Best Costume Design Nominees (90th Academy Awards)

Well, dang. I’ve only been doing this roundup for two years and this category is already feeling a bit redundant.

The 2018 list is dominated by – you guessed it! – period pieces. The Academy is so taken with those sweet, sweet old-timey vestments that should frontrunner Phantom Thread win this year, its 1950s setting will make it the most contemporary-set film to win the award in 23 years! In fact, excluding sci-fi and fantasy outliers such as Lord of the Rings and Mad Max: Fury Road, only three contemporary-set films have ever won the prize since 1967. (That’s when the award took on its present form. Prior to that year, the Academy recognized two categories for Best Costume Design – in black and white and color pictures).

However, I’ve also noticed a new subgenre taking over the category of late. Though it still fits under the “fantasy” umbrella that has always featured here, the Live-Action Adaptation of a Disney Classic has popped up in this category since the beginning of this decade with a 2010 win for Alice and Wonderland and nominations for Maleficent (2014), Cinderella (2015), and now Beauty and the Beast. Disney has enough live-action remakes lined up to last us the next ten years, beginning with Mulan later this year, so if you’re not exhausted already, get ready!

It’s a bit of a bummer that this category rarely features any surprises. I guess it’s all the more motivation for me to blow the Academy away one day with my dazzling and unexpected designs for a very modern film. My script for BuzzFeed: The Musical: In Space!! is still in progress, but once it’s written, shot, and costumed, things are gonna get interesting around this category. Until then, let’s dive into what we’ve got.

Jacqueline Durran – Beauty and the Beast

Experts’ Rank: 2
Our Rank: 2

Before realizing I’d have to watch it for this post, I’d avoided Bill Condon’s take on the tale as old as time. I was sufficiently scared off by the reports of Woke Feminist Belle, Exclusively Gay™ LeFou and Ewan “I Can Believe He’s Not French! As Can Anyone With Ears” McGregor’s Lumiere. Can you blame me? Considering that I’m a brunette bookworm who idolized Belle as a small child and who directed my first show with the stage production of Beauty and the Beast, it’s fair to say I have a strong attachment to the source material here.

But readers, this movie opens with soon-to-be-Beast receiving a bright pop of lipstick and a dramatic swipe of eye makeup. The costumes, at least, were working to catch my attention. I’ll admit I gasped out loud at the splendor of that first scene, a lavish ball filled with gorgeous maidens dancing around the prince. I loved what this brief scene did for his characterization – as he stalked around the dance floor, his dark ensemble and almost punk makeup popping out among the sea of dainty white frippery, he seemed downright dangerous. The curls of his wig and feathery look to his painted-on mask suggested a combination of wild animals, and the message of the scene was clear: this man, even before his curse, is almost monstrous.

I really wish they’d stuck with that bolder direction, but almost every subsequent scene essentially recreated the animated original more accurately for Rococo France. Belle wears a blue pinafore over a white chemise while singing about her provincial life. She dances in a yellow dress. (It’s fine. It didn’t blow me away, but no Emma Watson costume can ever disappoint me more than her Yule Ball look. Fight me, Harry Potters 3-8 costume designer Jany Temime! I’ve been itching to rumble with you since I was 13!)

That’s not to say the looks were boring – they were gorgeous, with enough thoughtful touches to capture my imagination, like the repeating floral motifs in Belle’s looks. Costume designer Jacqueline Durran even had to make physical costumes to fit a “Beast” that was entirely CGI-generated, with a character design that the animators continually tweaked throughout filming, in order to give the animators an idea of how the clothes should drape and move! And her attention to period detail is generally spot-on, if you couldn’t tell from the perfect robes à la française pictured above. (Fellow nerds will enjoy Frock Flicks’ in-depth breakdown of the historical styles referenced in the film – and of the notable departures from period that were indulged for key scenes.)

The few costuming missteps seemed to come not from Durran, but rather from the “feminist” direction of the protagonist decided on by Emma Watson and Bill Condon. This led Durran to incorporate some not-quite-accurate touches to convey scrappiness and practicality: sturdy denim-like fabrics, bloomers and pockets that appeared a bit before their actual invention, and very sensible khaki TOM’S shoes. I didn’t mind any of that – it is fantasy, after all, and I believe that costumes should first and foremost complement the character. However, I rolled my eyes at Emma Watson’s insistence that Belle couldn’t wear corsets; the clothes that went over them were designed for corsets, and the result is all of Belle’s bodices end up looking lumpy! You can be a feminist without being lumpy, Emma! I also had to question the directing choice to have Belle wear her yellow ballgown while riding a horse to save her father, which I imagine Condon wanted because….she looked pretty? Watson had enough say in the matter to at least insist that her character wear (high-heeled) riding boots with the ballgown for the scene: truly, the height of comfort. Her character then shed her gown to rush to the Beast’s aid, saving him from Gaston in her undergarments. But hey, at least those undergarments didn’t include a corset! Letting the lovely heroine keep her clothes on would seem more feminist to me than making her ballgown more unflattering but WHAT DO I KNOW.

