The Academy Awards nominees for Costume Design for the movies of 2015 make for a very competitive if diverse field. Mountain men and polecats, princess and trans woman, lesbians and Vuvalini. For costume designer Sandy Powell –  she will even be competing against herself, as she has two nominated contenders: Carol and Cinderella. The five nominees are:

1)  Carol                                                                                                                                    2) Cinderella                                                                                                                        3) The Danish Girl                                                                                                            4) Mad Max: Fury Road                                                                                                5) The Revenant

CAROL  was designed by Sandy Powell. It stars Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara in a 1950s era lesbian relationship between a well-off housewife and a young department store sales clerk. The director Todd Haynes and Sandy Powell wanted to stay true to the 1952 New York setting of the Patricia Highsmith novel. So they looked at the photos of Vivian Maier, Ruth Orkin, and Saul Leiter. Sandy remarked that 1952 fashion was much like late 1940s fashion.

Sandy also went through old Vogue magazines from 1952. Most all of the photography was in black and white, but the designer injected some color into the otherwise monotone yet elegant fashion of the time.

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Although the large mink coat looks vintage, it was made custom from recycled fur for the shape and color that Sandy Powell desired.

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Sandy Powell has been nominated eleven times for a best costume design Oscar, for which she won three awards: Shakespeare in Love (1998); The Aviator (2004); and for The Young Victoria (2009).


CINDERELLA was also designed by Sandy Powell. The classic fairy tale was brought to the screen by Disney as a live action movie starring Lily James as Cinderella, Cate Blanchett as the evil step-mother Lady Tremaine,  Helena Bonham Carter as the Fairy-Godmother and Richard Madden as the Prince. The gowns for the movie reportedly used some 1.7 million Swarovsky crystals.  Costume designer Sandy Powell was inspired by the 19th century for the look and silhouette of the costumes. “It felt most like a fairy tale world.” she said.

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For Cate Blanchett’s costumes as the evil-stepmother/Lady Tremaine, Sandy Powell used cool colors, colors like green or jewel colors but  that were not “friendly,”

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Cate Blanchett’s wardrobe was based on the more powerful 1940s silhouette and the idea of Marlene Dietrich or Joan Crawford doing a 19th-century movie, according to Powell, but getting it all a bit wrong.

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For the Fairy Godmother costume, led lights were sprinkled across the dress and especially at the bodice. It was Helena Bonham Carter’s idea to have wings. Doesn’t every fairy godmother have wings?

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Cinderella’s ball gown is made of several layers of yumissima fabric, an extremely light but expensive fabric, each a different color to produce blue. There are blues-greens, lilacs, and lavenders. There are over 200 yards of fabric in all. Underneath is a crinoline made of steel.It is dotted with about 10,000 tiny Swarovski crystals   The bodice is made of crepeline over a corset. The gown is almost as wide as the huge stairs she dramatically descends to the ball.

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The glass slipper was designed based on an actual 1890 shoe, and fabricated by Swarovsky from crystal. It was made smaller than actual size for the model Cinderella holds. For the pair she slips on, these were actually of leather but replaced through CGI to appear as crystal.

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It takes a group of seamstresses to make an eleborate gown such as the Cinderella Ball Gown.

THE DANISH GIRL, designed by Paco Delgado  is based on the groundbreaking case of the transgender surgery of Einar Wegener, a married man. His transformation into Lily Elbe is shown with the effects it had on him and his wife  Gerda, a painter. It stars Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander.

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While posing as a model that didn’t show up for the job, Einar awakens a sense of his true womanly self. The couple stayed together and moved from Denmark to Paris where Gerda became a fashion illustrator.

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The silhouette of the 1920s was very flat-chested and narrow-hipped, which basically suited the dressing of star Eddie Redmayne, although he would have preferred more padding to accentuate curves. Designer Paco Delgado stated that all the curves were achieved through the cut of the costumes or through more volume at the chest or pleating. The fabrics were often taken from vintage dresses but had to be re-made for Eddie’s size.  Paco Delgado used French fashion designers Jeanne Lanvin and Coco Chanel for period inspiration. This is Paco Delgado’s second Oscar Best Costume nomination, the previous time was for Les Miserables in 2012.


