Every year brings us five nominations for an Academy Award for Best Costume Design.  For the movies of 2019 the field was not one of the best in my opinion, even with multiple previous Oscar winners in contention. As is customary, the nominations were made by the Costume Designers branch of the Academy, but all members  will 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) or fantasy movies almost always prevail over contemporary costume design. With this year’s nominees, there was only one real period piece, Little Women, although all the others took place in various decades of the 1900s. The nominees are:

THE IRISHMAN. Costume design by Sandy Powell & Christopher Peterson. Directed by Martin Scorsese.

Sandy Powell has won the Oscar on three previous occasions and she has worked with Scorsese on seven previous films. The Irishman centers on the life of Teamster Union boss Jimmy Hoffa, as played by Al Pacino. Robert De Niro plays the “Irishman” Frank Shearan who looks back on his life and relationship with Hoffa. The movie also stars Joe Pesci. Since most of the cast were men playing their roles over several decades, the job for the designers was showing the passage of time in costume where little change happened in style, especially for lower class gangsters who needed to blend into society. Scorsese told Powell, “This is not Goodfellas and it’s not Casino.”

(From l to r) During a break in the trial of Jimmy Hoffa, Chuckie O’Brien (Jesse Plemons), Bill Bufalino (Ray Romano), Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) and Hoffa (Al Pacino) are shocked at the news of JFK’s assassination. © 2019 Netlfix

Sandy Powell had just come off her work on the films The Favourite and Mary Poppins Returns. She asked designer Christopher Peterson to join her, since there was a large cast of extras to dress as well as the principal actors, some 400 principals and 6500 extras. The story takes place over the decades of the 1950s though the 1970s. The first thing they did was try to find what costumes they could from costume rental houses. They also looked through thrift and vintage shops. This became especially important for the many suits that were needed for the different periods of time. Lapel widths were one of the indicators of time, and the fabrics of vintage suits were just more substantial than what is available today. De Niro reportedly had 102 fittings for his suits and other costumes. The piles of ties they located were also needed to pin-point time period, and in the end, what the actors’ favorites were.

Few women appear in the movie, although Shearan and Bufalino and their wives  Irene and Carrie (Stephanie Kurtzuba and Kathrine Narducci) take a long road trip.  The women wear similar Pucci-style polyester tops and pants. Although this takes place in the 1970s, the women still wear outfits from the late 1960s.

Courtesy Niko-Tavernise-Netflix


JOKER. Costume design by Mark Bridges. Directed by Todd Phillips.

Mark Bridges has won two Oscars for The Artist and The Phantom Thread. This is the story of the comic book Joker with a  more violent and psychotic twist. Joker (Arthur Fleck) as played by Joaquin Phoenix, is a mentally ill aspiring comic and clown. The cruelty of his life is returned. Set in Gotham City “New York” circa 1981, the decaying city of the time is emphasized and adds to Joker’s downward spiral.

Joaquin Phoenix lost a lot of weight for the part, wanting to emphasize the illness of Arthur Fleck.  Mark Bridges came around to finding costumes that showed that very lean physique rather than hiding it. He also explained how he came up with the movie’s iconic Joker costume, “The Joker suit came from something that was written in the script about Arthur owning an outdated jacket—a suit, in terra cotta. I didn’t feel like that was a really strong color, so I suggested the burgundy, which was really hot in the ’70s.” The 1970s was appropriate since Arthur Fleck had little money and lived with his mother. His clothes were several years old.


JOJO RABBIT. Costume design Mayes Rubeo. Directed by Taika Waititi. 

This movie is a satirical story about Hitler as imagined by a 10 year old boy in the Hitler youth. The imaginary part is that Hitler is the boy’s friend and appears at odd and trying moments during Jojo’s summer. Jojo lives with his mother played by Scarlett Johansson. While in the Hitler Youth Jojo has to prove himself as rugged and deserving, which he is not quite ready for. His imaginary friend comes in handy, as does his real friend Yorki. He still has his zeal, which is compromised when he discovers his mother is hiding a  Jewish girl in their apartment.

As related by Cathy Whitloc in Hollywood Review, “Waititi was the driving force on the costumes. He was very specific in what he wanted the costumes to be, and we had long intensive conversations about the looks,” said designer Mayes Rubeo. “We wanted it to look like wartime through the eyes of a child and do something unexpected.” And since Hitler, at least the imaginary Hitler, was a main character, he had to resemble the historical character. In part anyway. His costume was more of a mustard color, and to give him the look of a caricature, his pants were made wider.

