Towards a Better Best Costume Oscar

black swan cover imageHere come the old, irrelevant Oscars again with all their snubs, lauds, and scandalsMy favorite performance of the year (go Ralph!) wasn’t nominated but pretty much no one’s was.  Like any good critic I get less enthused about the little gold guy every year, but this year I’m particularly down.  Not even about the acting categories – but for that lesser known darling: Best Costume.

Think about how important costumes are to movies.  I talk a lot about The Hobbit here – can you imagine how awful it would be if Bilbo didn’t look like Bilbo?  Take another example: The Hangover.  Not a film from this year, but I’m convinced it made Bradley Cooper.  Sexiest Man Alive?  Of course.  Because everybody saw him in That Shirt.  Costumes have the power not only to enhance our take on a character (from trembly hobbit to preening, narcissistic guy-pal) but, in some cases, to shape pop culture itself through the creation of memorable icons.


Bradley and Audrey have something in common.


Of course, like most things Oscar, the Best Costume Category is seldom perfect.  Marie Antoinette, The Duchess, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Lord of the Rings – these are some of my favorite winners, but parse that list and you’ll realize that said winners (ditto the noms) can usually be slotted into one of two categories.  Category One: historical recreations! Category Two: total fantasy garb!  Oscar is like Honey Badger: he doesn’t give a shit about your tailored suits (not unless they’re on the Titanic) and he hates your jeans.  In fact, the current criticism of the Academy as old-fashioned codgers can be demonstrably proven by its costume nominees.  Get on Wikipedia, browse Best Costume for the last three decades.  Seldom has a winner represented the post-Industrial age.

(A few, hardly comprehensive, exceptions: Titanic.  Barely.  The English Patient – which won for its faithful WWII recreations. Priscilla Queen of the Desert is set in the modern era, but its gorgeous drag-queen frocks are fantasy – not street-wear.)

This year has a bit of an anarchist stirring about it with two whole post-modern noms – but The Grand Budapest Hotel is still historical (covering the 1940s-70s), as is the 60s-era Inherent Vice.  The other noms – Malificent, Mr. Turner, and Into the Woods – are either fantasy or “corset” movies.  What I’ve yet to see the Academy recognize are nominees for films that are set right now.  There are some extraordinary, unsung costume designers out there whose talents have supported many of our most memorable films.

 The Social Network – costume design by Jacqueline West


They may look “ordinary” but a lot of thought went into Jesse and Justin’s costumes.

If you’re any sort of costume buff you know the story about Ngila Dickson’s costumes for The Lord of the Rings.  A typical example of the trilogy’s exacting detail were the inner engraving on King Theoden (played by Bernard Hill)’s armor.  These elaborate details were never seen on screen but the actor knew that they were there.  In the DVD extras Hill praises the costumers for adding extra authenticity to his performance.

Though the characters are as far from elves as you can get, a similar aesthetic is at work in The Social Network, where the costumes of director David Fincher’s “boy kings” are given the same sort of royal treatment.  Designer Jacqueline West thought long and hard about the fashion habits of Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) and Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake) and paid close attention to the idiosyncrasies that made these young men modern icons.  Similar to what Dickson did in Rings, West made sure Parker’s suits were the real deal.  The Armani worn by Timberlake’s Parker includes the authentic “Georgio Armani for Sean Parker” tag.  For Zuckerberg, West researched media photos of the billionaire to get his slouchy hoody and flip-flop look just right.

The results are absolutely uncanny – and proof that you don’t have to costume two billion elves in order to portray culture or psychological depth.


Remind you of anyone?

(This research is based on an interview with West that I saw when The Social Network had it’s own film site.  The site had since been altered or taken down, but West’s methods are more or less recounted in this article from the Daily Beast.)

Winter’s Bone – costume design by Rebecca Hofherr (NPR did a great feature on her and director Debra Granik’s methods here.)

