrapped my consistent blogging project, Lizzie McGuire Reviewed.

We’ve got an interesting crop of films this year. They’re almost all period pieces (with the exception of La La Land, which wants to be) and none are particularly over-the-top; we certainly don’t see any costuming as downright bonkers as last year’s winner, Mad Max: Fury Road, but this year’s list also lacks the bright, fantastical design of Disney flicks like Cinderella or Alice in Wonderland that usually appear in this category. Most critics are calling a toss-up between Jackie and  La La Land for the award. I’d be fine with the former. We’ll….get into the latter.

Joanna Johnston – Allied

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Experts’ Rank: 5
Our Rank: 1

Allied definitely wins this year’s Allison Award for Costumes I Most Want in My Own Closet. I can blame my envy on designer Joanna Johnston, by now an expert on creating glamorous 1940s looks after costuming Saving Private Ryan, Valkyrie, and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. She’s got a terrific sense for creating costumes that inspire while placing the audience firmly within a location and period – her resume also includes War Horse, Forrest Gump, Lincoln, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit. But despite her years in the field, she still puts in the work researching for her films. She dug around in the archives of the Imperial War Museum, her go-to research spot for WWII research, and studied French fashion plates from the era to create à la mode ensembles for Max and Marianne, the film’s central couple.

Her work on Allied is at times jaw-dropping, and that almost distracting quality was intentional. In a tumultuous election year, Johnston and director Robert Zemeckis chose to emulate the dazzling design of Old Hollywood films to allow audiences to escape momentarily into a more beautiful world. But there’s deeper levels to Johnston’s work here – note the difference in Marianne’s costuming from the first half of the film to the second, as her role switches from sexy co-conspirator to wife and mother. Sturdier English fabrics replace her breezy lightweight apparel from Casablanca, but her aesthetic also softens significantly, with lovely florals appearing throughout her looks to tie her into the idyllic surroundings in Hampstead. This is most noticeable in the dressing gowns she wears at home, which obviously echo the couple’s floral wallpaper and curtains.

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Both the print and the more modest design of these robes differ from those of the bold, graphic dressing gown she wears, untied and open, over a revealing lacy slip the first night she meets Max. The story being told is clear: in these scenes, she’s no longer only an object of desire in his eyes, but a source of calm and stability. Literally depicting her as his home is a strong choice that heightens the emotional stakes when their relationship is threatened later in the film. Her changing style also speaks to her duplicitous nature – originally an undercover agent, she’s an expert in blending in perfectly with her surroundings. I haven’t seen a single critic favor Allied for the award, but the subtle, clever work here made it one of my favorites on this list.

Colleen Atwood – Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them 

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Experts’ Rank: 3
Our Rank: 4

I love 1920s fashion, I love the Harry Potter universe, and I currently live in New York, so this film should have been my favorite by far. Costumer Colleen Atwood is certainly adept at designing evocative, creative looks for fantastical worlds – her lengthy resume includes Edward Scissorhands, Big Fish, A Series of Unfortunate Events, and Into the Woods (and Oscar wins for Chicago, Memoirs of a Geisha and Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland). But somehow these costumes failed to grab me. Perhaps American wizards lack the sartorial flair of their British counterparts (seriously, where were all the robes?), but I suspect the true problem was a script that necessitated few costume changes and lots of set pieces with wizards out in plain view of Muggles (or “No-Majes,” if you prefer, which I heartily do not). I can only hope that the next films in the planned Newt Scamander franchise introduce a New York equivalent of Hogsmeade or Diagon Alley to give audiences a better view of ’20s wizards when they’re not trying to blend in.

There were certainly clever touches here and there – my favorite was a hat on an anti-witchcraft zealot that managed to look like a period-appropriate cloche while evoking a Puritan woman’s head covering – but no character got any pieces that truly inspired a sense of wonder, the way McGonagall’s hexagonal hat or Bellatrix Lestrange’s tattered corsetry did in the previous series. I suspect this film got a nod primarily for the scope of the work involved, as Atwood’s team built about 1,000 costumes by hand and sourced 3,000 period rentals from L.A., Italy, Los Angeles, New York, England, and France to clothe crowds of extras. But the Harry Potter movies were the first films to make me notice and think about costume design; as a child, I was delighted by the brilliant choices and puzzled over ones that seemed wrong. Sadly, the costuming in Fantastic Beasts just didn’t give me that much to engage with.

Consolata Boyle – Florence Foster Jenkins 

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Experts’ Rank: 4
Our Rank: 3

Period might be the most obvious costuming decision that jumps out to audiences, but the appearance of two 1940’s-set films on this list show how other design choices can make a big difference in creating the wardrobe of a movie. Consolata Boyle’s costumes for Florence Foster Jenkins couldn’t differ more from the glamorous, escapist design seen in Allied, though the events of both films take place just 2 years apart. Place, class, and character all inform the costuming choices just as much as the period.

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Much of the costuming work on this film was highly technical in nature. Because Meryl Streep lacks the heftier figure of the real Florence Foster Jenkins, all of her costumes needed to be built around padding that was engineered to allow for movement. A particular challenge was ensuring that the padding worked with the onstage harness her character is suspended from early in the film. More conceptually, the costumes work to highlight class differences (note the obvious contrast in appearances when Florence drops by her much poorer pianist’s apartment unexpected), convey Florence’s many eccentricities, and serve the performance scenes. Florence Foster Jenkins is a warm, touching movie, and the costuming does a nice job creating Florence’s odd but happy world.