Taika Waititi and Roman Griffin Davis in the film JOJO RABBIT. Photo by Kimberley French. © 2019 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Scarlett Johansson as Jojo’s mother is a chic dresser. She is modern in wearing trousers, and she is given colorful items for her wardrobe.

Scarlett Johansson and Roman Griffin Davis. Photo by Larry Horricks. © 2019 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Sam Rockwell, plays Captain Klenzendorf  the Hitler Youth’s flamboyant leader. Mayes Rubeo stated that, “He came into my wardrobe trailer with a picture of Bill Murray from Saturday Night Live and said, ‘This is who I want to look like.'” The costume that Rubeo designed for him fits right in with the satirical theme. She said it was “a uniform made by someone who knows almost nothing about the rules of design.”


ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD. Costume design by Ariane Phillips. Directed by Quentin Tarantino.

Ariane Phillips’ biggest challenge with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was landing the job, Quentin Tarantino was one of her favorite directors and she found out that only two designers would get a meeting/presentation with him. Fortunately she was one of the two.  After being given the opportunity to read the script she knew she would have to hyper prepare – so she came to the meeting with a vintage Hawaiian shirt and 1960’s sunglasses for the Cliff Booth character and even some new old stock Brylcreem in its container that the Rick Dalton character used in the Bounty Law show. She also had a very well-developed look-book of 1960s styles, celebrities, and people-on-the-street. All these were shown to Tarantino to a mixed CD soundtrack of 1969 hits, even including some KHJ radio station ads a friend had mixed in. Tarantino was impressed. Something he told her left a strong impression,  “One of the things that’s important to me, in my relationship with a costume designer, is that if I write something in the script, I really mean it.”

After landing the job Phillips got down to doing her customary serious research. She had to create the wardrobe for late celebrities such as Sharon Tate, Michelle Phillips, Mama Cass, Bruce Lee, Jay Sebring, Steve McQueen. Some 125 characters and between 1500 and 2000 extras.  “I always say being a costume designer is like being a detective — specifically a people detective or a story detective,” Ariane Phillips said.

Both Ms. Phillips and Quentin Tarantino wanted to respect the memory of Sharon Tate.  Her looks and wardrobe was well documented as a star, fashion-plate, and jet-setter. Phillips emphasized a yellow color for her costumes to symbolize her cheerfulness and the Southern California setting. Sharon Tate’s sister Debra served as a consultant on the production and loaned some of Sharon’s jewelry for Margot Robbie to wear. One of Sharon Tate’s original outfits was a snakeskin Ossie Clark coat that Sharon had worn to the Premiere of Rosemary’s Baby. Phillips had it reproduced for a driving scene in the movie.

Margot Robbie in the reproduced Ossie Clark snakeskin coat. Courtesy Sony Pictures.

Brad Pitt as Cliff Booth played a stuntman and friend to Leonardo DiCaprio’s fading star Rick Dalton. His basic costumes were Levis pants and a shirt. The Levis were vintage and the Hawaiian shirt was custom made from digitally printed fabric. He wears it open so that his Champion spark plugs t-shirt can be seen. The latter was supplied by Tarantino himself – a cool symbol from the era of the muscle car.  Arianne Phillips was thrilled when she found a genuine vintage Stuntman’s Association belt buckle at a costume house. for Brad to wear.  Brad Pitt also wears a vintage Wrangler denim jacket. The zip-up jacket, like the one worn by Tom Laughlin in Billy Jack, was a real challenge to find on the vintage market.

DiCaprio as Rick Dalton is always trying to find his next acting job. He turns to television and gets roles from an FBI agent to a western maverick, His costumes change accordingly, His Hollywood man about town is a cool brown leather jacket.

Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio star in Columbia Pictures “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”


LITTLE WOMEN. Costume design by Jacqueline Durran. Directed by Greta Gerwig.


Little Women, based on the novel by Louisa May Alcott, is the story of four growing daughters  in a household run by a progressive feminist mother. The father is away during the civil war. The novel has been made into six feature films in the US not counting TV. Illustrious past costume designers such as Walter Plunkett ( the 1933 and 1949 versions) and Colleen Atwood have designed previous versions. Jacqueline Durran began her vision of the costuming of Little Women by looking at paintings by Winslow Homer. “Homer was an absolute revelation to me,” Ms. Durran said about the painter’s scenes of people in scenes of beautiful landscapes.   As the designer related in InStyle magazine, The mid-19th century costumes depicted were also inspiring. “When she’s a child, Jo slightly hates clothes because she doesn’t want to be a girl, The paintings have a real life to them.” In the story Jo cuts off her hair to sell it. Durran used as a model for her the  Winslow painting of a  little boy standing in a field. 

