AMPAS and LA Film Fest celebrate iconic costume design

Posted by · 1:10 pm · June 20th, 2013

As regular readers will know, costume design is one of the below-the-line disciplines I find most fascinating, while Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” is one of my favorite films of all time. So I’d trade a lot to be at the Los Angeles Film Festival for tonight’s “Iconic Moment” event, in honor of the Academy’s newly separate Costume Designers’ branch.

As the name suggests, the evening will look back on iconic moments in film costume, with Laura Dern moderating a discussion between five leading designers: Academy branch head Jeffrey Kurland (an Oscar nominee for Woody Allen’s “Bullets Over Broadway”), three-time Oscar winner and Tim Burton favorite Colleen Atwood, Mark Bridges (last year’s winner for “The Artist”), Michael Kaplan (unjustly never Oscar nominated, despite landmark contemporary designs for the likes of “Fight Club” and “Blade Runner”) and Ellen Mirojnick (whose recent work in “Behind the Candelabra” should net her an Emmy nod). It’s a formidable lineup of some of the most creative artists in the field right now, and I’d love to hear what their favorites and inspirations are.  

The discussion will be followed by a screening of “Vertigo,” the wardrobe for which was designed by legendary eight-time Oscar winner Edith Head. It’s an interesting choice of film for the occasion, given that its costumes — while essential to, and now inseparable from, the film’s narrative and iconography in all sorts of ways — are hardly flashy or elaborate creations in the vein that the Academy traditionally celebrates.After all, this is one film for which Head — who racked up 35 nominations in her lifetime — wasn’t nominated. (Of course, with mixed reviews and just two Oscar nods for production design and sound, the film famously received less than its due back in 1958.)

The Academy has always been reluctant to recognize contemporary costume design — recent exceptions include nominees “I Am Love” and “The Devil Wears Prada” — so it’s nice to see the discipline being represented here with a textbook example of how (then) contemporary and/or casual clothing can have just as much impact in a film as extravagant hoop skirts and ruffles. Kim Novak’s iconic gray suit, chic and character-defining in its first incarnation on the mysterious Madeleine, gains an extra signifying layer when it’s used to remake her double, Judy, in her image. As Kurland explains to the LA Times, “It was a foreshadowing of who she is and why she is. It was so important to Alfred Hitchcock and the storytelling that the character be wearing the suit in that color.”

Perhaps it’s not coincidental that several members of the “Iconic Moment” panel are particularly accomplished in the area of contemporary (or at least modern period) costume design. Kurland may have got his one Oscar nomination for period work, but the bulk of his career has seen him working with great flair and imagination in latter-day garb: think of the role played by clothing in “Ocean’s Eleven,” “Erin Brockovich,” “My Best Friend’s Wedding” or “Inception.” Mark Bridges may have finally received Academy recognition for “The Artist,” but his most award-worthy work has drawn from the latter half of the 20th century: think “Boogie Nights” and “The Fighter.” Mirojnick received a deserved Guild nod for “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps,” while the influence of Kaplan’s thrift-store wardrobe for “Fight Club” extended far beyond the film world. And Atwood may be best known for fantastical and/or period spectacle, but her stark work in the likes of “Gattaca” and “The Silence of the Lambs” is up there with her best. (What, or rather who, would Clarice Starling be without her cheap, dun-colored suits?) 

Here’s hoping tonight’s panel recognizes that the most iconic moments in film costume aren’t always the most opulent ones. And costume concerns aside, it’s always nice for “Vertigo” — which, you might recall, was voted the greatest film of all time in last year’s decennial Sight & Sound critics’ poll — to get another festival date.

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