Nouse Devours the Oscars Day 3: Costume Design

takes a look at the Oscar nominees for costume design which range from a dystopian world to wild to New York

Editor’s Note: We’re journeying through the Oscar nominees leading up to the ceremony at the end of the month, join us for a category a day until the 28th. Now, on to the clothes…

The Danish Girl 4

Trivia: In the last 20 years, the most “recent” film to win the Oscar here is The Aviator or The English Patient depending on how you judge which both spend long portions in the mid and late 1940s. Technically Grand Budapest in 1968 would win, except it spends one scene in the 60s and is mostly set in 1932. Yes, costume designers love the past. If Carol wins it would be the most “recent” film – it’s set in the 1950s – since 1994 Priscilla, a contemporary film which earned its costume love for being about an Australian drag show.

The biggest criticism for the costume design nominees of the Academy is their tendency to favour period films. In some ways, the criticism is legitimate – ornate, royal epics tend to appear here more often than not. But, then, considering that any film from 1980 and before is technically considered a period film there is a whole lot of “period” films to choose from. It’s hard to knock this slate of nominees which capture Oscar’s love for the traditionally ornate and the more outré of possibilities.

For costume design on film there is a trifecta of names that are most celebrated – Colleen Atwood (Chicago, Alice in Wonderland), Milena Canonero (Grand Budapest Hotel, Marie Antoinette) and Sandy Powell (The Aviator, Shakespeare in Love). Between them they’ve been nominated 32 times and won 10 Oscars. Each year one of them, or two or even all, tend to be nominated. This year it’s Sandy Powell who appears twice for her work on Carol and Cinderella.

Carol (Sandy Powell)
Cinderella (Sandy Powell)
The Danish Girl (Paco Delgado)
Mad Max: Fury Road (Jenny Beavan)
The Revenant (Jacqueline West)

carol costume

Powell is an intricately resourceful designer who does period work that’s more than just regular. Her work on Carol is key to character. Much of the significance of Therese’s fascination with the eponymous Carol comes from her style which is about her steely charm as well as the image of herself she creates. Costumes become key to character with the colours telling their own story alongside the actual text of the screenplay. Carol imposes herself unto our consciousness not just from Cate’s austerity but from the costumes themselves which manage to play up the subtle androgynous nature of her persona, both ultra-feminine and highly predatory. Costume is not just incidental but key. Incidentally, it’s excellent work on Blanchett which marks Powell’s work in Cinderella, too.

cinderella costume Sure, Ella wears love gowns but the intricate work on the Stepmother – overpowering and overwhelming and arresting but still uncomfortable – is such an essential key to the way she emerges in Branagh’s telling of this story. It’s key details like this yellow and black gown that telegraph information even before a line of dialogue is said. If Powell had not already won three Oscars she might be an easy favourite, and her double nomination does lead to the possibility of not knowing where to vote for her. (Of course Powell earned a double nomination back in 1998 when she won her first Oscar.) Carol’s New York chic seems hard to bet against, for example, until you take a look at the other nominees.

Jacqueline West remains an excellent costume designer without a nomination (her finest work also with Cate Blanchett on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) her work on The Revenant is precise and detailed but loses focus because of the nature of the tale. Oscar loves costume designs which glamourise which is why her difficult task of making her of working against glamour in The Revenant deserves particular notice. The men in the wild are literally drowning in their clothes, and West’s costumes are so vivid we can almost touch them and feel elk skin or the fur.

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Like West Jenny Beavan is working outside of her usual comfort zone. Beavan is known for excellent period work (famously on Merchant Ivory films, and most recently on The King’s Speech). Her work on Mad Max is miles away from that. The dystopian world of Mad Max: Fury Road is vivid, though. The makeshift armour, the ragged clothes, bizarre bridal costumes – images in the costumes are striking and off-putting. They work like West’s work in The Revenant, turning clothes into something without glamour but excellently rendered.

And finally, Paco Delgado’s work on The Danish Girl. Costume is essential to The Danish Girl on two levels – it’s a period film in Europe which requires the traditional ornate costumes but Lili’s journey through self-discovery is significantly tied to the development of her costumes. Next to Powell’s work in Carol, it’s the film to most make use of colour as context in the costume work and in the same way that Therese develops along with her wardrobe so does Lili. If The Danish Girl were more successful it might be an easy win for Delgado. The costume designers don’t care whether a film is successful in top of the line categories, they vote for what they like and it is highly possible Delgado is a threat.

You could easily toss in forgotten work from Far from the Madding Crowd or Brooklyn or Macbeth or even Spy, but it’s hard to really argue against the goodness of this quintet of films to represent the best costume work of 2015. The question of who wins is more difficult, a fourth for Powell is a possibility, a sweep of love for The Revenant resulting in a win for West would be nice and the colour conscious work on The Danish Girl seems possible.

I’m betting on Delgado winning it by a hair.

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