(I know everything. If you’re in NYC, hire me to costume your stuff).

Jacqueline Durran – Darkest Hour

Experts’ Rank: 4
Our Rank: 5

Durran is this year’s competing-against-herself nominee, and it may surprise you to hear that I have less personal attachment to Winston Churchill than I do to my favorite Disney princess. I suspect the Academy will be similarly biased. The most impressive bit of costuming here comes courtesy of the makeup department, as they were primarily responsible for transforming Gary Oldman into the Ol’ Iron Bulldog, or whatever they called Winston Churchill. (Guys, this movie was not my bag.)

Prosthetics wizard Kazuhiro Tsuji, known for the stunning aging effects he created for Brad Pitt in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, came out of retirement to construct both a silicon face mask and a full-body fat suit for Oldman. Durran then constructed her costumes around the padding, based on designs she chose after consulting the British tailors whose companies costumed the real Churchill. Some notes on Durran herself: she is a truly excellent costume designer who won the Oscar for her costumes in Anna Karenina and created one of the most memorable costumes of all time with Kiera Knightley’s green dress in Atonement. As in Beauty and the Beast, she collaborated on the overall look of the film with production designer Sarah Greenwood. This is their seventh collaboration together and Durran’s sixth with director Joe Wright. So there’s clearly a well-oiled machine of a team all doing their best work. And yet…

Durran said she enjoyed the challenge of costuming a mostly male ensemble for the first time. But I didn’t enjoy it. Men’s clothes are pretty boring. I can’t imagine a world in which Darkest Hour beats out Durran’s much more dazzling work in Beauty and the Beast, much less frontrunner Phantom Thread. I wish a more interesting costume design could have filled this slot – I, Tonya would certainly make sense here, as could a more adventurous choice like Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Wonder Woman, or even Thor: Ragnarok.  

Mark Bridges – Phantom Thread 

Experts’ Rank: 1
Our Rank: 1

This is the one to beat, for obvious reasons. This is a film about clothes – their design, their construction, and most importantly, the effect they have on their wearers. Characters here breathlessly reveal that stepping into the gowns of this film make them feel “perfect” despite self-consciousness, “powerful” in a moment that demands poise.

So what of these clothes? They’re faithful to the period, but of course, so are the other contenders on this list. The gowns created by House of Woodcock are certainly lovely, but lack the fantasy and fun of Beauty and the Beast’s or the exquisite frilliness of Victoria & Albert’s. No, the skill here was in concocting a House of Woodcock at all. Director Paul Thomas Anderson was inspired by many famous couturiers in his research process, from Charles James to Balenciaga, but Reynolds Woodcock is an original, and fully fictional, character. Costume designer Mark Bridges therefore was tasked with creating a look that signified Woodcock’s design style in a way that would fit in the period but not draw inspiration from the signature looks of contemporaneous houses. The end result was a fashion house characterized by beautiful fabrics, lace touches, and nods to the past.

Bridges certainly had assistance in his process. In what the designer “jokingly but not jokingly” called “Method designing,” the famously immersive Daniel Day-Lewis took an active role in the costuming of his character and the characters Woodcock designed for. His preparation included an internship under the head designer for the New York City Ballet and the challenge of reconstructing a vintage Balenciaga gown by hand for his wife. (I’m sure she enjoyed his prep work for this movie more than Lincoln.) Bridges involved Day-Lewis and allowed the actor to pick fabrics for certain looks Woodcock’s muses wore and submit sketches for others. The actor had strong ideas about the clothes his character would wear, most notably the surprisingly bright socks he envisioned as a personal eccentricity – which Day-Lewis insisted be purchased from the tailor in Rome known for making socks for the pope. Bridges, who had worked with Day-Lewis before on  There Will Be Blood, was happy to aid in the actor’s method. He actually made a whole closet of pieces for Day-Lewis to dress himself in, so he could put together outfits just as his character would dress himself every day! In fact, in one scene in the movie, Day-Lewis appears in luxurious pajamas accessorized with a cardigan, ascot, and house coat – and both Anderson and Bridges saw the look for the first time when Day-Lewis stepped into the frame, as he put it together entirely on his own.

