Oscar Blitz 2023 – Costume Design

One of the things I love about the Academy Awards is all the history involved. I’m not just talking about the history of films, but the depictions of actual human history within them.

And there’s no better showcase for the subject than the Costume Design category. To say that the Art Directors Branch favors so-called “period pieces” is an extreme understatement. In fact, this year’s field creates a bit of history of its own. Of the five films nominated, the “oldest” style only dates back to the 1920s and 30s. This is extremely rare. The last time the category had no nominated movies set before the 20th Century was 2016, when Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them took home the prize, though it did have the farthest back setting of 1926. Before that though, you have to go all the way back to 1978 to find a group of nominees that didn’t include at least one film set in the far distant past (or parallel fantasy realm that mimics the medieval era).

Given that this award has been handed out since 1948, you’d figure there would be a wider variety of thought and influence when it comes to the branch picking films to represent it. You’d also think that getting an honorary Oscar in December would have allowed the Music Branch to not nominate Diane Warren for once, so what the hell do I know? That said, we are starting to see a bit more diversity and recognition for extreme creativity beyond the default. Sometimes this results in intriguing new voices breathing life into the nominees and eventual winners. Other times it feels like we’re just using the category as an excuse to create other automatic bid subgenres to reflect a whole different set of biases. For example, while period pieces don’t always win, we have seen an inordinate number of Disney remakes and movies about fashion itself get the attention and the hardware over the last several years.

It’s also worth noting that while progress is being made, this is one of the least open categories of the entire ceremony. This is the 75th year that a costuming award will be given, usually from a field of five nominees. Originally there was a separation between color films and black-and-white (B&W was retired in 1967), and for the first three years there were only two candidates on each side, then three for the following two years. As such, to take a quick tally (because some films have multiple names on the entry), including this year there have been approximately 630 nominations in the history of the category. Of that number, 431 have been shared among 85 multiple nominees. The late great Edith Head by herself had 35 (of which she won eight). By contrast, there have only been 53 people to get more than one nomination for Best Actor, and that award has been around since the Oscars’ inception, with Laurence Olivier and Spencer Tracy tied for the most with a relatively paltry nine nods by comparison.

I’m not saying that these people didn’t earn their kudos, but it feels like it’s a lot harder to break through in what one would assume is a much larger field of opportunity. And this year is no different than precedent would suggest. Of the four candidates in contention this time out, there is only one first-timer, while the other four combine for 23 nominations and six wins, including two of the last four victors.

To be clear, none of this is to imply that there wasn’t tremendous work done by our hopefuls this time around, or necessarily in any other year. I’m just saying that the Art Directors Branch – and specifically the costume designers within it who make the nomination decisions – could stand to broaden their horizons a bit, both in style and in hiring practices.

This year’s nominees for Costume Design are…

Babylon – Mary Zophres

A four-time nominee who is the only one to not hear her name after “And the Oscar goes to…” aside from our debutante, Zophres is no stranger to the “tribute” films of Damien Chazelle, as one of her previous nods was for La La Land and she also worked on First Man. Between those movies and her time with Steven Spielberg and the Coen Brothers, it’s safe to say she knows her way around nostalgia, in whatever form it takes.

Here it largely manifests itself in loose formalwear. Brad Pitt and Diego Calva are often seen in fancy suits and tuxedos that almost work like school uniforms, in that they can be adjusted on the fly and various items easily discarded in the name of comfort and/or debauchery (see above for Pitt in his post-bender skivvies). For Margot Robbie it’s all about light, flowing dresses where she can dance and strategically hide her naughty bits until such time as she wants to show them off if she so chooses. The colors and patterns are largely muted, with Robbie being the only one to have any flair to her wardrobe, a likely intentional choice to make her the center of attention in every scene she’s in.

Outside of the main trio, pretty much everybody looks fairly standard. The men wear period-appropriate suits, women wear dresses, film crews wear suspenders and pants that look suspiciously like jodhpurs, and musicians are in concert attire. It’s all very functional, but also very pedestrian, especially considering the extreme elements at play. Tobey Maguire plays a mob boss who takes Calva to a deep, dark dungeon of depravity to intimidate him, and he’s basically just wearing a polka dot vest and an ascot. Sure there are people in BDSM outfits, but they’re background. Our attention on them is meant to be fleeting at best. Given everything else going on in a lot of these scenes, the costuming is by far the least memorable aspect.

