The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences released their Oscar Nominations March 15, very late, and in an abnormal year to say the least. With the Covid pandemic, movie theaters were shut and so last year’s big argument over theatrical release vs. home streaming eligibility was moot, as several Netflix movies were nominated. Despite some criticism over the limited audience for the Best Picture nominees, the Costume Design nominees were a diverse but excellent field of candidates both in movies and in costume designers, ranging from “clothes that make you hungry,” to a snail ” … that can hide back into its shell and create a stubborn distance between itself and the outside world.” The Nominees are:
EMMA – Costume design by Alexandra Byrne, directed by Autumn de Wilde. Features the hot new star Anya Taylor-Joy of the Netflix hit, The Queen’s Gambit. The story is based on the Jane Austen novel of the same title, and is set in a country village in Regency England (1795 to 1837). Anya Taylor-Joy plays Emma, who is rich and rather spoiled. She means well, but thinks she is more capable than she really is. Her fashionable and colorful wardrobe demonstrates her high status. And as costume designer Alexandra Byrne stated, the pastel-colored costumes are the “clothes that make you hungry.”
Byrne is very talented designing period costumes, although she and director Josie Rourke went a bit off the rails with Mary Queen of Scots in 2018, which featured plentiful use of denim and black coloring in its costumes. But Byrne also designed Elizabeth and Elizabeth, the Golden Age, the latter winning her an Oscar. And for Emma, she has conducted scrupulous research, using existing historic costumes at the V&A Museum for inspiration.
The vivid pastels and reds for the red riding hoods were very authentic. The “Empire style” was then the fashion, named after Napoleon and his empire. The huge court dresses of the Ancien Régime were gone in favor of light, high waisted gowns with square necklines and deep décolletage. Byrne used the model of a spencer jacket to great effect. The pink spencer shown below, was named after Lord Spencer, who ripped the partially torn tails off his riding coat and had all his other coats made short. It was later adopted into women’s fashion. At one of the formal evening events, Emma wears a beautiful salmon-colored Empire style gown modelled after one at the V&A Museum. The original was made of silk tulle with chenille accenting. And Byrne’s Ball gowns were less formal, “…they were soft and moving, Byrne said. And a style element we are completely bereft of today are plentiful here – hats, whether adorned with a feather or beautiful flowered straw bonnets. All the bonnets were made for the movie.
The men’s styles were also based on authentic fashions of the era, although the collar heights are a bit exaggerated. War had blazed in Europe, so men’s styling emphasized masculine qualities with a definite military uniform influence (although uniforms of the day were very stylish). Alexandra Byrne also designed the superhero movie The Avengers. When having to fabricate leather trousers that wouldn’t sag, she used her former experience for Johnny Flynn’s character, “We developed a technique of fusing leather onto Lycra so it stretches but has memory to return to its shape. We used that technique on his britches, so he’s wearing superhero buckskin britches!” Actor Bill Nighy as Mr. Woodhouse plays an older gentleman but he’s also the most dapper man in the movie. He wears the latest fashions including Cossack trousers made fashionable in 1814 with Alexander’s visit to England with his Russian Cossack soldiers.
MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM – Costume design by Ann Roth, directed by George C. Wolfe. The movie starred Viola Davis as 1920s “Mother of the Blues” Ma Rainey, and Chadwick Boseman, as cornet player Levee. This dynamic actor died shortly after this film. The story is based on the August Wilson play, and most of the drama takes place in the a basement of Ma Rainey’s manager, where her musician’s rehearse, soon joined by Ma, including the rebellious Levee. Costume designer Ann Roth is the most accomplished of movie, stage and TV costume designers. At age 89, she has almost seven decades of experience and has been nominated five times for an Oscar, winning for The English Patient (1997). She began working for costume designer Irene Sharaff in the 1950s.
Ma Rainey had a flamboyant persona, which she needed as an entertainer and recording artist. For the Ma Rainey’s stage performance, Roth designed a blue fringed velvet dress with sequins to reflect the light.
The men in the band had to wear suits to perform, though they were suits worn every day as they travelled from town to town performing. Levee was more cocky and wanted to distinguish himself in his dress, He wore a gray chalk-stipe jacket with a vest. But that day he spent a lot of money on a pair of “yellow” shoes – a big contrast to the other men’s black or brown shoes. Ann Roth and Chadwick Boseman had a chance to discuss his wardrobe and fully agreed on his look for the movie. Both Viola Davis and Boseman have been nominated for SAG Awards.
