Over the last few years, we’ve begun to see a bit of a sea change when it comes to the Costume Design category. Traditionally, this has been a group where period dress and flowing gowns have dominated. But as Academy membership has expanded recently, so too has the variety of designs getting recognition. The most major moment was when Ruth Carter took home the gold in this category two years ago for her stellar mix of tribal dress and superhero garb in Black Panther, but I’d argue the shift actually started three years before that, when Jenny Beavan won for Mad Max: Fury Road. As membership has gotten younger and more diverse, more space has been created for fantasy and blockbusters alongside the classic European styles, and I gotta tell you, I am here for it!
Because I am a nerd, I love it when people can assemble a great costume. I’m by no means a connoisseur of fine fashion or fancy dress. In fact my personal style pretty much begins and ends with blue jeans and snarky t-shirts. But I am definitely into cosplay for those who can pull it off, and I think that’s part of the more recent vibe in the category. The glamor still has its place, but the new generation includes people that grew up watching more commercial fare, people who developed their own fandoms, and then went into the industry with the dream of bringing their artistic vision to life, a vision inspired by genre rather than by glitz.
I can think of four times in my life where I’ve worn a costume that I just adored to no end. The first was when I was 10, and my mom sewed a Bart Simpson spikey-head for me. It looked awful and was in no way convincing, but mom made it for me, so I loved it. She worked full-time, raised two kids on her own, and basically took care of her own mother at the same time, and yet she found time to try to make me a costume when we couldn’t afford one. It’s still my favorite. Beyond that, there was the time we found a mid-size leprechaun costume at a Goodwill and repurposed it into a tuxedo for me to wear as a citizen of the Emerald City when my middle school put on The Wiz. To this day I’m amazed that I saw it in the window, that it fit, and that it only cost five bucks. As an adult, when I first moved to L.A., two of my friends convinced me to be the Timmy Turner to their Fairly Oddparents. Somehow I found a pink t-shirt at Michael’s that fit (it was only an XL; I lost a good amount of weight in my first year here and have since gained it all back) and a pink cap to make it work. In 2019, the last proper Halloween we all had, my ex and I went as Mario and Luigi. Draw your own conclusions as to how that turned out.
Variety is the spice of life, as they say, and it’s only for the best that over the last half-decade we’ve truly started to see some in this category. There were so many years where it was a foregone conclusion that the best looking period pieces would win, usually something from the Victorian era. Now? It truly is anyone’s game. You can see it in this year’s crop of candidates, which range from traditional to fantasy, classical to cultural. It’s a sign of even more progress to come.
This year’s nominees for Costume Design are:
Emma. – Alexandra Byrne
We’ve seen Alexandra Byrne in this breakdown before, as she was up two years ago for her work on Mary Queen of Scots. She’s firmly ensconced in the old guard of the Costumers Branch, as all of her six nominations have been for films set in Victorian England or earlier (her one win coming from Elizabeth: The Golden Age). Hey, if it’s working, keep doing it.
Her work in Emma. is best highlighted by two elements. The first, of course, is Anya Taylor-Joy in the lead role as Emma Woodhouse. Her wardrobe is extensive and impressive, with dresses for all occasions, smart-looking bonnets and hats, and of course, necklines and bust cuts that show off Taylor-Joy’s endowment. I’m certainly not complaining.
The other bit that sticks out is in the men’s outfits, particularly the very large collars. This might not be what you’d consider a high point, but I enjoyed it. I recall thinking as I watched that if any of the male actors turned their head too quickly in a scene they might accidentally slit their own throat. I don’t hold it too much against Byrne, as I think the exaggerated size was intentional as a visual gag on how uptight high society can be. I certainly inferred as much. Still, the 1980s called and even they think those collars were absurdly huge.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom – Ann Roth
Talk about great company to be in. Ann Roth is nearly 90 years old and has been making costumes for TV, film, and Broadway for nearly 65 years! Amazingly, and almost criminally, she only has one Tony and one Oscar to show for it (the latter for The English Patient). She’s made outfits for just about every type of movie imaginable, though for the Academy’s purposes, she thrives in early 20th Century common garb.
That’s certainly the case with Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which is set in the 1920s. On a sweltering Chicago day, Ma herself is decked out in a garish, low-hanging dress that gives Viola Davis a ton of room to move around in. It also helps to establish her character as one not to be underestimated. She knows she could be overlooked as an old, fat woman throwing her weight around, but challenge her, and she’ll hike up that dress enough to free her leg so she can kick your ass.