The one exception in the supporting cast is Li Jun Li as Lady Fay Zhu. She’s the only player outside the three principals who gets any variety in her wardrobe, from cabaret outfits to tight, constricting Asian dresses. This is for two main reasons: She’s Chinese and she’s a lesbian, with both traits being heavily fetishized throughout her screen time. So yeah, she sticks out, but for all the wrong reasons.

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever – Ruth Carter

Ruth Carter pulled what was considered a pretty huge upset when she won this award four years ago for the first Black Panther movie, making history twice over as the first black woman to win, as well as heading the first comic book film to take home the trophy. Her blend of traditional African garb with superhero sensibilities was a truly unique achievement.

So what does she have for a follow-up? A lot of the same themes, but executed with new panache that makes it feel like she completely threw out her sketch book and started from scratch. Whereas the first film showcased a wide array of colors to distinguish the various tribes of Wakanda and the roles people play in that society, this time she keeps the home country down to basically two main shades, black and white.

The trick is in how she subverts the normal associations with those very basic tones. Most people would think of black clothing as something formal and perhaps emotional. Carter turns that convention on its ear, because the Black Panther was a symbol of hope and resilience for the Wakandan people. As such, when the nation mourns T’Challa’s loss, everyone is decked out in the brightest, most radiant whites, to the point that they’re practically glowing. The black is reserved for power and defense. Queen Ramonda wears black and gold for much of her time in the film, and the Jabari clan, led by M’Baku, is clad in black armor as they enter battle, a sign of solidarity and practicality as it blends with their skin tones to obscure their strength.

The rest of the color wheel is basically reserved for Namor and his people. Incorporating Mesoamerican designs and folklore inspirations, the blue of their skin is contrasted with gold, green, and red. Knowing how much water will blend with their bodies, there’s a need to make sure they stick out, both in their own low-light environments and in the open sea during fight sequences. The headdresses and jewelry they wear over largely exposed areas gives them a visual identity to contrast with the light and dark of the Wakandans, who in their national grief and defense of their borders, have no room for shades of grey. It honestly is amazing how well Carter has been able to turn what she did in the previous film into something even more eye-catching and original the second time out.

Elvis – Catherine Martin

A frequent collaborator with Baz Luhrmann (not to mention the fact that she’s his wife), Martin’s name is all over this film’s Oscar profile, as she’s also a listed nominee for Production Design and Best Picture. Guess it helps to have an in, right?

Anyway, like many Costume Design nominees over the years, winners and losers, this entry is purely down to one character, Elvis Presley himself. Throughout the film he dons several memorable outfits, from the pink suit he wears during his first radio performance, to the white rhinestone jumpsuit of his later years. Anyone with even a passing knowledge of Presley’s life knows that the outfits were part of his mystique, and to Martin’s credit, she recreated the effect fairly well.

The problem is that it’s all variations on the same theme. It’s just what he wears to perform, and none of it is all that original. It looks nice, sure, and I believe these were outfits that Elvis would have actually worn, but that’s because I’ve seen footage of him in essentially identical clothes. As such, this feels almost like a fraudulent nomination, seeing as how Academy rules state that eligible designs must be “conceived by the costume designer.” What did she conceive here, other than, “Hey, let’s just have Austin wear stuff that Elvis wore”?

Once the star is taken out of the equation, what else is there? Tom Hanks as Col. Tom Parker looks atrocious, Kodi Smit-McPhee isn’t in the film long enough as glamorous cowboy Jimmie Snow to leave all that much of an impression with his bedazzled outfits, and outside of the stage even Elvis looks fairly normal and mundane. I’m not saying anything looks truly bad (outside of Hanks; God did this movie misuse him on every possible level), but nothing sticks out as particularly creative or original. It’s just 1950s garb and one flamboyant performer whose wardrobe was basically copied and pasted onto Austin Butler’s frame? Why are we here again?

Everything Everywhere All at Once – Shirley Kurata

Congratulations to the one designer to break through The Nylon Curtain (10 points if you get the reference; the points have no value) and make enough of an impression to become a first-time nominee! Shirley Kurata, like pretty much everyone who worked on this miracle of a film, brought something truly unique, original, and wonderfully batshit to the proceedings.

At first it all seems pretty normal. Most of the outfits are functional when it comes to defining the basic characters, even within the eventual madness once the multiverse kicks in. Deirdre’s combination of oranges, yellows, and beiges let you know that she leads a drab, work-a-day existence and doesn’t feel the need to dress to impress anyone. It’s comfort and utility all the way. The same goes for Evelyn and Waymond, whose outfits are largely casual, but with enough pockets to handle their everyday needs.

