Every year brings us five nominations for the Best Costume Design Academy Award. In 2019 the field has great candidates from 2018 movies vying for the Oscar, with several multi Oscar winners among the contenders. As is customary, the nominations are made by the Costume Designers branch of the Academy, but all members get to vote on the winner. This can often result in a bit of a popularity contest among the movies, which influences the Costume Design voting. In any event, the historical (period) and fantasy movies almost always prevail over contemporary costume design. This year, all five nominees are ALL either historical or fantasy based. Besides that consideration, this year is one of the strongest of the last few years.
The films and the costume designers are:
- THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS – MARY ZOPHRES DESIGNER. Mary Zophres has been nominated twice previously for a Best Costume Design Oscar; for La La Land and True Grit. She grew up in Florida, where her parents ran a clothing store. She graduated from Vassar College with degrees in both art history and studio art. Her first job in the industry was as a Production Assistant in the costume department. Ms. Zophres worked on Oliver Stone’s Born on the 4th of July. One of her tasks as a PA was sorting thrift store clothes into the decades they were made: 1950s; 60s; 70s, etc. She had no problems with this task and quickly worked her way up to being a designer. Her mother had regularly taken her to the movies, and always told her, “You can do anything you want to do.”
Mary Zophres has worked with the Coen Brothers on 14 previous films, as well as The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. She has designed such iconic costumes as the puffy jackets of Fargo(1996), the Dude’s sweater and bathrobe in The Big Lebowski (1997), and the traditional but still iconic prison outfits of O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), among others. Christopher Nolan, once told her, “You’ve done a lot of movies and a lot of times your costumes are very iconic. Do you do that on purpose?” “No, no”, she replied, ”I’m designing something that’s true for the character.” The setting for The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a Western, only it’s six different stories. Ms. Zophres explained for an interview in Filmmaker Magazine, “The Coens were taking the approach of having six separate but equal stories. I knew early on that we were not necessarily going to change cinematic styles, but the stories that they’re telling are very separate, so it was a challenge. Usually you design your film doing your leads first, then you pull stuff for the background, but this was like designing for six different leads and six different backgrounds.” She is very methodical in her designing method, starting with research in books and using illustrations and paintings of historical characters and backgrounds, often using the resources of the Western Costume Co.
“The period for this film has a very specific fabric pattern and silhouette,” Ms. Zophres stated. “I start with research and then kind of realize through the script who the characters are and then dress the characters according to what is written on the page,” Besides the stylish Western outfit of Tim Blake Nelson as Buster Scruggs, Liam Neeson as the Impresario wears a full “Bear-hide” coat. Ethan Coen had told Ms. Zophres that they were thinking of [Robert Altman’s] ‘McCabe & Mrs. Miller‘ floppy bear coat,” explained Ms. Zophres. As was the case with fabricating the bear coat for The Revenant, she couldn’t source enough of the material to fit Liam Neeson. So Ms. Zophres improvised and aged, custom-dyed and stitched many small pieces together to make one coat. The material used was actually shearling IKEA bath rugs – cut and resewn.
2) THE BLACK PANTHER – RUTH CARTER DESIGNER. Ruth E. Carter has been nominated twice before for Best Costume Design Oscar: for Malcom X, and for Amistad. Ms. Carter was born in Springfield Massachusetts. She attended Hampton University intent on becoming a teacher, with a special education major. But she changed her major to theater arts, where her artistic and performing arts side took over. When an audition led instead to being asked to do the costumes, she took another path altogether. In preparation she studied at the library and went to the local Joann’s for fabrics. By her senior year in college she was the costume designer on campus. Ms. Carter then interned at a local theater company, and subsequently worked for the Santa Fe Opera. She then moved to L.A. at the suggestion of a relative, working at the Los Angeles Theater Company. It was there that she met a young Spike Lee, who tried to get her to transition to working in movies. She stayed in theater – until later when Spike Lee called on her to design for his movie School Daze in 1988. She worked on his next twelve movies.