Left to right – Florence Pugh, Saoirse Ronan, and Emma Watson.

The different personalities of the sisters are to be emphasized by their costumes and their colors. Amy is a beauty and has an appreciation for fashion. She wears Parisian styles afforded her by Aunt Marsh. For these Durran referred to paintings by Impressionist painters Claude Monet and Edouard Manet.

Meg had a bent towards the Pre-Raphaelites, their Romanticism and art. Hints of these were added to her wardrobe. She also had a beautiful pink ball gown worn at a ball in Boston. While the costumes of the 2019 Little Women charm,the craft skills of the Wardrobe Departments in Walter Plunkett’s day were superior.

Eliza Scanlen, Saoirse Ronan, Laura Dern and Florence Pugh in ‘Little Women’ SONY.

The five nominees will be voted on by all Academy members and the Oscar will be given at the Academy Award ceremony on Sunday February 9, 2020. Period (historical) costume movies usually win the Oscars. Accordingly, Little Women would be the favorite. The costume design is also excellent in this case. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood has been an Academy and audience favorite and may be a dark horse. So stay tuned for the February 9!


Gene Kelly had a storied career as dancer, singer and choreographer. He also partnered with many of the greatest actresses and dancers in show business.  He taught dance at his family’s Pittsburgh dance school while attending college and then law school. He gave that up when he decided to act and choreograph on Broadway.  He had success acting in The Time of Your Life in 1939 and then Pal Joey. He came to Hollywood to make his first movie in 1941 for MGM, the soon to be classic For Me and My Gal with Judy Garland. With great chemistry, smashing good-looks, and his athletic dancing style, Kelly made a star of himself in this sentimental vaudeville-themed movie. What should have been obvious somehow eluded MGM, as he was next placed in straight roles as a pilot in WW II in Pilot #5  and then as Alec Howe/Black Arrow in DuBarry was a Lady, 

Gene Kelly and Judy Garland in “For Me and My Gal.”

Columbia Pictures  knew exactly how to use Kelly in  his next movie: Cover Girl, co-starring Rita Hayworth in its first Technicolor film.  In this story of the  Hayworth character’s  yearning to make it as a star on Broadway, Kelly danced and choreographed as well. Although un-credited, Columbia and director Charles Vidor gave him license to choreograph and direct the “alter-ego” scene, assisted by Stanley Donen whom he had worked with on Broadway. In the scene he dances with  himself (his inner conscience) as partner. Cover Girl was a hit for Columbia. It won an Oscar for Best Musical Score and had three other nominations including for Best Song: Long Ago and Far Away.

Gene Kelly in the “Alter-Ego scene in Cover Girl (1944)

With MGM’s Anchors Aweigh in 1945,  Gene Kelly hit full maturity on film. The movie co-starred Frank Sinatra and singer Kathryn Grayson. Kelly and Sinatra are two sailors on shore leave looking for fun and romance – and find so much more. In a scene that made movie history, Gene Kelly’s dance partner was Jerry the Mouse of the Tom and Jerry cartoon characters. MGM had wanted to use Mickey Mouse but Disney wouldn’t grant permission. Instead they developed their own animation unit. Stanley Donen worked for most of a year with the animators to animate Jerry’s dance with Gene Kelly.  Kelly appeared next in an all-star MGM musical, The Ziegfeld Follies in 1945. The movies didn’t have a plot but was a series of musical numbers and comedy skits much like an old Ziegfeld Revue. Gene Kelly’s dance partner in this movie was also a historic pairing: Fred Astaire. They only danced together twice in their career, and the second time was 31 years later for That’s Entertainment. In Ziegfeld Follies they danced in the The Babbitt and the Bromide number. The characters are personality types based on literary characters made into a Gershwin song. Gene and Fred pussy-footed around each other to work out a dance number, each used to being the lead. Gene showed deference to Fred’s seniority and they settled on this older number even though it wasn’t a stretch for either of them.

Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire in the”The Babbitt and the Bromide” number in The Ziegfeld Follies. Photo courtesy Photofest.

