OSCAR GUIDE: Best Costume Design

Posted by · 9:31 am · February 10th, 2011

This year’s race for Best Costume Design became mired in controversy later in the season as a dispute erupted over proper credit in “Black Swan.” Amy Westcott was listed as responsible for the threads, but fashion duo Rodarte had a significant hand in concocting the performance costumes on the film — and were denied credit, per guild regulations.

That issue has been argued from both sides and is an unfortunate byproduct of unfair rules, but the fact remains, it may have missed a nomination here as a result. Nevertheless, the five films competing make for a vibrant cross-section of visions, styles and periods, the branch even going so far as to give us a big surprise on nomination morning with a selection no one saw coming.

The nominees are:

“Alice in Wonderland” (Colleen Atwood)
“I Am Love” (Antonella Cannarozzi)
“The King’s Speech” (Jenny Beaven)
“The Tempest” (Sandy Powell)
“True Grit” (Mary Zophres)

If you’re banking on the sweep potential of a certain film, this is another place to make that bet, but I’ll get to that momentarily. Most important to note is that this is a solid crop of contenders and a refreshing line-up with unique titles in the Oscar landscape.

Once again “Alice in Wonderland” shows up in a design category, this time for Colleen Atwood‘s wonderful work on wardrobe. Atwood has collaborated with director Tim Burton for 20 years, going all the way back to “Edward Scissorhands” in 1990. She says the director opened a big creative door for her and she hasn’t looked back, though it’s interesting to note that her two Oscar wins have come for less memorable work in “Chicago” and “Memoirs of a Geisha.” It’s possible she’ll be passed up once again this year for less creatively vibrant work, but she’s nevertheless a strong possibility for a film that is, if nothing else, defined by its design elements. This is, by the way, Atwood’s ninth Oscar nomination, putting her in a dead heat for Edith Head’s record with fellow nominees Jenny Beavan and Sandy Powell.

The costume branch has historically shown an aversion to recognizing contemporary costuming at the Oscars. Two exceptions came for “The Devil Wears Prada” and “The Queen” in 2006 and other intriguing picks like “Milk” two years later show a little spunk in these costumers’ choices.  This year, perhaps the most surprising nomination below the line was Antonella Cannarozzi scoring here for “I Am Love.” Like much of what’s on display in the film, the costumes feel thematically arbitrary if colorfully delicious. One review called the film “deliriously stylish,” and with that in mind, it seems as if efforts which in some way seem to celebrate threads (see “Prada” and just last year, “Coco Before Chanel”) are being recognized here more and more. It’s an unlikely winner to say the least, but I actually wouldn’t put it at the bottom of possibilities.

Unsurprisingly, the best bet in the category this year is probably Jenny Beavan for “The King’s Speech.” If you’re feeling frisky, there are alternative choices here that would make fair enough predictions, but I’m feeling the sweep thing. Beaven hasn’t been to the race, believe it or not, since “Gosford Park” in 2001, though she was a consistent favorite in the decade prior. This year, she found natural and easy rhythms for the Best Picture frontrunner. It’s work that doesn’t really match up with most of the competition in the category, but a film like this has just the right amount of sweeping love and period appeal to take down prizes like this easily enough on Oscar night. It would also be Beaven’s first win since the Merchant/Ivory era, going all the way back to “A Room with a View” in 1986 (which, ironically enough, also starred Helena Bonham Carter).

Julie Taymor has become a costume designer’s dream ever since segueing from the world of vibrant musical theatre to the world of film over a decade ago. Each of her screen attempts to date — 1999’s “Titus,” 2002’s “Frida,” 2008’s “Across the Universe” and 2010’s “The Tempest” — have been nominated for Best Costume Design by the Academy. What’s more, each was outfitted by a different designer (though every one of those designers, admittedly, has been a master in the field). This year’s master was last year’s winner, Sandy Powell. In gender-bending William Shakespeare’s tragicomedy, Taymor presented an opportunity for Powell to stretch her creative faculties after being soaked in the period authenticity of 2009’s “The Young Victoria.”  But my guess is the film’s, uh, “not-so-great” reputation will hurt it here

After 16 years of working as a costume department head, most of the work being collaborations with Joel and Ethan Coen (which goes back even before “Fargo” to assistantship on “Barton Fink” and “The Hudsucker Proxy”), Mary Zophres is finally an Oscar nominee. And for a Coen film, no less. The designation finally came for, of course, a period piece, in this case the western “True Grit.” Zophres managed to harness the familiarities of the era while speaking to character quirks with the wardrobe choices on the film, and she could be considered a spoiler possibility. After all, the Academy honored the film with a whopping 10 nominations. But the western genre has historically had a tough time in this category at the Oscars — as in, not a single entry has ever won the award.

