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A Year of Dazzling Costume Design


It has been a dazzling, ambitious year for costume design. This year’s crop of films have brought to realization the scope of worlds through costume as unique and enthralling as they are varied and distinctive. The standouts in costuming include Albert Nobbs (Roadside), designed by Pierre-Yves Gayraud; War Horse (Disney), designed by Joanna Johnston; Pirates of the Caribbean On Stranger Tides (Disney), designed by Penny Rose; J. Edgar (Warner Bros.), designed by Deborah Hopper; Hugo (Paramount), designed by Sandy Powell, and  W.E. (Weinstein), designed by Arianne Phillips. The contenders for this year’s costume design have all transported audiences to a different time and place with their expressive costumes. But that’s where the similarities end.

In Albert Nobbs, Pierre-Yves Gayraud has transformed actress Glenn Close, starring as the titular character, into a man. Director Rodrigo Garcia and Close, who has been working on getting the film made since she first took on the role of Albert Nobbs in an 1982 off-Broadway stage production adapted from George Moore’s short story, trusted Pierre-Yves Gayraud to help visually realize a character whose identity is derived in many ways from the costume he wears. Albert Nobbs, is after all, a woman who is disguising herself as a man in order to find employment and survive in the harsh man’s world of 19th century Ireland. “A very important point was to imagine the way the character could find himself by making his silhouette really masculine,” said Gayraud. The costume designer has been splashing films with his costume design in France since the ’90s, where he received a nomination in 1993 for the Cesar Award for Indochine (1992). Stateside, he has worked on The Bourne Identity (2002) and the upcoming Cloud Atlas.

The costume design in War Horse takes audiences through the galloping history of the First World War. Costume designer Joanna Johnston, who has been a part of director Steven Spielberg’s longtime close-knit artistic crew since Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade (1989), thoroughly researched World War I in order to recreate the time in all its authenticity. Johnston has already worked with Spielberg on a World War II film, Saving Private Ryan (1998). The film is an epic spectacle with the wardrobe to match. During her extensive study of WWI documentation, Johnston discovered that at this period in history, the officers did not wear standard issue uniforms. Officers had uniforms made to their own personal preferences by tailors. “The reality was that there are no uniforms from the First World War that you can use in the film. We had to manufacture quite a lot in quite a small space of time. I think we did about 800 uniforms in about 7 weeks,” Johnston said.

Joanna Johnston
It’s the fourth costume designing adventure for Penny Rose on Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. “When you’ve already done three,” says Rose, “There’s a kind of familiarity and a great sense of fun about doing a fourth. But we’ve got some new ingredients.” Rose searched the world over to find costumes for the key characters and the hundreds of extras in the continuing saga of the Pirates of the Caribbean, directed by Jerry Bruckheimer. Under Rose’s design, 700 costumes were made for all the extras in Rome. The boots and hats were also made in Italy. Rose stayed true to the pirates of erstwhile times. For her, the details are an important part of the costume design. “There are no modern gimmicks within [the costumes]. You’ll find no zippers or Velcros on these costumes,” says Rose.

J. Edgar follows the story of real historical figures and therefore costume designer Deborah Hopper was committed to making the characters seem as real as possible. “[My team and I] did research about Hoover, looked at stills for what he looked like and the different decades. We did research on everyone because everyone in the movie were historical figures,” Hopper explained. The film spans several decades as it follows the eventful public and private life of the man who was the first director of the FBI. The clothing helps tell the story that progresses nonlinearly through time by identifying the different decades of Hoover’s life. It was a thoughtful effort to follow the lifetimes of several characters. Hoover alone had about 80 costumes changes. The accomplishment is obvious, as J. Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio), Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer), Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts) are all portrayed with a seamless realism in the Clint Eastwood directed film.

Sandy Powell on the set of Hugo. (Photo by Jaap-Buitendjik).
Sandy Powell worked on creating a dream for director Martin Scorsese’s Hugo. Having already been nominated for seven Academy Awards for her costume design, with three wins for Shakespeare in Love (1998), The Aviator and The Young Victoria (2010), Powell was the perfect fit for Scorsese’s story of wonder. In fact, she has already worked on five films with Scorsese, including The Aviator and Gangs of New York, for which she received a nomination in 2003. In Hugo, Powell helped to create an enchanted and memorable Paris in the early 1930s. She approached Hugo in a completely new way from anything else she has worked on. “Everything is seen as if through the eyes of a child, therefore I wanted to simplify the looks to just one, maybe two outfits for each character. I approached the actual costumes as if they were illustrations from a children’s picture book, keeping the looks simple, graphic and colorful,” Powell says. The result is dreamy and lush, the consistent look for each character defining their personalities and helping to distinguish them among the crowds in the busy railway station, the location where most of the story unfolds.

Arianne Phillips
Madonna’s creative telling of the greatest romance of the 20th century in W.E. features some of the most lavish and celebrated clothing of the past century. Costume designer Arianne Philips, who has been working with Madonna for 14 years on concert tours, album covers, films and a Broadway play, embraced the call to create the lovely spectacle. Dressing celebrated historical couples isn’t a new challenge for Philips, who received an Oscar nomination in 2006 for her costume design in Walk the Line. The extravagant world of haute couture is on display in the romantic drama about the intersecting lives of Wally Winthrop (Abbie Cornish), a modern day New Yorker and the affair between Wallis Simpson (Andrea Riseborough) and King Edward VIII (James D’Arcy). Christian Dior recreated outfits the Duchess wore in real life. The jewels were no less lavish: Cartier recreated 10 pieces that they owned and Van Cleef and Arpels created one. The details of the dazzling costumes and jewels are fetishized in the way the film is photographed and edited, transporting the viewer into a time when the champagne always flowed, the men were always beautifully mannered and the night never ended.

With the majestic offerings of so many well-designed costumes, it will be interesting to see who takes the highest honors this awards season.

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