Director Ryan Coogler picked Ms. Carter to design Black Panther, based on the Marvel Comics character. Coogler wanted the costumes to be true to Africa as possible, but also reflecting the technological advancement of Wakanda. In the story Prince T’Challa takes on the Black Panther suit after his father the King of Wakanda, is assassinated along with many of his tribe. Wakanda is a technologically advanced African tribal homeland. After the death of his father, Prince T’Challa returns to take up the throne. He must also protect the hidden wealth and advanced technology of Wakanda from its enemies, who are intent on stealing it.
The Dora Milaje (“The Adored Ones”) are key to Wakanda’s history and culture. The Dora are the representatives of various tribes and must protect the T’Challa. They are selected from all over Wakanda. Ruth Carter did deep research into the tribes of Africa and their warrior culture and dress. “I looked at all kinds of armor, from indigenous African tribal armor to Japanese armor,” Ms. Carter says. “One of the most important things for me was to make sure their armor pieces look handcrafted, something from African tribes. Handcrafted elements looks a lot stronger and more personal,” she said. This went further than just the research, “…we had gone to South Africa and had these leather elements done by their traditional craftspeople,” she says. “They made hand tooled leather with beads and amber, and I took these leather straps to the craftsperson who was making the strapping on the Dora and said, ‘The leather on the Dora needs to look like this.’”
The Tabard is a very visible and key element of the Dora’s costumes. It runs from their waist down between their legs and is an element of protection as well as decoration. Ms. Carter placed much importance on the piece, “I thought if they’re going to wear something down the front of their costume, it should signify something significant,” she said. “The bead work across Africa, including within the Maasai tribe and their colors, with the Ethiopian Suri tribes, they all have this beautiful beadwork, so I thought we should bead the front of the Dora’s tabards, in the African tradition, and we’ll put some little areas of protection for each character.”
Angela Bassett, who plays Queen Ramonda, called Ruth Carter a “costume ninja.” Reflecting on her success, Ms. Carter wonders why there is still so few costume designers of color. “Look at me,” she says. “I’m a costume designer, and you can be that too.”
3) THE FAVOURITE – SANDY POWELL DESIGNER. Sandy Powell has won three Best Costume Design Oscars: for for Shakespeare in Love, Young Victoria, and The Aviator. For the Yorgos Lanthimos directed The Favourite, the setting is early 1700s England during the reign of Queen Anne. In the story the Queen is sickly, depressed from the loss of 17 children in childhood or in stillbirth, and prone to fits of madness. Queen Anne’s friend and adviser (and lover) is Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, played by Rachel Weisz. Lady Sarah’s cousin Abigail Hill joins the household as Lady-in-Waiting,, She is played by Emma Stone. Abigail has fallen on hard times, but is soon rivaling Lady Churchill for Queen Anne’s attention (and affections).
Designer Sandy Powell chose a monochromatic palette for the costumes. This allowed for a “graphic, clear and clean” imagery. As is typical for almost all costume design and production, the budget is inadequate and the time allowed for fabrication is too short. As Ms. Powell stated about the movie, “… we had very, very limited funds and time. So there wouldn’t have been time to have done court costumes as they would have been.” Yet she still managed to produce 150 costumes in the 5 weeks she had before filming began.
The photo above shows Queen Anne in her court dress trimmed in ermine. Due to her gout, she had problems walking and was largely confined to her rooms. As a result, her normal dress had devolved to a comfortable bed robe. As Ms. Powell described how she designed it for an interview in Vulture.com “I just wanted it to be one of those things, like your favorite cardigan or your favorite robe. It’s reversible. It’s velvet on one side, and on the inside I actually made it from a bed cover that I found. In England they’re called candlewick, but I think it might be called chenille here, those wavy lines and little tufts of cotton — which I bought on eBay. So the queen’s wearing an eBay bed cover.”