Will win: “The King’s Speech”
Could win: “Alice in Wonderland”
Should win: “Alice in Wonderland”

Should have been here: “TRON Legacy”

Check out my current rankings for this race at its dedicated Contenders page here.

What do you think deserves to win the award for Best Costume Design? Have your say in today’s sidebar poll!

[Photos: Warner Bros. Pictures, The Weinstein Company]

→ 20 Comments Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Filed in: Oscar Guide

20 responses so far

  • 1 2-10-2011 at 9:42 am

    Paul Outlaw said...

    HBC in her big screen debut wearing Jenny Beaven’s costumes:


  • 2 2-10-2011 at 9:47 am

    Andrej said...

    Will win: The King’s Speech.
    Could win: True Grit.
    Should win: True Grit.

    Should have been here: Inception.

  • 3 2-10-2011 at 9:49 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    What is it with people thinking Inception deserved a costume design nomination? Men’s Wearhouse and the GAP winter section?

  • 4 2-10-2011 at 9:56 am

    JJ1 said...

    I think the costumes in Alice were the stand-out component of the film (not even art direction, fx, make-up, or score). I think each outfit was incredible to just look at. It’s my should win.

    The King’s Speech has very, very nice outfits. It may win, and I’d be fine with that. But I really don’t think Beaven holds up to Atwood this time.

    True Grit could be a spoiler. Nice work. Loved the bear witch doctor outfit. Very happy for Zophres. But I don’t see a win here unless AMPAS is gaga for TG.

    I Am Love. I don’t even think the costumes are nom-worthy, but I’m so happy for an out-of-left-field nom. And the costumes really were quite nice; contemproary, authentic, sleek.

    The Tempest. It’s Powell. But I have no idea, really. Prob won’t see the film ’til dvd.

    Will win: The King’s Speech
    Could win: Alice.
    Should win: Alice.

    Should have been here: Burlesque.

  • 5 2-10-2011 at 9:57 am

    xander said...


  • 6 2-10-2011 at 10:07 am

    Speaking English said...

    “A Room with a View” is from 1986, I’d like to add. And how are the costumes in “Chicago” not notable???

  • 7 2-10-2011 at 10:11 am

    Andrej said...

    Well, I didn’t know you could get Marion’s green dress at Men’s Wearhouse.

    I like Inception’s costume design from a narrative point of view. Each dream world is infused with the personality and background traits from each dream host, so the costume design was also meant to be a way to see how each character perceived the others. At least that’s the impression I got.

    It’s nothing flashy, let alone memorable, but it also has some very impressive variety and range and functionality for all the stunt work. I wouldn’t have awarded an Oscar for it (I’m sticking to True Grit for this one), but a commendable nod would have been nice.

  • 8 2-10-2011 at 10:12 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Will win: The King’s Speech
    Could win: Alice in Wonderland
    Should win (by a country mile): I Am Love

    Should have been here: The Fighter

  • 9 2-10-2011 at 10:13 am

    Andrej said...

    And by green dress I mean black/bluish dress. Got my mind overlapped with Atonement, lol!

  • 10 2-10-2011 at 10:18 am

    Sawyer said...

    I think it was cool and fitting costuming, but yeah, nothing groundbreaking.

    I think Mark Bridges should have been nominated for his 90’s white trash threads in The Fighter. With his constant collaboration with David O. and P.T. Anderson, he’s missed a lot of opportunities for acknowledgement in his career.

  • 11 2-10-2011 at 10:33 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    English: I didn’t say they weren’t notable, I said they were less notable. And they are, when compared to the work she’s put in to Burton’s films over the years. Though maybe “less memorable” is closer to my point.

    Guy: I’d love to hear you defend that emphatic “should win” pick. I really don’t get it. Nothing there, IMO. Like flipping through a catalog. Most of it seemed to not mean all that much, and when it did mean something, it was way too on the nose.

    Andrej: I hear you. I just don’t know that it clicks as award-worthy for me. Thanks for the defense, though.