After Gene Kelly’s service during WWII and his starring in Living in a Big Way, his next starring role was The Pirate in 1948. Here he was reunited with Judy Garland in the Vincente Minnelli directed  romantic comedy. The movie was an ideal vehicle to showcase Kelly’s dancing, athleticism, and plain good looks in buccaneer costumes.  Kelly doesn’t really dance with Judy as the character Manuela in this movie, but as the character Serafin/Macoco he dances and performs for her to win her affection. He does dance with the amazing Nicholas Brothers, Harold and Fayard. And partners with Judy Garland in their wonderful Be a Clown number.  The latter’s melody was the same used as “Make em Laugh” by Donald O’Connor in Singing in the Rain. The following year, 1949, Kelly started with the dramatic dance number in Words and Music  to “Slaughter on 10th Avenue” with his dance partner Vera-Ellen. The movie was about the composing team of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. Helen Rose designed the women’s wardrobe and Valles designed the men’s. Although in their scene together both Gene Kelly’s costume and Vera-Ellen’s are smart and sexy, their colors don’t complement each other- neither opposites (complementary) nor matching. Gene was in black pants with a violet top. and Vera-Ellen had a scarlet dress with a striped yellow top.

Gene Kelly and Judy Garland in “Be a Clown” number from The Pirate. Photo courtesy Photofest



Gene Kelly and Vera Ellen in Words and Music, 1949

Nineteen forty-nine was a good year for Gene Kelly. He next starred in Take Me Out to the Ball Game, co-starring Frank Sinatra , Esther Williams and Jules Munchin. The story was about early 1900s baseball players performing Vaudeville at night. The team’s owner K.C. Higgins just happens to be the beautiful Esther Williams. Since Vaudeville is part of the plot, many of the scenes are songs and skits. Kelly did a dance scene partnered with Frank Sinatra. Sinatra was at a low ebb in his career at this point. Dancing was not one of his skills, but since Kelly had been a dance instructor he taught Sinatra some basic steps to keep up with him in their song and dance number, “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” Gene Kelly and Esther Williams had one dance number together in “Baby Doll,” but it was cut for the final release.  Helen Rose designed the women’s wardrobe. She was particularly talented at designing turn-of the-20th century costumes, and did a fabulous job here. Valles likewise did a great job with the men’s outfits.  And then there was On the Town. The movie was based on the Jerome Robbins New York ballet from 1944. MGM bought the movie rights before the musical even opened, but then Louis B. Mayer didn’t like the results.  Betty Comden and Adolph Green had written the original book and were asked to re-write it for the movie. Leonard Bernstein composed the original score. Four of his songs were kept and he wrote six new ones for the movie.  For the first time, Stanley Donen directed the film, with Gene Kelly also credited. Kelly’s co-stars were Frank Sinatra, Vera-Ellen, Jules Munchin, Ann Miller, and Betty Garrett. The movie  also complement the story of Anchors Aweigh  of sailors Gene Kelly (Gabey) and Frank Sinatra (Chip) now joined  by Jules Munchin (Ozzie) on shore-leave. But here they have  leave in “New York, New York a helluva town,” only the censor wouldn’t allow them to sing “helluva” so the word was substituted by “wonderful.” Nonetheless, with Gene Kelly’s insistence, location shooting in New York was done for several scenes including  the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Wall Street, the Statue of Liberty, Central Park and Fifth Avenue. The story line is sailors out to see New York but naturally they get sidetracked looking for women and getting into adventures. Kelly as Gabey can’t get past the subway without falling in love with a photo of “Miss Turnstiles” on a poster. His love interest is the lovely Vera-Ellen.  He catches up with her as she becomes his story dance partner in two of the several great dance numbers: “Main Street;” and the colorful “A Day in New York Ballet.” The latter number introduced the great dancer Carol Haney to film. Helen Rose designed the women’s wardrobe. The lead men stayed in their Navy whites, which made the colorful yellow, rose, and green costumes of the women stand out as an ideal choice.

On the Town with Gene Kelly, Vera-Ellen, Jules Munshin, Ann Miller, Frank Sinatra, Betty Garrett. Photo courtesy of Photofest.