Costuming this film was labor-intensive. Bridges and his team constructed 50 gowns for the film, some serving precise demands of the script. For a scene in which Woodcock needed a rare fabric, Bridges hunted down a 17th century lace. The lace, naturally only available in the 3 meters they purchased from a specialty dealer, had to be used as a prop in the film for the scene where the characters discuss it. The team then had to cut it up to add to a dress to fit the shooting schedule, featuring it in such a way that used what lace they had sparingly but to grand effect. Since the behind-the-scenes team handled work that was fictionally done by the characters, the crew was actually brought onscreen for added authenticity. Both the set seamstresses and the volunteers at the Victoria & Albert Museum who helped in Anderson and Bridges’ research process were used as extras in the film. Because the costume crew was working constantly on the many pieces needed for the film, their in-process garments were used as set dressing for workshop scenes.

The film’s design was ultimately accomplishing a tricky task: signifying that the highly exacting Woodcock might nevertheless be losing his touch. This is most obviously shown through the royal wedding dress he creates then deems “ugly,” but the message is conveyed much, much more subtly throughout the rest of the film. His dresses are certainly good. He simply and firmly uses that word to describe his high-quality creations and traditionally lovely fabrics. But, much as he decries the word “chic” with fury, he does not design cutting-edge or groundbreaking gowns. We are not supposed to see Woodcock as a peer of Dior or Balenciaga, whose breathtaking designs in this period still look fresh, modern and striking to us today, but rather of the dependable and precise English tailors such as John Cavanagh and Digby Morton who clothed the upper crust but left no mark on fashion history.

Could that perhaps impact Phantom Thread’s chances? I’m not quite sure. There’s a chance audiences will fail to see the fuss over a movie about couture in which the couture doesn’t quite stun. But the costumes certainly do a great job highlighting both story beats and character development – see the dark, moody fabric that young muse Alma dismisses despite Woodcock’s insistence that it is good. Both are right. The deep colors, bright sheen, and heavy drape of the fabric are all technically very fine and objectively beautiful. But such a style isn’t quite right for Alma, nor for any young woman of her age. Woodcock is steadfastly pursuing the understated, precise, English style that he has devoted his life to. Alma, as her role in the film and his life echoes, is disrupting his idea because she is a younger woman of a different social class undoubtedly influenced by the much flashier French ideas of couture at the time. The costume design of the film may not be dazzling, but it certainly is good.

Luis Sequeira – The Shape of Water

Experts’ Rank: 3
Our Rank: 3

Maybe I’m being a contrarian, or maybe I’m just too much of a sucker for Midcentury style to be unbiased, but I prefer The Shape of Water’s costumes to Phantom Thread’s. The real reason is probably that I enjoy the challenge of nerding out with my own interpretations of the design choices without being weighed down by all that text messing up my projected subtext.

But ahhh, there’s so much to interpret here! The slightly “off” thrift store ensembles of the meek and different heroine Elisa, brightened up by her love of a killer shoe and with occasional nods to her longing for the romance of  old movies. The immersive blue, green and brown color palette (“a Twilight Zone-like palette,” says costume designer Luis Sequeira) that evokes both the mystery of the water and the unease of the supernatural. And how sharply that palette contrasts with the picture-perfect 60s home life we see Strickland in!

I won’t go so far as to say this film should win over Phantom Thread. This is very good costume design, but it’s not as integral to the plot and the clothes have to only signify characterization instead of the many themes and devices of a film entirely about clothing. But I love a smart, well-realized costume design quietly doing its thing, serving the story without being flashy, and telling the audience all they need to know without them even realizing it.

Consolata Boyle – Victoria and Abdul

Experts’ Rank: 5
Our Rank: 4

Hey! Consolata Boyle appears again! We discussed her work on Florence Foster Jenkins last year. This is her third nomination, as she was also recognized for her work on The Queen in 2006. She specializes in designing and constructing beautiful period costumes, and her expertise was definitely needed for the unique challenges of this film.

Victoria & Abdul tells the story of Queen Victoria’s friendship with her Indian servant, a relationship that the royal household considered so controversial that almost all evidence of it was destroyed after the Queen’s death. So while historical documents on Victoria are of course plentiful, Boyle and her team had to dig into more obscure archives to find surviving photos of Abdul. And though the Victorian era was known for its intricate, embellished outfits, Boyle and her team were operating on both a small budget and a short time frame – with the most difficult scene in the film, the state banquet, being pushed forward in the schedule unexpectedly.