About those two billion elves: we tend to make costumers work for their Oscar.  If their hands haven’t fallen off from embroidery or hand-bending links of chainmail– well screw it! But innovation doesn’t have to mean “sweatshop” as Rebecca Hofherr proves in her costume concept for Winter’s Bone.  Instead of hitting thrift stores or aging down costumes to produce the lived in look of this Appalachian thriller, Hofherr raided the closets of actual people, and helped give the film its “so real it’s scary vibe.”

jen again

Jennifer Lawrence’s costume looks real because it is.

Black Swan – costume design by Amy Westcott (with participation from Kate and Laura Mulleavy of Rodarte)

Horror films (forgive the coming pun) seem to be a place where clever designers can soar.  Horror is the most psychological of genres and the monsters in it are expressions of our own personal or cultural demons.  Horror is also extremely suggestive – often implying who we are on the surface – our “put-togetherness” – may disguise nasty truths. It makes sense then, that in a genre defined by tropes like lycanthropy and body horror, that the costumes of tormented characters would suggest other selves. Certainly this is what Amy Wescott does in her criminally unrecognized designs for Black Swan.


Natalie Portman in her darker incarnation.

Ah, you say.  A bunch of feathery tutus! Doesn’t that fall into fantasy land?  Perhaps – but the (admittedly gorgeous) tutus are the least interesting part of a wardrobe that, thanks to Westcott’s careful choices, are rife with psychological meaning.

The first thing that strikes you about Black Swan is the color pallet: a chiaroscuro of soft pinks, bright whites, and midnight blacks. (There is also, in this story of a woman caught in terrifying metamorphosis, a lot of literal gray areas both in the clothing and set design.)  Not only are these colors common to the ballet-troupe setting of the film but, as Natalie Portman’s fragile ballerina begins to unravel, they provide markers towards the character’s mental state.  The virginal Nina is first clad in the softer color pallet to suggest her innocence and vulnerability.  As the pressure of portraying both the White and Black Swan (each representing the extremes of her personality) mounts she is seen, more and more, in gray and, ultimately black.


Natalie Portman’s tormented Nina spends the whole movie wanting to be “perfect.” This soft pink coat and downy scarf sure are.

nina pink coat

Nina’s pink coat also pays homage to ballet colors.

natalie - terrifying

Of course, perfection has its drawbacks. As Nina begins to crack under stress her gray shrug and legwarmers begin to eclipse the virginal white and pink of her wardrobe.

Even more interestingly, she spends more time with this person – whose costumes are a masterpiece of ambiguity.


The black-and-white costumes of Mila Kunis’s Lily are just ambiguous enough that we’re never sure what she’s about.

Is Mila Kunis’s Lily really trying to undermine Nina’s life?  Or is this a fiction of Nina’s imagination? (Is Lily herself a hallucination or a manifestation of Nina’s darker side?)  Westcott dresses Lily in sex-drugs-and-rock-and-roll black, but (like the character herself) with enough glints of white to keep us guessing.  The costumes mimic director Darren Aronofsky’s choice never to let the audience off the hook.  We keep waiting for some definitive visual cue to help us decide what’s up with Lily – but even past the final frame, this urge is never gratified and the excruciating tension of the film remains.


Nina, in an ambiguous gray, may be falling under Lily’s influence.

mila tutu

Lily may or may not be trying to “replace” Nina. Here she rehearses for the part of the “White Swan.”

drop dead

And, of course, the ballet costumes are drop dead gorgeous. Literally.

The Babadook – costume design by Heather Wallace

Under the Skin – costume design by Steven Noble

This year, two other horror films demonstrate the magic that happens when a costume designer weds character and clothing.  Neither The Babadook or Under the Skin are costume movies, but their success relies, in great measure, to the shrewd choices of their designers.

babadook ad

The design of the Babadook is an integral part of the film and the focus of its ad campaign.