In  1950 Gene Kelly did a favor to Judy Garland by starring in Summer Stock. Not that she asked for this favor, but she was starring in the movie coming off of a suspension from MGM and three months in a drug-cure clinic. She needed support and Kelly was there to give it to her as was friendly director Charles Walters. Even then it was rocky for Judy. She had gained weight in the clinic and costume designer Walter Plunkett designed loose blouses and dresses with open collars that emphasized her face. Since the story was about a theater summer stock company living and rehearsing in a farm barn owned by Judy’s character, she is often dressed in overalls. Town and country soon clash in the story but love also develops. The reason they came to the farm was because Judy’s  sister Abigail played by Gloria DeHaven wanted to be in show business and her boyfriend was the theater troupe manager. The character was Gene Kelly, and before long he was falling for Judy Garland (Jane). Jane had some talent too. Besides driving a tractor she could sing and dance. And in “Portland Fancy,” Gene and Judy do a great tap dance number for the far farm community. But Summer Stock also featured Judy’s finale number,, “Get Happy.”  It was filmed two months after principal photography was finished and a big closing number was sought. Judy had lost weight in the interval and looked very trim compared to the beginning of the movie. She wore just a black tuxedo jacket, white blouse, fedora, and black hose. The costume was a hold-over from a scene in Easter Parade  that had been deleted.  It was a knock-out number based on a Harold Arlen/Ted Koehler Christian revivalist song.  Gene Kelly never had high hopes for Summer Stock. Yet one of his best career numbers was his solo dance with a newspaper in a barn, and Judy’s “Get Happy” was a memorable number. As it happened, this was also Judy’s last movie for MGM.

Gene Kelly and Judy Garland in Summer Stock


Gene Kelly’s next movie was to be his most ambitious yet, and a highlight of his career: An American in Paris. Working closely with Vincente Minnelli, the movie would be about an American artist living in Paris, with many of its scenes danced through landscapes inspired by famous French and International painters.

The decision by producer Arthur Freed, Minnelli, and Gene Kelly to include a 17 minute  dance sequence was bold and risky. In 1948 the success of The Red Shoes filmed in England would serve as inspiration.  But in  An American in Paris, the art scenes as background depicted the emotional state of Kelly as the protagonist.    Further, the ballet was to be a realization on film of the artistic works of Impressionist and Post-Impressionistic painters. This feature would not only guide the nature of the choreography, but also of the set designs, cinematography, action sequences, and costumes. The ballet scene would be the heart and soul of the film. The music, of course, would be based on the haunting score of George Gershwin’s An American in Paris symphony, with the story for the film by Alan Jay Lerner.

Costume designer Irene Sharaff was one of three designers for the film. She had been a Broadway designer and  had worked for Minnelli at MGM previously.. Minnelli convinced her to come back from New York to design some 300 costumes for the ballet. While working on the costumes, Sharaff also started designing sketches for what the sets might look like for the various artist-inspired scenes. These sketches in fact were adapted by art director Preston Ames for the sets. Ames had been an architecture student in Paris, and could quickly envision the set designs. The sets would be based on the styles of Raoul Dufy; Henri Rousseau; Piere Auguste Renoir; Maurice Utrillo; Vincent Van Gogh; and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Not a bad set of artists from which to draw inspiration. But how would the ballet transition from one artist-styled set to the next?

Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron on the set of An American in Paris

Those transitions indeed became a high-point in Hollywood film arts and crafts.Some 30 painters worked six weeks to paint the backgrounds and sets. Irene Sharaff also came up with the idea of using certain dancers, characters she called Furies for the women and Pompiers (firemen) for the men. The Furies were dressed all in red ballet outfits and the Pompiers were dressed as traditional French firemen, with their brass helmets but also adorned in a military-inspired costume. Together they served as the “bridge” from one scene to the next, luring Kelly as Jerry Mulligan to pursue the ever-escaping Caron as Lise Bouvier. These transitions were also accomplished by using a “match-cutting” filming technique whereby the action of the dancer is exactly matched from the end of one scene to the beginning of the next. And so Gene Kelly dances through the various scenes, with Leslie Caron as his partner Lise Bouvier. The dance scene is not the entire movie, but it represents Kelly as Jerry Mulligan’s love for Lise, with a red rose as its symbol. 

Gene Kelly in costume as Chocolat and Leslie Caron” as Jane Avril in the Toulouse-Lautrec scene

In addition to Irene Sharaff, two other costume designers worked on the film: Orry-Kelly and Walter Plunkett.  Walter Plunkett designed the costumes for the “Black and White” Ball scene, including Kelly’s and Caron’s costumes, and Orry- Kelly designed the other costumes in the films. He also designed Leslie Caron’s green dance costume for the dance scene in the Fountain of the Concorde. Plunkett also designed one of Caron’s ballet costumes. An American in Paris was Gene Kelly’s favorite film. It won six Academy Awards for: Best Picture; Best Art Direction; Best Cinematography; Best Screenplay; Best Music Scoring; and Best Costume Design for Irene Sharaff, Orry-Kelly and Walter Plunkett.

More about Gene Kelly’s movies and dance partners will be covered in PART II  of SILVERSCREENMODES.COM