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A costume for Eddie Redmayne in “The Danish Girl” on exhibit at the Arclight Sherman Oaks. Photo by Jason in Hollywood


THE REVENANT  was designed by Jacqueline West and starred Leonardo di Caprio and Thomas Hardy. Its the story of the  frontiersman Hugo Glass that is left for dead by fellow trappers after being mauled by a bear.  Still alive he vows revenge and seeks those who abandoned him. The movie was filmed in the frigid areas of Canada as directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu.


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“Alejandro wanted everything to look very real,” stated Jacqueline West. “Most of the hides came from first nations traders in Canada and we tried to age them by using animal fats and grease and that turned them rancid.” That was bad for the actors. It was West’s dyer/ager that came up with a home-made solution she called “black wax” that ended up being very successful. Soon the director had her stay on the sets all the time with her “black wax” at the ready.


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Tom Hardy had the heaviest costume in the movie.  His coat consisted of double elk-skin, double-lined with beaver.

Jacqueline West has been nominated three times for a  Best Costume Oscar. Her two previous nominations were for Quills (2000), and for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008).


MAD MAX; FURY ROAD was designed by Jenny Beavan for stars Charlize Theron, Tom Hardy, and a cast of hundreds based on the graphic novel directed by George Miller. Beavan started out with an obvious challenge, the mechanical arm for Theron’s Imperator Furiosa character. Several leather shapes were cut-out and draped for what needed to be a key practical yet visually interesting piece. The harness and body suit was finally devised for her iconic look. Charlize Theron was very happy with her costume for the role. As to Theron’s shaved head, that was her idea, although the black grease on the forehead was a trait of the Imperators.

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Charlize Theron’s Imperator costume. Photo courtesy Jasin in Hollywood

The Wives have always been protected and  lived in a climate-controlled environment, and thus dressed unsuitably for the outside elements. Their costumes are made of white cotton and muslin body wraps and shorts.

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The Warboys and Polecats also had their distinctive costumes, denoting their function and fearsome looks. Max also has shoulder-pads, a throw-back to the original Mad Max movie.

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The Best Costume nominations are made by the Costume Designers Branch of the Academy. The Oscar is determined by vote of the entire Academy membership. Traditionally the memberships selects the big historical movies, or fantasies, and their costumes as favorites.  Sandy Powell seems to be a favorite with two nominations. While Cinderella has a disadvantage of having been released earlier in the year, its lavish period costumes makes it a natural for the Academy voters. They receive a screening copy of the movie anyway to view for voting purposes. So I would predict Cinderella to be the Oscar winner for 2015 for designer Sandy Powell.

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Many of the actual costumes from the nominated films are on exhibit at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising ( FIDM) Museum in Los Angeles, February 9 through April 30.



There are times in history when creative geniuses cause shifts in the arts. It is very rare when such  a person can cause  explosive  aesthetic changes in several artistic media such as set design, ballet, costume, fashion, and ultimately, the styles of Hollywood film sirens.This person was Leon Bakst, born Lev Rosenberg, a Russian painter turned set  and costume designer for Sergei Diaghilev and  his Ballets Russes, where his sensual and  sensational designs shocked the audiences. In working with Diaghilev, who assembled a “dream team” of artistic talent,” these arts themselves were changed.

In the classical world of ballet, allied with symphony orchestras  in entertaining high society audiences, the modernism  and naturalism of Diaghilev’s ballets must have seemed revolutionary. The look was created by Bakst, the artistic director. His costume  designs on canvas and backdrops combine Art Nouveau and Fauve  styles, blended with Orientalism. The finished costumes presented a rush of colors, with incredible pattern and  detail, the whole complementing the scenery and the new dance styles, music and choreography.