Madeline Fontaine – Jackie

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Experts’ Rank: 1
Our Rank: 2

In Jackie, the first thing Natalie Portman’s black-garbed Jacqueline Kennedy says to her bewildered daughter when breaking the news of her father’s death is “This is how we dress when something sad happens.” It’s a fitting line for a film about a First Lady obsessed with appearances. This Jackie knows the importance of controlling the narrative, and she understands more than anyone around her how clothing can help serve that goal. This film could serve as a primer for anyone who doesn’t understand the big deal over costume design – please show the scene in which Jackie refuses to change out of her pink suit and instead appear in front of the world splattered with the blood and brains of her brutally murdered husband to anyone who doesn’t quite grasp how clothes can make a statement. Clothes are always telling a story, and this film imagines Jackie’s behind-the-scenes decision making process for every message she wanted to convey with her appearance.

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As with Florence Foster Jenkins, the costume design here had to turn a well-known actress into a historical figure. But with no disrespect to the delusional chanteuse, Florence Foster Jenkins was no Jackie Kennedy, who was both a style icon and one of the most famous women of the 21st century. The painstaking recreations of Kennedy’s actual wardrobe, hairstyling and makeup allowed Natalie Portman to slip credibly into the role. Costumer Madeline Fontaine, who’s known for her work on Amélie and who costumed another historical figure in Yves St. Laurent, had a lot of photographs and footage to draw from in recreating the famous designs worn by the First Lady. The actual historical relevance of the clothing worn works to the film’s advantage; a sense of dread wells up immediately upon seeing Natalie Portman in a recreation of that suit. Fontaine collaborated with Chanel on details like perfect buttons, hems and labels to create five samples of her version for the film. I ranked Allied higher because I admire the intelligent choices made for completely invented characters (and because I like to support a dark horse now and then), but I’d be happy if Jackie won the prize this year. The costuming is so integral to the film, both in its detailed replication of actual historical looks and in its service to the story being told: that Jackie Kennedy, through any means necessary, was going to control the image of her husband’s death and burial.

Mary Zophres – La La Land 

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Experts’ Rank: 2
Our Rank: 5

I suppose, for the sake of fairness, that I should devote some space to discussing the costuming of La La Land, but I really could save time and just provide this tweet from film critic Amy Nicholson:

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Yeah, that about sums it up. How this film scored a Best Costume Design nod is beyond me; at one point I wondered earnestly if the movie had a tie-in capsule collection with H&M that it was obligated to promote. Emma Stone’s Mia wears vaguely vintage dresses and Ryan Gosling’s Sebastian wears vaguely vintage suits. The idea of a brightly colored, almost-but-not-period costume design could have been conceived by any student staging a musical for their undergrad theatre department, and the actual pieces seen here could have easily been provided by undergrad actors themselves if their department was working on a budget. (All of Gosling’s costumes were inexplicably handmade, which seems a wasted effort, but upon researching for this post I learned that one of Stone’s tops actually did indeed come from H&M.) If you think I’m being harsh, consider the effort that went into costuming Stone for her character’s biggest scene, where our heroine is festooned in….a sweater and jeans.

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Groundbreaking.

There just wasn’t a lot of inspired choices in the film. I get that Mary Zophres’s costuming was generally intended to serve the director’s vision of a retro L.A., but the result was clothing that looked pretty but meant little. Sure, Sebastian’s longing for the past explains his throwback costuming, but what do Mia’s clothes say about her? For comparison’s sake, consider the costuming in another quirky, stylized film about a year in the relationship of a struggling L.A. couple: (500) Days of Summer. Every outfit on Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel spoke to their characters’ personalities, highlighted their similarities and differences, and still contributed to creating a particular aesthetic that fit the tone and design of the film. I’ve seen several predictions that La La Land will win the award this year, which bums me out – in a year that saw more lively, creative work in other films (even by Zophres herself in Hail Caesar!), I wouldn’t have even given this one a nomination.

What were your favorite costumes of the year?

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Posted on February 22, 2017, in Awards, Movies, poll and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. I have actually seen one of these movies! I’ve been shut out of most of the Oscar coverage since I haven’t found time to go to the movies since the year-end blockbusters. Just like last year, I really enjoyed reading your perspective on this category which is a topic I know very little about but you have put in terms that I can understand. So glad you were able to come back and do this again.

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    • You’ve got three more nights before the awards. Moonlight and Manchester by the Sea are both available for home streaming, but you’ll need to find a night out for La La Land. Fences is a little more difficult to find, but if you see those three movies a good amount of the storylines for the show that night will be covered. 🙂

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    • I’m so glad I could come back this year, too! It gave me an excuse to see some films I definitely wouldn’t have otherwise. And I’m always glad to help people understand costuming decisions!

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  2. Excellent write-up! I think the costumes just got swept up in the enthusiasm for La La Land. I haven’t seen Allied yet, but I agree that the costumes in the other films here are more impressive. If La La Land gets the Oscar for costumes it could easily be a sign that we’re in for close to a clean sweep (it can’t win all 14 of its nominations because of its two nods for Best Original Song). I don’t think that’s going to happen, though.

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    • I think that La La Land was overall a very bright, colorful, pretty-looking production and so the costumes got attention because of that. But on their own, they’re not particularly interesting or good! I think there’s a chance Jackie might beat La La Land out here, and I’ll be relieved if it does.

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  3. You’ve convinced me on ALLIED. I would have voted for it if I was a member of the Academy. I think JACKIE will probably win because people loved Jackie Kennedy’s style. I think it may win despite the fact that the costumes all seem to be recreations of other designers’ work, and in many cases, the originals are iconic. I wouldn’t vote for JACKIE myself based on that.

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