Sunday, February 7, 2016

Countdown to the Oscars: Best Costume Design

Sandy Powell's costumes for Cinderella are bold, brilliant, and beautiful.

Welcome to Last Cinema Standing’s Countdown to the Oscars, our daily look at this year’s Academy Awards race. Be sure to check back every day this month for analysis of each of the Academy’s 24 categories.

Best Costume Design

The nominees are:


As with production design, the Academy likes its costumes big, flashy, and period, plus a whole lot of them. If you designed a historical monarch’s royal court, so much the better for your chances of going home with an Oscar. That is no exaggeration. Just in recent history, during a stretch from 2006-2009, the winners of Best Costume Design were: Marie Antoinette, Elizabeth: The Golden Age, The Duchess, and The Young Victoria.

Diving deeper into this, just one film in the last 30 years has won for contemporary costumes. That was The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert in 1994, which certainly qualifies as flashy, if nothing else. Other than that, it is fantasy or period all the way down the line, either of which could describe every single nominee this year. The most likely winner, i.e., the one that checks the most boxes: a period fantasy with a massive royal ball as its centerpiece.

Cinderella – Director Kenneth Branagh’s Disney adaptation was a surprise hit last spring, pulling down huge numbers at the box office for a decades-old property with limited appeal outside its core demographic. The reason, best as I can tell, is that it is actually pretty good. While audiences get bombarded with gritty reboots of every fairytale under the sun, Branagh and company play it straight with the simple fable of an abused girl who finds strength and love.

In this case, playing it straight means hewing very closely to the Disney animated version of the story, and Branagh takes the central ball, where Cinderella dances with her prince, and turns it into a visual extravaganza. Every element is simply stunning, but Sandy Powell’s costume designs are impossibly beautiful. Powell draws from cultures around the globe to give each princess from a different land a specific identify, and she has some fun inserting ball-gown versions of classic Disney princess costumes in among the extras.

Of course, the real treat is Cinderella’s iconic blue dress, a feat of costuming that boggles the mind. The colors are lush and vibrant, and the fabric is adorned with 10,000 Swarovski crystals, each hand placed. The point of the dress is to turn heads at the ball, and it sure does that. When one remembers the same care and thought went into clothing the hundreds of extras in the scene, the herculean nature of the task becomes clear, and that is not even accounting for the rest of the film’s equally impressive work.

Carol – Powell’s biggest competition this year may come from herself for designs that could not be more different from the fairytale work she pulled off in Cinderella. The costumes in the 1950s-set Carol are instantly character defining. When Cate Blanchett walks onscreen as Carol, with her fur coat or red jacket, we know immediately who this woman is. From the vests, scarves, and hats to the women’s dresses and men’s suits, Powell’s nuanced designs are a wonder to behold but never overtly call attention to themselves within the film’s muted color scheme and dingy aesthetic.

Only four designers have more nominations in this category than 12-time nominee Powell, and only four designers have more wins than Powell’s three. Her first nomination came in 1993 for the British dramatic fantasy Orlando, and her most recent nod came for Martin Scorsese’s Hugo in 2011. She won for the aforementioned The Young Victoria, Scorsese’s The Aviator, and Best Picture winner Shakespeare in Love. With the two strongest contenders in the race this year, she seems almost certain to add a fourth Oscar to her mantelpiece.

The Danish Girl – Director Tom Hooper’s biopic of transgender pioneer Lili Elbe is an inspired nomination in the category since so much of Lili’s early transition in the film is told through her clothing choices. As Lili comes more and more into her own as a person, her clothes become increasingly feminine until finally she does away with all of her male garments. Designer Paco Delgado also has the opportunity to explore a number of different styles within the film’s 1920s setting as Lili’s story takes her from Denmark to France to Germany, each with its own specific set of cultural markers.

Delgado is a two-time nominee who was previously nominated for his work on Hooper’s Les Miserables. Both films stand out on Delgado’s résumé, which is populated primarily by contemporary Spanish and Latin America cinema with directors such as Pedro Almodóvar and Alejandro González Iñárritu. Appropriately, however, a number of those films also deal with themes of gender, identity, and transformation.

Mad Max: Fury Road – The least traditional work in the category this year comes from another titan of costume design, Jenny Beavan, a 10-time nominee whose early career was defined by her work on Merchant-Ivory productions such as The Remains of the Day, Howards End, and A Room with a View. She earned nominations for all three of those films and won her only Oscar for A Room with a View. Her most recent nomination came in 2010 for the Best Picture winner The King’s Speech.

This time, Beavan steps way outside her perceived comfort zone of reserved period work with the punk-rock insanity that colors every corner of Mad Max: Fury Road. From the peasants to the warriors, Beavan has an instinctive feel for the way this post-collapse world has forced the people to cobble together clothes from whatever was left lying around the wasteland. While working essentially with just one or two colors, Beavan establishes the characters with little details such as the bric-a-brac that adorns the dusty clothing and various degrees of decay into which the wardrobes have fallen. This film would be an unconventional winner in the category but certainly not undeserving

The Revenant – Another film with an extremely limited color scheme, The Revenant requires designer Jacqueline West to create something out of virtually nothing. Working with almost exclusively grays and browns, West piles on the furs and hides to establish a very specific kind of Old American West. Her designs have the same naturalistic feel of so much of the film and seem to be pulled directly from nature itself.

West is a three-time nominee who has never won the award. Her previous nominations came for more traditional work on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Quills, and like so many of Iñárritu’s other collaborators on The Revenant, she has a long history with director Terrence Malick. West’s designs for The Revenant are impressive and certainly further the thematic explorations of the plot, but the costumes may not be flashy enough to pull off a win. Even in years when one film dominates the crafts categories, Best Costume Design still tends to go to work that screams out for recognition.

The final analysis

This is Powell vs. Powell, and either film could win. A number of pundits are predicting Carol to walk away with the award, mostly based on the film’s overall popularity with the Academy. This is a fair point as the film does have six total nominations to Cinderella’s one. However, I would look at the fact that Carol failed to make it into the Best Picture lineup as evidence of slight weakness with voters. Cinderella on the other hand is a popular Disney adaptation with the exact kind of costume work that usually wins in this category. Neither win would shock me, but it is hard to bet against the brightest, boldest work of the lot.

Will win: Cinderella
Should win: Carol
Should have been here: Brooklyn

Tomorrow: Best Makeup and Hairstyling

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