4) MARY POPPINS RETURNS – SANDY POWELL DESIGNER. Sandy Powell received a second Best Costume nomination this year for the Rob Marshall directed Disney sequel to Mary Poppins. In this story the Banks children are grown up and Ben Wishaw plays the widowed Michael Banks with three children, His sister Jane, played by Emily Mortimer, tries to help him out as he is in debt and about to lose their family home. Mary Poppins, Played by Emily Blunt, magical and striking as ever, returns to put order in the household. The bank where Michael works seems to be the source of most of his problems. But Mary Poppins and Lin-Manuel Miranda playing Jack the Lamplighter, help the family through their struggles.
Mary Poppins was the first movie Sandy Powell ever saw. Its imagery and songs still leave an impression on her. But she had to design a new Mary Poppins outfit – the story was now taking place in 1934, not in 1910 as in the original. As she stated for an in article in Fashionista, “I designed a 1930s version of the belle-tiered, elegant longline coat, with the addition of a double-cape at shoulders,” Ms. Powell added. “Just to make it more modern and fashionable for the 1930s and also to create a bit of movement.” Her coat was a striking cobalt blue, making a great contrast for Mary Poppins’ red feather-topped hat. She also designed a wild Bohemian outfit for the porcelain restorer, Topsy, played Meryl Streep. The Gypsy-style costume is made distinctive by its accessories of pencils and paint-brushes. Meryl Streep was also taken by Sandy Powell’s distinctive orange-colored hair, and asked to have her own hair be colored to match. Sandy Powell designed and produced 448 costumes for the movie.
5) MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS – ALEXANDRA BYRNE This is a 1569 true life version of the game of thrones. The Catholic Mary Stuart, just widowed, returns to Scotland from France to assume the crown as Queen of Scotland. Her childless cousin Queen Elizabeth of England is a Protestant. The two religious factions vie for power and entangle the cousins in what will become a struggle for the crown of England and ultimately – a death struggle. Josie Rourke directed with Margot Robbie as Queen Elizabeth and Saoirse Ronan as Queen Mary.
Alexandra Byrne has previously won a Best Costume Oscar for Elizabeth: the Golden Age starring Cate Blanchett. She was raised in Stratford -upon-Avon in England’s Shakespeare country. In spite of her familiarity with historical costume, she wanted to simplify and give a contemporary touch to the costumes of Mary Queen of Scots. For this she decided to use the ubiquitous denim fabric. This along with other fabrics and tailoring made the men’s costumes look much more flattering to the contemporary taste.
Mary was dressed more simply and even with a masculine flair in certain scenes. Costume design is there to delineate character, and in this movie in particular, to show the contrast between Mary and Elizabeth.
We know from the many movies about Elizabeth and from her portraits the basic look: red hair (a wig), white face surrounded by a big ruff; jewel-encrusted gown; and stiff puffy sleeves. But as Ms. Byrne said in an interview for Hollywood Reporter, ” I knew from doing Elizabeth in the Golden Age that to do a figure-eight ruff, it takes at least eight inches of lace. Well, 11 or 12 years ago you could get the quantity of old lace, but now you’re so limited. I knew we had to find a new way of doing a ruff, so there was a lot of experimentation, using nylon and other materials.” Alas that is true for most all vintage and high quality fabrics. The limitation is not just quantity available but the budget allocated for costuming to afford them. For Elizabeth in particular, she had to wow her courtiers and anyone that came in her presence. “Elizabeth’s dressing was more strategic. She was so in control of the power of her appearance, and used her appearance to replace the iconography of the Virgin Mary in Protestant England. I wanted to give her specific outfits for specific occasions,” Ms. Byrne stated.
In the movie the two queens meet, which never actually happened historically. Ms. Byrne wanted to simplify the costumes in the scene to highlight the faces of the actresses. This technique has been used by designers since the 1930s, and is very effective for key dramatic scenes in movies.
The five nominees are all worthy nominees for Best Achievement in Costume Design. My opinion is the creativity and flair shown in Black Panther make it especially worthy this year.