Then Waymond takes off the fanny pack and uses it as a weapon. At this point, all bets are off and anything goes. Security guards fight with dildos hanging out of their asses. Evelyn and Deirdre wear matching sweaters and silk pantsuits as a couple in the hot dog universe. Co-director Daniel Scheinert’s cameo is of a bank manager with a leather fetish. James Hong has a quasi-robotic suit made out of his motorized wheelchair. Anything is possible, and in the strangest way, all of it makes sense within the utterly insane context.

And then there’s Joy. The crowning achievement of the costuming by far is for the many faces of Jobu Tupaki. Introduced with a low visor and baggy shirt with floral patterns, and continuing throughout the film, Joy’s wardrobe changes are not only manic, but they serve an incredibly subtle but brilliant thematic mission of undercutting Asian stereotypes. This first incarnation is the middle-aged casino patron. Later there’s a perky golfer. After that we’ve got a Gothic Lolita, anime girl, K-pop idol, you name it. If there’s a tired cliché representation of young Asian women, Joy/Jobu is there to call bullshit on it via Kurata’s designs. And then just for good measure, she pulls off the Elvis jumpsuit better than Elvis did.

But more important than the creativity and vision behind these outfits is the volume of them at this high level of quality. Joy’s outfits change with an alarming degree of frequency. Sometimes she stays in one costume for an entire scene, other times a simple edit will necessitate a complete overhaul. And yet the insane amount of thought and detail never once wavers. Every single one of Jobu’s looks is given the same amount of care and consideration, whether they’re seen for an extended period of time or a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it gag. That is just nuts. The sheer magnitude of this undertaking would be enough to warrant a nomination. The fact that it’s all done at the highest difficulty setting without ever running out of momentum might be enough to let Kurata blow right past her well-seasoned competition.

Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris – Jenny Beavan

This is by far the most conventional entry in this year’s field, but it’s far from the worst. There was a healthy amount of films featuring middle-aged British disruptor characters in 2022, and Mrs. Harris is the only one to get any recognition from the Academy (I don’t count Living because Bill Nighy’s character is depicted as being 100% elderly and it takes a terminal diagnosis for him to shake up anything). It’s an absolutely delightful film, and if you’re going to follow the trope of nominating a movie about clothing, this is the standard of quality we should set.

For those who didn’t see it, Lesley Manville plays a house cleaner and war widow who decides to save up her money in the late 1950s so that she can have one small bit of luxury in her otherwise mundane life, a dress from the House of Dior. Once she sets off for France, the movie follows a pretty standard formula of showing off a variety of high-end, fancy frocks for us to gawk at. When Mrs. Harris makes her purchase, she has to stay in Paris for several fitting sessions so that the dress can be tailored precisely to her figure, which allows us familiar montages of models, mannequins, and fabric cuttings as things are perfected.

None of this is new, but given Manville’s normal clothing options, the juxtaposition adds to the charm of the scenario, to say nothing of Manville’s performance (itself an almost Yin and Yang comparison to when she was nominated for Phantom Thread a few years ago, another movie about fashion that ended up winning this category). To see her in a simple sundress while Isabelle Huppert stands next to her in haute couture is a delightful display of visual irony.

Aside from that, there’s not much to go on, though there is one surprising bit of side work that if nothing else makes for a great homage. In the film’s major subplot, a model for Dior named Natasha and a company accountant called André strike up a cute romance along the margins. Throughout the entire film, their characters’ respective costuming is a direct reference to Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday, which debuted four years before the events of this film. In a movie that’s all about putting a feel-good smile on your face, this was one of the major highlights for me, so even if the design is somewhat derivative, I can’t help but let it warm my cynical heart just a bit.

My Rankings:
1) Everything Everywhere All at Once
2) Black Panther: Wakanda Forever
3) Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris
4) Babylon
5) Elvis

Who do you think should win? Vote now in the poll below!

Up Next, how do you find the words to say exactly what you want to say? By using someone else’s words, of course! It’s Adapted Screenplay!

Join the conversation in the comments below! What makes a good cinematic wardrobe in your eyes? Do you stick with the tried and true design formats or prefer the experimental? How awesome would an All-Jobu Halloween party be? Let me know!

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