Why Period Dramas Shouldn't Win Costume OSCARs*

*most of the time!

Mr Turner  - nominated for Best Costume Design at this year's OSCARs.

Hello All,

   Well, awards season is upon us. And if you're anything like me, you watch the BAFTAs and OSCARs with the same reverie as others apply to watching football matches. It's one of the most exciting times of the year for anyone with their eyes on the stars.

   There's lots of things about the voting system at the OSCARs, BAFTAs, Golden Globes et al. that bug people - including sexism, racism, and ignorance to independent dramas (here's looking at you, Tyrannosaur!). But there's one element of it which really grinds my gears, and it's something which frustrates a lot of people I know.

   When it comes to the Best Costume Design awards, people aren't just voting wrong - they're nominating wrong too. I don't know if it's a lack of knowledge or enthusiasm on the subject, or the fact that judges are blinded by extravagance like a magpie eyeing up tin foil, but the Best Costume Design nominations always seem to go to the biggest costumes, not the best.

   I don't claim to be an expert in the subject, but from my experience in dressing independent films and commercials, here's what I perceive to be the three main aims of the costume designer. The clothes should:

   1) Be true to the characters wearing them.
   2) Be true to the world of the film.
   3) Say something  creative - ideally reflective of the designer.

   Granted, three is usually sacrificed in favour of the first two, and rightly so. And often a designer isn't given the opportunity to show themselves in their work until they've proven their talent and earned the right. But if you can nail all three, and still produce great work, then that is - in my opinion - perfect costume design.

   But, rather than judging costume design on the above three pointers, awards are given to the biggest, boldest costumes of the year - seemingly without much thought. And this really isn't fair. Yes, there's more work gone into producing a huge Victorian frock than a modern pair of jeans, but more design? No. And what's more, the same amount of effort is usually taken by the designer either way - the bigger the production, and the bigger the costumes, then the more people the designer has on their team to help her (or him).

   When it comes to period films, creating accurate costumes is a skill, and it requires a lot of research. But if you keep it strictly accurate (as sometimes suits the film) then you're not really doing much design. You're following a set pattern that's gone before - like doing a paint-by-numbers, or colouring inside the lines.

   Take The Young Victoria for example, which won Best Costume Design at the OSCARs in 2010. The costumes in that film were designed by the wonderful, talented Sandy Powell. But rather than going to the same creative lengths she went to for the peacock dress in Shakespeare In Love (1998), Powell mostly had to instigate the recreation of dresses Queen Victoria had already worn. Which can hardly be classed as 'great design' (except, perhaps, for the people who made Victoria's original dresses).

   But, in one of my favourite OSCAR speeches in recent years, Sandy acknowledged this fact, and pointed out the oversight of other, talented costume designers working on smaller films:

   On the other hand, you don't want to go so extravagant with the costume design that it gets all the attention and distracts from the actors performances. It's not a fashion show. It needs to be organic to who the characters are, and only go as bold as the person wearing it. They can't be lost inside their clothing!

   Two examples of where the costumes 'did all the talking' actually come from two of my favourite costume designers, whose work I generally love. In Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992), Eiko Ishioka designed Gary Oldman's armour to resemble an armadillo - or perhaps muscles - and you really can't take your eyes of it, even during what's supposed to be a romantic farewell between him and Winona Ryder's Elisabeta. (Confusingly, this is a film I'll often use when discussing good costume design. It's only really the armour that I dislike).

   And in 2013's The Great Gatsby, Catherine Martin (whose work I adored in Romeo + Juliet, among other films) made a similar error. Baz Luhrmann's films usually feature an extravagant world, and the costumes in them need to be similarly OTT to keep up. But in The Great Gatsby, Martin played against historical accuracy so much that it was distracting, and the characters looked bland in comparison to their costumes. This film then took home Best Costume Design at the 2014 OSCARs. Groan.

The costumes wear the actor - Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992) and The Great Gatsby (2013)

  (One brief note in Martin's defense, as Gatsby is an easy target. She worked the school emblem of Joel Edgerton's character into the lining of his suits, to show his private education routes, and represent how much this meant to him. The only person who could see this was Edgerton, and it gave him something to add to his performance. Now that is good costume design).

   So which films over the years have perfectly balanced the holy trinity of character, world and style? A lot of fantasy films create wonderful worlds in which to enhance great characters with clever design, and someone who frequently flourishes in this area is Tim Burton's costume designer Colleen Atwood. She is given rare platforms in which to shine, creatively and artistically, which are also awarded at the OSCARs.

    But more often than not it's films that won't be noticed by awards seasons which feature the most clever design work. Quirky pieces like 80s movie Heathers (which I analysed at length for Clothes on Film) and 500 Days of Summer (2009) say wonderful things about the characters and the world they're in by using colour, without ever really distracting from the action. 

  Take this scene from 500 Days of Summer, for example. How many people do you spot wearing shades of blue?

   Sometimes great costume design can be spotted in films which aren't really praised by critics, film fans or even viewers. Popular but lauded date movie The Vow (2012), for example, featured some wonderfully artistic characters - one of whom visually transformed into a neat society girl after (spoiler) losing her memory and moving back in with her parents - and the costumes were great. Alex Kavanagh dared to dress Rachel McAdams in a little pink wedding dress (right) and put heartthrob Channing Tatum in a surprising straw fedora, but it all totally suited who they were as characters.

   And of course the easiest route to good costume design which is true to the world it's in? Make sure it is completely in sync with the production design. This is the biggest tip I have for anyone who wants to get into costume design, and I cannot stress it enough. All of my last three examples included this element.

   Awards season has been impressing filmmakers recently. With Boyhood, The Grand Budapest Hotel and Birdman all shining this year, it seems that big-budget blockbusters are finally being shunned in favour of well-crafted, lower-budget art pieces. This would not be a year for Avatar.

Ravenna - Snow White & The Huntsman (2012)
   So will craftsmanship triumph over showmanship in costume design? I've had two glimmers of hope in recent years. When Snow White & The Huntsman (2012) was nominated at various festivals, there were groans at the idea of another 'flashy' costume film being nominated. But I argue that the intricate bone-like structures on Ravenna's costumes were great feats of design, and also totally suited who she was as a character. 

   And when Black Swan (2010) was nominated for a BAFTA, there was an audible cheer from costume designers the world over. True, the Rodarte-designed ballet costumes were sparkly and big enough to get Academy voters' attention, but the design for all the present-day real-world scenes in the rest of the film were incredible too, and the whole package was included in the nomination. 

   Needless to say, both films lost out to a bigger, bolder, slightly-more-predictably designed films -  Anna Karenina (2012) and Alice In Wonderland (2010), respectively. 

   This years' Best Costume Design nominees at the OSCARs are The Grand Budapest Hotel, Inherent Vice, Into The Woods, Maleficent, and Mr Turner. Another yawnsome bunch of bland period films and flashy fantasies with predictable design. 

   With one exception. If The Grand Budapest Hotel wins, as it did at the BAFTAs, then I can't and won't moan. The costumes are extravagant, but Wes Anderson's world allows them to be. If anything the costumes dull by comparison to the beautiful model sets and candyfloss pink colouring of the film. Anderson has given costume designer Milena Canonero freedom to work creatively (just look at the press-stud-opening flap-pocket in Willem Dafoe's coat for an example of her genius) without once distracting from the characters or the action. Bravo, Canonero. Bravo.



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