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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!