I find that Boyle has a great sense for cinema, as she always balances historical specificity with the technical demands of the medium and the arcs of the story being told. In this film, as with Florence Foster Jenkins, she had to again create padding for a lead actress who was smaller than the character she portrayed and make sure that the padding worked with the corsetry of the period. She was also restricted by the fact that the Queen famously wore mourning clothes for the full 40 years after her beloved husband’s death. Boyle made sure to use different textured fabric in a variety of dark hues – browns, purples, and dark grays – to make sure Victoria’s costumes could be lit well, and she played with the exact colors and details over the course of the film to show the Queen’s sense of joy coming back into her life.

This film raises an interesting question for me, because the subject matter is marred by Britain’s truly ugly legacy of colonialism. It made me ponder what the role of a costume designer is in telling a socially conscious story. Boyle, for instance, recreated Abdul’s royal uniform based on a portrait of him, but noted that British tailors had clearly invented elements they thought seemed “Indian” for a uniform that otherwise incorporated typical English embellishments such as the royal crest. Boyle described the uniform as “this strange amalgam of this East-meets-West in the kind of Western arrogance of ‘this is what we think you should look like, we thought you should wear a sash because you didn’t look Indian enough.’” At the same time, her costume work showing Abdul in brighter, lighter fabrics than the British royals serves to highlight the themes that Abdul (and all of India, by extension) is more “exotic” and unrestricted than the stuffier society of Victorian England – a colonialist fantasy that ultimately dehumanizes the actual people impacted by British rule in India. As with some of the questionable pseudo-feminist choices in Beauty and the Beast, I have to give more weight to the director who steered the particular message being told here. Boyle is clearly a skilled and thoughtful costumer, and it’s possible her work could have been just as excellent in tandem with direction by someone more sensitive to the nuance of this true story.

What did you think of the costumes this year? Do you love a period piece as much as the Academy does?


Posted on February 27, 2018, in Awards, Movies, Oscars and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. Excellent article again, Allison!
    Some of the costuming in The Shape of Water is just so charming! Or maybe it’s that Sally Hawkins and Richard Jenkins are wearing them? That green coat and bag she has in the workers line-up photo are adorable.

    I always get a new perspective on things I’ve seen in these articles and it’s a big plus for our readers!

    I completely understand why many Harry Potter fans were put off by the change in the costuming starting with the third movie, but I guess the vast improvement in the cinematography and generally improved direction with Christopher Columbus thankfully gone were enough to overcome it in my eyes. Not sure how Columbus managed to make the final confrontation in The Chamber of Secrets so boring, but I’ll be damned if he pulled the trick off.

    Liked by 1 person

    • YES, you’re spot-on – there is just something SO charming about the Shape of Water costumes! The whole movie to me felt like if someone threw Amélie into a blender with a creature feature and some green food dye.

      I once read an interview with Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket) in which he said, “You never love a book the way you do when you are 11.” I adore that quote, and it definitely explains the fervor of my feelings toward the Harry Potter universe. I wasn’t viewing them through the eyes of a film critic but rather of an obsessive fan (see: “brunette bookworm” description above and apply to me reading about Hermione). Those films were the first to make me care about costume design because I went into them ready to analyze EVERYTHING compared to the world I had in my head.

      Liked by 1 person

      • When I was eleven I was mostly reading about the classic Universal movie monsters. Not actually watching the movies; just reading about them. Also I was reading a lot about the Greek and Norse gods and poring over all of my Dungeons and Dragons manuals. Such was the life of a boy nerd at the time.

        The imagination of a kid is powerful. It’s the same reason why Star Wars fans have alternately loved and hated every new movie in the franchise since 1983. I was 7 years old when the first movie came out so I know what it means to have imagined the back stories of Obi-Wan and Darth Vader for yourself and then have that replaced by something awful. Somehow I was able to dodge the madness and resentment of so much of the fan community largely by having a life full of other things over the course of the intervening years.


  2. I look forward to this unique feature at Oscars time, every year now. It has the effect of making me want to see movies I would not have considered before, in order to view the costumes after having had the benefit of reading about them, from a professional.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. It also brings to mind some minor complaining about The Last Jedi. Remember when you could count on a Star Wars movie to be in the conversation for costume design? What happened? I’m not saying they should have been nominated; it’s another layer of my discontent with what Disney is doing to the franchise. Then again they just have Kylo Ren take his shirt OFF which is even more wrong. OK I’ll stop now


  4. Clothing, fashion and costume design are not topics that interest me at all. But I always enjoy your annual write-up on this category because you make me think about an aspect of movie-making that wouldn’t cross my mind otherwise. In addition to your expertise, I appreciate that your jokes are genuinely funny. I will be looking forward to next year’s article. And of course, you are welcome to contribute more often than that should you have the inclination to do so!


  5. Last night I watched “The Sting” for the first time in many years. Wow, that was fun – forgot how well done everything is in that movie! The designer set a high bar for excellence.


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: