Oscar Spotlight: Costume Design

If you need a refresher on all the fun stuff a costumer actually does, please check out last year’s post. If your memory’s a steel trap, then delve right into this year’s Academy Award nominees for costume design.

Joanna Johnston, for Allied: Johnston has a challenge in this film in that she has to somehow integrate glamour and the war. Marion Cotillard is a spy, and a wife, and a gallery-1480717036-hbz-embedmother. She moves from cocktail parties with politicians to London’s air raids. But with such disparate films as Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Saving Private Ryan under her belt, you might say that Johnston was up to the task. We are first introduced to Cotillard in Allied as she’s wearing a purple dress ” I wanted her to look sexy and beautiful, but not in a “base sexy” way, so we put the sex [appeal] in the back because I knew we were going to see her first from the back. It’s a beautiful Italian fabric; very fine, very delicate silk with this silver shimmer through it, which picks up on the highlights on her.” Later, Cotillard is seen in a green evening gown “I wanted to do a classic column-style dress—very statuesque. I wanted the fabric to be quite liquid. When she’s on the move, she’s got this liquid quality to her, gallery-1480714959-hbz-alliedwhich silk satin does beautifully. Because it was nighttime, the light hit all those highlights [in the fabric]. Again, it’s this sort of old-fashioned quality, but it also had to be quite functional; she had to be able to run in it and do all those things. At one point she actually had a weapon underneath it, in the skirt, so there was a lot of stuff about that [laughs].” The costumes in Allied are indeed very beautiful, but that was something that sometimes felt disingenuous to me – like it didn’t quite fit into a movie set during wartime. The character does transition into more tweeds when she’s at home during the raids, but she’s always just a little too glamourous for my understanding of the time. Johnston has a long history of working with Allied director Robert Zemeckis and Steven Spielberg; she received her previous Oscar nomination for Lincoln.

Colleen Atwood, for Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them: Colleen Atwood is a name you may recognize even as a complete neophyte to costuming. A frequent collaborator of Tim Burton’s you can imagine that her costumes are often fanciful, colourful, and FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEMsurreal, just what J.K. Rowling had ordered. She’s worked on Chicago, Memoirs of a Geisha, and Alice In Wonderland, for all of which she won Oscars. The secret to her success? “I’m controlling like that. I look at and approve every fitting, no matter who anybody is, and I am very controlling in how I want everything to look. It’s important: it matters, and you never know what you’re going to see. I learned a long time ago that you can’t control what happens with pieces you care about unless you’re there, so I’m there.” Fantastic Beasts takes place in 1920s NYC, in a universe where magic exists. “I love the fantasy stuff, I love that. That’s why I took on this movie. I like the challenge of it, and I like integrating fantasy into a period like this. You get to step out of it slightly and make something that’s a version of that time. Which is what movies have always done: in a way, they glamorise time.” How does she get her inspiration? “I reread a couple of [F Scott] Fitzgerald books, fb-trl2-87163-h_2016which are always fun to go back to because he’s very descriptive about the frenzy and the romance of the period. It has so much heart that it’s helped me, and this story has so much heart.” She tracked down period pieces from all over the world, hunting in all the best costume shops, but lots had to be made from scratch as there just aren’t a lot of period wizarding outfits to be had, no matter how hard one scours. Eddie Redmayne’s signature peacock blue overcoat is one-of-a-kind.

Consolata Boyle, for Florence Foster Jenkins: Boyle is director Stephen Frears’ go-to costumer; she was previously nominated for The Queen. Boyle did just as much research for this film, as it is once again a biopic with a real woman’s wardrobe for reference, and each piece was recreated from scratch. Meryl Streep wore padding to flesh out her meryl-streep-sketch-padding_florence-foster-jenkins_image-001character, and each costume had to be built around the padding. “The performance costumes had a very specific aesthetic. They were overblown and a lot of her clothes she would’ve made herself or her friends made, so there was an amateurish feeling about them. But then also the way she dressed in her daily life had that quality of being childish and over-decorative.” Boyle used a consistent colour palette of “naive pastels”to bring Florence to life, and to delineate different costumes for different aspects of her life, all of which were fairly theatrical. Stephen Frears is full of praise for her work: “I barely need to speak to her as I know what she’s doing is going to be dazzling. I’ve worked with her for 25 years, so I’m very lucky.” Florence made all sorts of garish costumes and it’s a complete delight to see them recreated nullon the big screen, along with her penchant for accessorizing within an inch of her life. “I worked incredibly closely with Meryl every step of the way, we had a lot of discussion early on about how she would express her inner emotions in her clothing. [Florence] was a supreme performer, so her clothes were gorgeously outrageous. They were high camp but with a softness so she drew people in. And she had no embarrassment about how she looked.”

Madeline Fontaine, for Jackie: Fontaine also had a lot of real-life references for her work in Jackie – we’re talking about style icon and former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy, after all. Natalie Portman gives a tour de force performance as Jackie and Fontaine makes sure she’snatalie-portman16 got the goods to back it up. Photos and footage of the first lady are so iconic that if even one brass button was out of place, people would notice. She worked with Chanel to get the famous pink suit down to perfection, even hand-dying the wool to achieve the perfect shade of pink (the actual dress is preserved in the National Archives and wasn’t available for consultation). Historical accuracy was important, but for filming purposes, so was duplication: “All the “original” pieces are handmade in our workshop.  We needed to create more than one – we made five of the natalie-portman17pink dress, for instance. Chanel supplied the buttons, the chain of the inside jacket, (“couture” detail for the weight of the jacket, and a signature…), and a label, in case the jacket would fall down [onto] the floor.” Since the film jumps between colour and black and white, the dresses sometimes had to be done in different shades so that our eye would not perceive a difference. Every piece in the film was true to Jackie herself “The elegance she showed in every situation, even while relaxing on holiday, proves this: she was never captured by surprise not looking perfect.”

Mary Zophres, for La La Land: Lots of people wondered how this particular nomination was snagged. Hadn’t Zophres just gone to the mall and bought some brightly coloured costume_split_4dresses, after all? It would be an unlikely win for sure – in the past 20 years, 17 have been period films, 2 were fantasy-based, and last year was post-apocalyptic Mad Max. It might be argued that Chazelle’s La La Land doesn’t exactly feel strictly contemporary. With so many references and throw-backs to old Hollywood musicals, La La Land exists in a stylistic world of its own. Mia and Seb wore classic, timeless looks, and Zophres embraced a fusion of styles. “In my mind, there’s a bit of an arc to Mia. It starts off grounded in reality and by the time you get to the epilogue, she’s wearing that fantasy la_la_land_-_sketch_2_-_embedwhite dress when they’re dancing in Paris. I put a lot of fabric and I wanted it to feel like air.” Zophres looked to old Hollywood for inspiration and was deeply rewarded. “The two models for Mia were Ingrid Bergman (a poster adorns her bedroom wall) and Judy Garland. I found a pink halter dress for one of the montages that’s similar to the one Ingrid Bergman wore for her Hollywood screen test. For the Planetarium peak, Damien and I both landed on green because we both loved the image of Judy Garland in ‘A Star is Born,’ where she wears almost like a jade green dress.”


Which of these ladies has your vote?




17 thoughts on “Oscar Spotlight: Costume Design

  1. Pingback: My little simple thought

  2. Lloyd Marken

    That’s a tough call and I’m afraid I have not seen all the nominees. While I agree with your feelings that costumes might have been too extravagant for that time even if undercover at a glamourous enemy party I kind of think I’m slipping towards Allied. What I like about your post though is how it celebrates the work and shows how much is involved for all nominees. It gives me a new appreciation for all of them.


    1. Jay Post author

      Yes, I find it fascinating how closely they’ll work with other departments to create an overall aesthetic, how much thought goes into colour and flow of fabric. How much research goes into time periods.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. sportsattitudes

    Saw Fantastic Beasts and La La Land, not the others. I was happy to see Atwood get recognized and thought the costumes were great. I am one of those who are puzzled by Zophres’ nomination. Guess it was simply the overall enthusiasm for the film that drove that result. I totally agree the movie manages to set itself in its own “universe” but I don’t know that translates to an Oscar…or even a nomination.


    1. Jay Post author

      Yeah, La La Land is more understated so it’s harder to see. But there’s a lot of thought behind looking simple. Despite the fact that it’s a musical, there are no flamboyant costumes. Occasioanlly Zophres allows primary colour to be bold, but it also speaks to tone.
      When Seb and Mia are happy together, their outfits match. As the relationship progresses, their clothes become looser and less vibrant.
      They also reflect each other nicely: when Seb is humiliated in an 80s cover band, he wears a red leather jacket. Mia wears a red leather jacket when she auditions for that awful TV show.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. sportsattitudes

        I did not pick up on the fact they both had red on during their “trials.” That lack of flamboyant costuming obviously helped create the timeless feel they were going for. I’ll give them credit for working at looking simple in that regard. You do also have to maintain that continuity of effort throughout the whole movie in order to completely sell it happening in its “own time.” Credit there as well.


  4. John Charet

    Great post 🙂 I love how you talk deeply about these nominated films and their categories which in this case would be costume design. I might do a post about the Oscars this year. Anyway, keep up the great work as always and sorry, I have not visited this blog in a while, I have just been so busy 🙂


    1. Jay Post author

      Well thanks for stopping by today!
      And yes, I like to take a peak behind the scenes, there are so many creative people hard at work making things look natural and “effortless”.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. calensariel

    Gotta go with Madeline Fontaine. Her job had to be hard because there were so many examples of what the clothes ought to look like. (I’m kind of curious as to why they didn’t cover Portman’s face with a black veil in the funeral scene above… Any clue? Vanity?)



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