“The actors are in the foreground, so the costumes are in the foreground,” comments costume designer, Jeffrey Kurland, Oscar-nominated for Bullets Over Broadway. Yet whereas a period or fantasy costume might pop off the screen due to the nature of the clothing and the spectacle of the films, the average viewer may not even notice contemporary costumes because they are so integrated into the experience of a film as a whole. If that is the case, how does one not only vote for costume design, but first recognize costume design that is award winning?
“I hope that when people look at costume design, that they are looking at the aspect that is essential to all costume design – the storytelling part,” says Kurland. “I hope they can see that the costume designer is fleshing out the character in a way that helps story and gives the film a visual life. That is pretty much what you do whether it is period or contemporary or whatever. In truth, good costume design can be in any genre.”
“It’s tricky. I think most people are conflicted and not sure how to judge costume design,” shares Arianne Phillips, Oscar-nominated costume designer for Walk the Line. “I do think that the kind of work, discipline, stamina and character development that costume designers use in our work, whether it is period or contemporary, is the same. We still research what we do. We still have to develop costumes that are ultimately building characters that inform the story. Traditionally, if you look at the costumes that win and get nominated, they’re very big. There is a lot of pageantry involved in period pieces, however I think the same intelligence and the same process is used in contemporary costumes as well.”
Remembering the striking fashions in All About Eve or Sunset Boulevard, brings the point home that the costume designs for the films of the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s were contemporary designs in their day, yet when we look back through the prism of time, they stand out as classics. Nevertheless, what makes judging a contemporary film even more difficult today is that fact that many viewers mistakenly believe that the costume designer just went shopping. “People jump to that conclusion which is really unfair,” responds Kurland. “I don’t go shopping. I don’t like to shop.” For this year’s Inception, Kurland designed and constructed every suit, every shirt and every tie. “It suited the film and it was the best way to go,” he elaborates. “And of course, I enjoy that the most.”
“People are attracted to elaborate period costumes and are not looking at contemporary clothes,” reveals Mary Rose, president of the Costume Designers Guild. “To do a contemporary film well is harder than a period film. For period designs you have references already. The only trend I can see is that our members are attracted to elaborate period clothes. They understand contemporary design, but don’t vote for those designs.”
Although the Academy currently only awards one Oscar for Costume Design – in the past costume design Oscars were garnered in two categories black-and-white films, and color films – to ensure that all genres of award-winning costume design are honored, the Costume Designers Guild actually has separate peer-selected trophies for contemporary, fantasy and period costume designs.
“I think even costume designers get clouded and seduced by the seeming academia of period costumes,” agrees Phillips. “For me personally, I sometimes judge costumes based on how subtle and how intelligent the design is. I don’t always go for a broad hand. It is often the subtlety in terms of how that costume designer helps inform that character.”
That support of the actor in fleshing out character, and ultimately, story is perhaps the biggest contribution that the costume designer brings to a film and a major element to consider in assessing award-winning design. “I think great costumes help the actor on a physical, tactile level in accessing character. They fill the character’s shoes, whether they are a pair of cowboy boots from 1980, or a pair of 18th century court shoes. As an audience member, I can’t judge how that costume feels, but I can certainly judge or be moved by how that actor is able to harness the role. Of course, on the visual side for the audience watching the film, the costumes help set tone, character, feeling and all these wonderful things. It is a magical combination.”
Besides the fact that comparing different costume designs of different genres can be a bit like comparing apples to pears, the logistics of narrowing down the field of contenders has its own problems. Rose points out that “this year we didn’t really start seeing good films until November.” The late-breaking season adds pressure to the selection process as Guild and Academy members alike are deluged with films to review. The lack of time can cause some of the less talked about films to be overlooked, despite the quality of the work. “Choosing the nominees,” says Rose, “can be difficult if you have not seen 90% of the work yet. There are only so many movies that you can see in two days! I think this is the craziest year I have ever seen.”
The awards season is always a marathon in terms of all the attention and pressure that is put on films. The PR rollercoaster instigated by the difference that an Oscar nomination, and particularly a win, can make in the box office for a film is in Phillips words “brutal and kind of shocking. It is a bit of a tornado of excitement that can leave one mystified when it is all over. It is like an out-of-body experience.” And when the time to fill out the ballot comes around, she admits, “It can be quite cloudy. Why and how one votes for the best costumes is completely individual.”
Ultimately what makes award-winning costume design comes down to what makes a great movie a great movie. It is not just the acting or the direction or the costume design, for that matter. “A great movie is the sum of all its parts,” concludes Kurland. “If the sum of all its parts equals a great movie than everything in it must be great.”