MANK – Costume design by Trish Summerville. Directed by David Fincher. Mank is another Netflix movie, and is based on classic Hollywood’s Herman Mankiewicsz and especially his time writing the screenplay for Citizen Kane. The alcoholic “Mank,” played by Gary Oldman, is cooped up in a rented cottage by Orson Welles, along with a secretary and a nurse – there to stay until he finishes the screenplay. And since he has a broken leg and the motel cottage is in the desert outside L.A., he can’t get far. Much of the story is told in flashback about Mank’s Hollywood studio life -antagonisms with Louis B. Mayer and friendship with Marion Davies. Since the movie was shot in black and white, a costume challenge for Trish Summerville was figuring out which patterns and prints would work, along with what colors. Summerville had worked often with Fincher, so there was mutual respect from the start of the project. One technique that helped from the start, used by Summerville and the production designer, was using the monochromatic filters on their iPhones to see how color would convert into black and white film. Summerville told Jazz Tangcay for Variety, “We wanted to have the tones blend. For us in costumes, it was more burgundies, purples, navies, blacks. And you could pump up from there to gowns with muted lilacs or dusty roses, which came in as nice light grays.” This worked out fairly well, but the classic era costume designers had a career-long experience with this, an example being using a a bronze fabric as a stand-in for red in Bette Davis’ “Red Dress” in Jezebel.
Glow was always a big part of classic Hollywood glamour, and Summerville chose an antique-gold lamé fabric for one of Amanda Seyfried’s costumes as Marion Davies., which draped beautifully. Since there were so many men in the cast, a big job was differentiating suits by pattern and color, as well as ties. The Davies and Hearst party scene costumes were based on photos of some of the actual celebrity guests. Summerville said designing the costumes was fun.
MULAN – Costume design by Bina Daigeler. Directed by Niki Caro. Disney’s 2020 Mulan is based on its earlier animated version, here starring Yifei Liu as Mulan, with Donnie Yen as Commander Tung, Gong Li as Xianniang, and Jet Li as the Emperor. The story is that of Mulan, a girl who embarrasses her parents as a future bride, and redeems herself by running off to join a recruitment of soldiers, passing as a man. Her training is short, but her skill with a sword will lead to glory,
Costume designer Bina Daigeler travelled to China to study the period costumes in several museums. She was especially inspired by the costumes of the Tang Dynasty. She told members of the D23 Disney Fan Club that, “All my costumes are based on deep research that I did about Chinese culture and Chinese history, … for me, it was very important that I treat the Chinese history with respect, because it’s so rich and such a treasure.”
Bina Daigeler said that Gong Li’s costume as the witch was perhaps the most elaborate, and that it was inspired by hawks. Although she and the director Niki Caro started out with, “…a floaty, airy design – and ended up with a leather construction., very strong and empowering. But we kept the floaty sleeves. I loved the idea that they finally got used as a weapon in her fight scenes.”
PINOCCHIO – Costume design by Massimo Cantini Parrini. Directed by Matteo Garrone. This is a live action movie of the classic tale about a woodcarver’s puppet that comes to life. The woodcarver Geppetto stars Oscar winner Roberto Benigni, with Federico Ielapi playing Pinocchio, who gets into one misadventure after another.
Italian costume designer Parrini’s grandmother was a seamstress in Florence, and he learned much from her about the art of tailoring. The “fashion archeologist” Parrini previously designed Ophelia and has many Italian films in his credits. He has won four David di Donatello Italian film awards including one for this movie, for which he designed 30 costumes. Massimo Cantini Parrini said, “The snail costume is with no doubt the one that impressed the most. It is an animal that can hide back into its shell and create a stubborn distance between itself and the outside world.”
All of the nominees are worthy of the Oscar. All Academy members get to vote. Traditionally a movie like Emma would be a favorite, especially with the beautiful and period accurate costumes. But then Mulan also has period accurate and vivid costumes, and the movie may get an extra boost of sympathy this year.
The 93rd Academy Awards will be presented Sunday, April 25, 2021 both at the Union Station Los Angeles and the Dolby Theatre at the Hollywood & Highland Center and televised