  • 12 2-10-2011 at 11:02 am

    Kevin K. said...

    Kris: I think the costumes in Inception, while yes, are clothes you can aquire normally, are very distinct and important to the narrative. Guy’s piece about them earlier in the summer kind of said it all, but I’ll try to summarize why I think it should have been there. Each character has their own distinct style, that is recognizable even as they change dream levels. Cobb’s classic American, Arthur’s fancy three piece, Eames’ Vegas gambler, Mal’s exquisite dresses, Cobb and Mal’s street clothes in Cobb’s memory, the denim outfits Cobb wears, Saito’s sleek european business attire. All of it.

    And each dream level has a very distinct fashion style. In the opening, Cobb is wearing a classic dinner jacket and Arthur is wearing bowtie and tux outfit, with Saito in a much more exotic, samurai-esque set of formal robes. In the dream level in the rain, they’re all wearing these biker/badass otufits. Lots of leather, brown tones, etc. In dream level two, they all are wearing these immaculate suits, and Ariadne finally dons a skirt and such. And let’s not forget the snow suits in dream level three that look like something from another planet or some outer space sci-fi film.

    It all adds up to one of the most complex, varied, and immaculate costume designs of the year. Sure, not as obvious as some of the nominees here, at least not as extravagant. But this is a case where I agree with the oscars rule of Best = Most. Just because the costume design in Inception isn’t extravagant doesn’t make it any less beautiful and complex. I personally didn’t think there was anything interesting visually or narratively about the costumes in I Am Love or The Tempest, because honestly, The Tempest is an ugly film, and the costumes are just as ugly if you ask me.

    But to each their own. That’s just my $0.02 on the costumes of Inception.

  • 13 2-10-2011 at 11:07 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Kris: For me, it’s the only one of the nominees that actually charts character via costume, reflecting internal shifts through changes in silhouette, colour, etc. It’s not the subtlest work, but that’s how the film (which I’m not the biggest fan of) rolls.

    The other nominees strike me as either blandly effective or stylistically and thematically incoherent. (I love Sandy Powell, but boy she’s having an off-day on The Tempest.) So it’s an easy pick for me.

  • 14 2-10-2011 at 11:28 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    “It’s not the subtlest work, but that’s how the film (which I’m not the biggest fan of) rolls.”

    I think that’s what’s keeping me from going there. I don’t much care for the stylization of the film on the whole, so that extends to the work here for me.

    Kevin: Again, I hear you, but it’s not clicking. I don’t mean to indicate that I need “obvious” costuming to be on board, mind you, but nevertheless, this…

    “It all adds up to one of the most complex, varied, and immaculate costume designs of the year.”

    …strikes me as some wicked hyperbole. A job well done. But nothing above and beyond the call, surely.

  • 15 2-10-2011 at 11:30 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    “And let’s not forget the snow suits in dream level three that look like something from another planet or some outer space sci-fi film.”

    Looks like a trip to Vail to me.

  • 16 2-10-2011 at 1:31 pm

    Kevin K. said...

    Kris: Fair points. I just loves the intricacies and nuances of it. Maybe I’m just partial to badass suits. But I really dug the looks they gave each character and how they tailored it specific to each level. I dunno, just struck me as really fascinating and deliberate design. Personally, I’ve never been to Vail, but those snowsuits looked pretty out there to me. Like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Futuristic sci-fi military stuff. Again, I can only speak for myself here, but I just really dug the look of the outfits throughout the film. :)

  • 17 2-10-2011 at 2:41 pm

    Patryk said...

    Will win: The King’s Speech
    Could win: True Grit
    Should win: I Am Love
    Should have been here: Shutter Island

  • 18 2-10-2011 at 2:51 pm

    matsunaga said...

    Nice too see some love for Alice In Wonderland from you Kris! I also want Atwood to take this…

  • 19 2-10-2011 at 6:18 pm

    Speaking English said...

    Funny, I just got my issue of EW today and they have a page devoted to this category. They think “Alice” is the clear frontrunner.

  • 20 2-10-2011 at 9:01 pm

    Sarah El said...

    While a lot of the costuming in Alice was better than this, Alice’s very Tim-Burton-in-Hot-Topic fingerless gloves just left me with a disgusted feeling and were one of the few memorable aspects of the film to me.

    I’d have liked to see The Fighter here too. Contemporary “period” or whatever the real term for costuming in films like The Fighter or Milk have often done something for me.