In Russia Diaghilev and Bakst had known each other before they were involved in ballet, having been part of the same art circle in college called the Nevsky Pickwickians. But it was in Paris that the Ballets Russes was formed, with Russian dancing luminaries Anna Pavlova, Vaslav Nijinsky, Tamara Karsavina, and Ida Rubinstein, and choreography by Michel Fokine. With classically trained Russian dancers, Diaghilev and Bakst would integrate the arts into the total ballet experience – music, dance, sets and costume – and with male as well as female dancers in prominence. The Ballets Russes began with some Russian tales and music , but with Cleopatre in 1909, Bakst’s second ballet, the full panoply of his artistic talents blossomed in conveying the story. Ida Rubinstein played the role of Cleopatra, and her provocative costumes shocked the audience. They would set the  standard for all future Cleopatras of the silver screen.


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Leon Bakst portrait

A future patroness of Bakst, the American Warder Garrett wrote to her sister in 1915, “I go almost every day to pose for Bakst . . . he is one of the most strange human beings I have ever known.” Years later she would be his art representative in the United States. His vivid imagination was clearly translated onto the the page and the stage, but, under the costumes, he was fully aware that it was the body that animated the design.

The Bakst- designed costumes featured gold, lapis blue, malachite green, pink, orange and violet colors for the ballerinas  and were very revealing through sheer fabric.

Design of costume for Ida Rubinstein 1909 in Cleopatre
Design of costume for Ida Rubinstein 1909 in Cleopatre

Scheherazade was produced by Diaghilev in 1910, with music by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov with set and costume design by Bakst. The setting was ancient Persia, with a story of Harem women, eunuchs and palace slave lovers. The ballerinas were costumed in sheer silk harem pants, the men in embroidered velvet in jeweled colors. Nijinsky appeared in gold body paint, dancing sensually with Ida Rubinstein as the corps de ballet moved in a controlled frenzy, their bold colored costumes  contrasting with the red carpet and green walls.

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Ida Rubinstein with Nijinsky in Scheherazade


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Bakst costume design for Scheherazade

Harem pants became a style sensation for women, especially after fashion designer Paul Poiret added them into his line the following year. They were considered very bold dress as both a form of trouser and  with a foreign origin. The style worn in public was not however the diaphanous ones seen at the Ballets Russes.

The ballet Dieu Bleu (Blue God)  was produced in May 1912, with a libretto by Jean Cocteau and Federico de Madrazo and music by Reynaldo Hahn. The story is set in mythical India, where a couple visiting a shrine stirs local monsters, but supplicates the Blue God, or Krishna, to save them. Nijinsky plays the Blue God, wearing blue makeup. Bakst designed the costume below, thankfully saved and preserved at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra, along with many other costumes and artifacts from the Ballets Russes. Its skirt represents a lotus flower, with gold thread and embroidered with arabesques. The bodice was in pink and blue colors, with gold thread forming rays.

Bakst Dieu Bleu

In 1912 one of the most innovative, but also disruptive ballets was produced by the Ballets Russes: L’apres-Midi d’un Faune (Afternoon of a Faun. based on a poem by Stephane Mallarme, with music by Claude Debussy, and choreographed by Nijinsky himself. This was not done by the usual choreographer Fokine, which he was unaware of. Nijinsky and Diagilev used as a theme the stylized art viewed on ancient Greek vases in the Louvre. Nijinsky’s dancing itself would be stylized and very pofile-based, and most-shockingly, would use an erotic theme of a faun among a group of nymphs, this symbolized by the faun’s fitishistic attachment to a nymph’s veil, which he lies on dramatically to conclude the ballet. The ballet itself received mixed reviews and was controversial, but can be considered the first true modern ballet. Fokine resigned after his exclusion from doing the choreography.

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Bakst costume design for Nijinsky in “L’Apres-Midi d’un Faune.”

In the ballet Nijinsky did not dance, he moved accross the stage  in stylized body configurations.