Elsewhere, Dussie Mae looks like a classic flapper, the manager and record producer are constricted by tight suspenders, Sylvester looks dapper in his suit, and Ma’s band wears very smart jazz outfits, especially Levee with his pinstripes. But Roth goes one step further, highlighting Levee’s brand new shoes, which serves as a plot device as the film goes on. Levee takes pride in finally being able to afford such footwear, and he polishes them lovingly. It’s the accidental scuffing of them that leads to the film’s tragic climax. Whenever you can incorporate a piece of the wardrobe into the main storyline, that’s a good sign in this category.
Mank – Trish Summerville
This is the first nomination for Trish Summerville, but she’s made a name for herself over the last few years designing wardrobe for A-list female stars, including Rooney Mara in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Jennifer Lawrence in Catching Fire and Red Sparrow, though on that last front, it should be noted that the most memorable part of that entire movie was the one where Lawrence required no wardrobe at all.
Now she’s on the big stage, thanks largely to her work with Amanda Seyfried. Throughout Mank, Seyfried as Marion Davies wears a variety of outfits appropriate for her work as an actress and as a member of Hollywood society. Even in black and white it’s obvious that she, like Anya Taylor-Joy, has a fashionable outfit for just about any occasion. Of particular note are the dress she wears while walking with Mank outside San Simeon, her modest yet stylish picnic attire towards the end, and of course her circus costume for the party at Hearst Castle where Mank drunkenly humiliates himself. Pretty much the entire main cast, being men of the era, basically only wears three-piece suits and tuxedos, but with Seyfried, Summerville gets to really show off, and she does commendable work.
Mulan – Bina Daigeler
This is also the first nomination for Bina Daigeler, though she’s actually gotten double praise in the last year, as she was nominated for an Emmy for her costuming work on Mrs. America. She also designed the costumes for the 2006 film Volver, making the dresses that helped Penélope Cruz sizzle her way to her first Oscar nomination.
While I am very much NOT a fan of the Mulan remake, the costuming is one of the least offensive parts. The hero shots of the title character in her red robes are silly, but instantly recognizable, and that’s to Daigeler’s credit. I also got a meta laugh at the costuming just before that poster image is revealed in-story, because as Mulan’s party rides off to fight and splits off from the main group, she’s wearing red while everyone around her wears yellow, and all the yellow riders either die or retreat. For once the red shirt didn’t instantly die on a dangerous mission!
The one true achievement in costuming is sadly related to one of the film’s worst elements, the new character, shapeshifter Xian Lang. Constantly transforming into a bird, when we first see Xian Lang as a human, she wears a crown in the shape of a great bird, with feathers and talons that wrap around her head. As the film goes on, if you look closely, you’ll see that with each encounter with Mulan, the headpiece becomes less and less detailed. The beak gets smaller, the talons disappear, the eyes become less piercing. My guess is that this is meant to be a visual metaphor for Xian Lang slowly regaining her humanity after seeing Mulan in action. At least, that’s what I want to believe. If it was just someone not creating identical props for continuity’s sake over the course of the shoot, I’m going to be very upset.
Pinocchio – Massimo Cantini Parrini
Finally, we have yet another Oscar virgin. Parrini hasn’t done much work outside of Italy, though he did get some recognition as part of the costuming department on The Brothers Grimm back in 2005. Looking at his IMDB page, it looks like a lot of his work is in the fantasy realm, so this is as good a place as any to get his big break.
As for the costumes within the film, I sort of draw the same conclusion I did with the Makeup & Hairstyling. I love the design on Pinocchio. The simple red suit helps him stand out, and as a puppet, there’s a beautiful artificiality to the whole thing that I just love. The same goes for the other puppet characters, the Cat and Fox vagrants, and the Fairy.
Apart from that, though, everything is pure nightmare fuel. The donkeys, the Snail, the Tuna, the Cricket, it all just looks so grotesque that even Guillermo del Toro would be like, “Chill out, dude. You want to completely freak the kids out?” The design itself is well done, I assure you, but for the purposes of this film, given the beloved nature of the story to children, it’s just off-putting. I mean, there are four dwarves dressed as rabbits all in black carrying a casket for Pinocchio when he’s sick. I know that’s in the book, but is that supposed to be funny or just genuinely disturbing? I’m kissing 40 and I still lean towards the latter.
1) Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
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Next up, we finally get to the first installment of my favorite part of Oscar Season! It’s Animated Short!
Join the conversation in the comments below! Which costumes were your favorite? Do you prefer imaginative fantasy or classic period garb? How did Anya Taylor-Joy’s cleavage avoid bumping her movie up to a PG-13 rating? Let me know!