In The Babadook, Amelia (the excellent Essie Davis), a single mother with a troubled child, is menaced by a terrifying figure in a cape and top hat who seems to have “escaped” from a mysterious picture book.  The creepy silhouette of the creature (as in Black Swan we are never 100% sure if it is real) begins to seep into each frame of the film; Amelia’s son (an unnerving Noah Wiseman) wears a play-version of the Babadook’s apparel and, in a heartbreaking scene, Amelia’s attempt to seek outside help is repulsed when she sees the Babadook’s hat and coat hung in the background of a police station.


Noah Wiseman’s costume suggests the Babadook’s signature look.

Since the very sight of the costume is scarier than the entirety of most horror films, one can be sure that it was thoughtfully designed. This proves, again, that hundreds of man hours are not necessarily the ingredient that defines powerful costumes.  (Careful work also seems to have gone into the more “mundane” costumes. Amelia’s peach-colored nurse’s uniform (she works in an elder-care facility) sports some suspicious slashes on its bodice – suggestive of claws ripping outward through human skin. This choice bears greater significance later on when Amelia begins to tilt into profound psychosis.)


Look close and you can see Amelia starting to fall apart. Her uniform has “slitted” sections suggestive of torn skin.

Lastly, the indie horror film Under the Skin has more external forces to suggest.  This tale about a (literally) man-eating alien benefits as much from its costume choices as from Scarlett Johansson’s subtle and affecting performance. Designer Steven Noble suggests worlds (not our own!) by giving Johansson’s predator a memorable fur coat.  Fur, with all its bestial and sexual connotations, is a perfect choice for a character who prowls seductively beyond the bounds of our understanding.


A fur clad Johansson hunts for prey.

Given that the film is set in Scotland, fur is also a sensible, utilitarian choice, but as Johansson reels in men and strides through icy waves, the coat ruffles sensuously and the truth is out.  This is exactly what an alien would buy at the mall if she weren’t up to date on earthly fashion trends.  The bulky outline of it sets her character apart and makes her ever-so-slightly cumbersome.   A good metaphor for a character isolated from humanity, who comes to realize she’s out of her depth.  The fur trimmed boots she wears to hike impossible muddy paths, later on, also seem the perfect choice for someone both different and increasingly vulnerable.


Scarlett’s boot’s aren’t exactly made for walking. On purpose.

Finally, there’s a (highly appropriate) element of layering to Noble’s costumes – both with the ensemble Johanson wears beneath her fur (or under her skin, as it were), as well as with the mysterious, insect-like men (her alien handlers, once suspects) who shadow her throughout the film (you can view one of them at 0:19 on this YouTube video).  The helmets and tight, zippered jumpsuits of these motorcycling henchmen remind one of the carapaces of beetles or ants.  You are constantly thinking that they could peel off the suits – but are trepedatious about what you might see.

Similarly, when the Johansson character famously disrobes, leaving a tantalizing trail of feminine garments like breadcrumbs for her doomed suitors – there’s an element of musculature to her blood-red shirt and tight jeans that is purposely suggestive of anatomy. Given the film’s final, mind blowing moments (please be sure you are sitting down for the final reel), I don’t think I’m over-reading Noble’s choices.  He’s an ace – and matched well to the film’s slow burn of subtle horror.

red shirt

The red shirt.

The possibilities of good costume design are endless and the methods towards achieving a specific vision diverse.  Yet, even as hope glimmers for wider variety of nominees (at least we’re up to the 1960’s in acceptable eras of representation!) the narrow mindedness of the Academy, particularly as it relates to costume design for films set in the present-day, remains obnoxious.  It is, in fact, so bad that even the 2010 winner, Sandy Powell (whose period costumes not only won that year – for The Young Victoria – but for two other years besides – finally had enough.

“I’d like to dedicate this one to the costume designers that don’t do films about dead monarchs or glittery musicals, [but to the] designers who do the contemporary and low budget films.”  They don’t get recognized enough, she said.  “But they should do [and] they work as hard.”

About hsmartin

I'm a writer in Northern California.
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1 Response to Towards a Better Best Costume Oscar

  1. Pingback: Costumes: Part II | No Common Place

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