Nijinsky carrying the veil. Photo by Baron de Meyer 1912

The Ballet Russe’s Daphnis et Chloe opened two weeks after L’Apres Midi d’un Faune, but with Fokine’s resignation, closed after two performances.


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The costume design by Bakst for Daphnis et Chloe  was made for a ballet based on a classical Greek mythological  story. The costume design above influenced the silhouette of contemporary female fashion itself.

Paul Poiret was a leading French couturier in the first two decades of the 20th century,  His move away from the corseted figure, his hobbled skirts, and his strong orientalism were influences from the Bakst costume designs. From Poiret and the Ballets Russes themselves, the fashion influence radiated from the upper-class spectators and the “beau monde.” Even Lady Sybil in Downton  Abbey wore harem pants during the show’s first season in the period of 1912.

And it was not long before the exotic look of Scheherazade, Cleopatra, and other characters of the Ballets Russes were considered the models for dress and comportment for Hollywood vamps and movie stars.


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Even though Travis Banton did not design this bat-winged hostess gown for Evelyn Brent until 1930 for Slightly Scarlet, it reflects the influence of the Bakst style from the Chloe design above.

The image below shows Alla Nazimova in SALOME, with costume design by Natasha Rambova, 1923. Nazimova was a Russian actress, The multi-talented Rambova was an American that assumed a Russian name. The vivid costume and setting shows  the influence of the Bakst designs.

Costume Wild Salome Nazimova

Pola Negri  starred in her first American film in 1923: Bella Donna. She would become a leading vamp and rival to Gloria Swanson at Paramount Pictures. Her costumes were designed by Howard Greer, who was very fashion forward.

Bakst Pola Negri in Bella Donna 1923

Another Russian had made waves in early 20th-century fashion design, Erte, (French for R and T)  the name used by Romain de Tirtoff. Erte moved to Paris in 1910 and worked as a designer for Paul Poiret, and used a Bakst-influenced Orientalism in his fashion designs. He was also a fabulous illustrator, and regularly illustrated the covers of Harper’s Bazaar with his fashion illustrations. In 1925 he was hired by Louis B. Mayer to become a costume designer at M-G-M, where Erte’s studio was replicated on the studio lot. Erte designed for films such as Ben Hur, Paris, Dance Madness and The Restless Sex. He never fit in to the studio system of hurried costume designing, and when Lillian Gish complained about the unrealistically  lavish designs she was getting as a street girl in La Boheme, he quit. His influence on Hollywood’s young costume designers had already been long established. 

Fashion illustration by Erte

Bakst had made inroads into Hollywood in other ways. Director and producer Walter Wanger had met Bakst and Nijinsky when he was a college student at Dartmouth. He had been very impressed by them and was influenced  by Cleopatre and the Ballets Russes. “I am very fussy about clothes and sets,” he wrote in 1949.  In 1939 he told a reporter that the Ballets Russes “…. were the greatest influence on drama, direction, lighting, costume designing, and interior decoration in the last fifty years.” Walter Wanger produced the 1963 Cleopatra and cited Bakst as an influence on its design.

Diaghilev continued to produce the Ballets Russes until his death in 1929. He involved many leading figures of modern art in their productions. Picasso and Miro designed sets or costumes, along with Coco Channel. Satie, Ravel and Stravinsky composed or conducted music. But like Julian Craster in The Red Shoes, or like Paul Grayson in  Flesh and Bone, Diaghilev was jealous and controlling, Years earlier When Nijinsky married Romola de Pulszky, Diaghilev dismissed him in 1913  (Diaghilev and Nijinsky had been lovers).  The year before, Bakst had begun designing costumes for Ida Rubinstein, who had started her own ballet company. Diaghilev dismissed his old friend too.

It is hard to imagine the impact that the Ballets  Russes had on its era. Probably the closest equivalent would be that of the Beatles, although the ballet had a more narrow yet very deep audience. It is regrettable that its time came before film and sound recording could adequately capture its art forms.