According to a very wise Tom Hanks (Forrest Gump), there is an awful lot you can tell about a person by their shoes, and the Academy acknowledges that. The costumes in a film are an indispensable (and often overlooked) tool to storytelling. Every meticulous detail, from the textures of an outfit to the colours and the fit give information about the story often before a word of dialogue is even spoken.
The Academy was first presented in 1929, but the award for Best Costume Design wouldn’t be introduced for another twenty-one years, regretfully failing to recognise Charlie Chaplin’s iconic suit or the avant-garde body armour in Metropolis. At the time, the award was divided into two subcategories, one for black & white and another for colour features.
It would be an insult to talk about what has been nicknamed the ‘Edith Head Award’ and not mention the ground-breaking costume designer herself. Over the course of her career, Edith has been nominated thirty-five times and won eight, establishing a record for the category. Her work in Vertigo arguably marks a watershed moment in film history. Through her designs, she was able to help actress Kim Novak find her characters’ identities and distinguish between the two personalities she embodied. Edith alone set the standard for what a costume designer should aspire to be: someone able to establish character, tone and authenticity in a film only with yards of cotton and a tape measurer. Rumour has it she is the sole inspiration for Edna Mode, the animated fashion designer in The Incredibles.
Even before the subcategories were merged to a singular one in 1967, the award had already accumulated under its umbrella a broad assortment of films, ranging from The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm to the colourful and lively dresses of Moulin Rouge. However, the most iconic of them all would probably be George Cukor’s My Fair Lady. Audrey Hepburn’s performance is jaw dropping, but she was only the woman she was because of the clothes she wore. The silhouette of the ascot race dress and the level of graphic detail in her hat instantaneously made it a memorable classic.
Elaborate costumes for period pieces have undoubtedly been the most rewarded in this category, ranging from portrayals of royalty and biographies, to 19th century novel adaptations. People love to see stunning hand embroidered dresses and beaded corsets that are now only available in museums or deeply stored away in your grandparent’s basements.
Without appropriate costumes, imagine how hard it would be to party with Gatsby and his friends in America’s Roaring Twenties. The costume designer’s work for period films is so valued because without it, the film would simply fall apart.
The same can be said of contemporary films, but for very different reasons. While costumes in period pieces help establish time and place, costumes in contemporary films help establish character above all else. Good costume design is so much more than a pretty actress in a pretty dress, it’s about creating an external visual representation of a character’s identity. Jackie for example is not only about a specific time period, but about a specific person in that time period. In this respect, the costume designer is responsible for understanding where a certain character would shop, what kind of clothes they would wear, whether they are messy or neat, and even how fashionably conscious they are.
The costumes in contemporary films do everything that the period ones do: they expose information pertaining to character, tone, subtext and genre, but they don’t necessarily wow the viewers. They aren’t supposed to. Fashion designer Nick Verreos has said that you know a costume designer has done their job when you don’t notice the costumes.
But when you force yourself to pay attention to the little details, they suddenly become irreplaceable. Think about the simple white shirts and suspenders in A Clockwork Orange; would you see the characters the same way if they were wearing purple striped bow ties and jeans? Probably not. What if Alex (A Clockwork Orange) and Willy Wonka (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) switched wardrobes? What if all the characters in The Breakfast Club did the same? Their clothes say so much about them, it’s hard to imagine a wholly coherent and authentic character without their respective costumes.
Costumes in contemporary films tend to get overlooked, but this doesn’t mean that the designers that work on these films are less creative or less talented than those that work on period films. Take Darkest Hour for example. At first glance, it’s just an actor playing Winston Churchill, right? How hard can it be to find a decent suit that does the job? Costume designer Jackeline Durran went to extraordinary lengths to draw an authentic portrayal of Churchill, which included finding the actual tailor who made a lot of Churchill’s suits. What appears to be a plain austere attire is actually a three-piece pin-striped suit full of texture details, the unmistakable uniform of a Prime Minister.
Last year’s Academy award winner in this category was Phantom Thread, a film that payed homage to fashion designers themselves. The films nominated this year are Black Panther, The Favourite, Mary Poppins Returns, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and Mary Queen of Scots. All of these stand a fair change, but whatever the outcome is, Edith Head will still proudly hold her record breaking eight statuettes. The same will be true next year. And the next. And the next.