Handicapping the Best Costume Oscar
The Academy Awards are always a bit baffling in their nomination choices— who gets chosen, who gets overlooked— but the Best Costume category is a lot easier to predict. Historical dramas, unless they’ve really bollixed things up (think of the laughable attempts at historical garb in King Arthur or Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves), will invariably fill the nomination list.
This year we have Australia, a World War II epic; The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, in which Brad Pitt lives backwards from the early 20th century to the present day; The Duchess, set in 18th century England—I think everyone would have been shocked if this one hadn’t been nominated—Revolutionary Road, set in the 1950s; and…
…Milk. Okay, apparently the 1970s are now long ago enough that they qualify for a historical costume drama. I feel old. Then again, looking back at the 1970s, much of the fashion was as outlandish in its own way as panniers and three-foot powdered wigs, so I suppose it’s really not that much of a stretch.
Shamefully overlooked were any of the year’s many science fiction, fantasy, and comic-book related movies. In particular, it is shocking that Hellboy II: The Golden Army did not get a Best Costume nomination for its visual feast of elves, trolls, demons, and fish-creatures. The Makeup nomination hardly seems adequate. But then, this is nothing new; none of the Star Wars prequels received so much as a nomination for their incredibly detailed and inventive costumes.
Which leads to an interesting question: why does the Academy tend to nominate and honor movies whose costumes are based on history over movies whose costumes are entirely invented—created (pardon the expression) out of whole cloth, rather than copied from the history books? There are exceptions, of course; The Fellowship of the Ring was nominated, and The Return of the King was not only nominated but actually took home the award. Still, one would think that the creativity and imagination that goes into designing an original fantasy or science fiction costume would trump historical recreation. (Though having done both I can say that to do either one well requires a fair amount of skill.)
To answer this, let’s take a look at each of the 2009 nominees.
First, The Duchess. This film is set in an era in which everyday clothing was dramatically different from today, and furthermore it’s set among the aristocracy. This means a film full of big, showy, lavish costume that requires a good deal of research to design and a fair amount of skill to build properly. Make the underpinnings wrong and the gown is entirely the wrong shape; choose the wrong fabric or color and the illusion of a bygone era is shattered (case in point: the pink crushed velvet dress in Braveheart). Hardly surprising this was nominated, and indeed it would be my top pick to take the award, as the Academy tends to favor this time period when it’s a costume contender because of the large, showy, and exotic nature of the costumes.
Benjamin Button has the epic’s advantage of spanning the hero’s lifetime over most of the 20th century, as well as dealing with a wide range of characters from different ages and walks of life. Costuming this properly requires a lot of research and careful choices. It also has the advantage of being not only a speculative story but a weepy romance, which the Academy loves. This would be my second choice for the actual winner, due to the wide range of costumes included.
Australia and Revolutionary Road are set in two beloved eras: World War II and the 1950s. Both have plentiful documentation, as well as a large collection of still-existing garments and patterns (having used an authentic vintage 1950s pattern for one of my costumes, I can attest to this). On the one hand, this makes costuming for these times significantly easier and therefore to my mind less impressive; on the other hand, the wide range of available choices allows the costume designer to tailor (again, pardon the expression) each garment to express the character’s personality and to evoke a particular feeling or mood. Third and fourth choices for the actual winner.
As for Milk, when you are in essence recreating and clothing an actual person from recent cultural memory, rather than a fictional character, there is a whole different set of advantages and challenges. The advantage is that you have lots of extremely accurate documentation—you can recreate outfits from photographs of the actual person wearing the actual outfit, complete with any idiosyncrasies. The disadvantage is that if you get it wrong it’s even more obvious than flubbing a general historical costume would be, particularly when the person in question is so recent that the audience could well say, “I saw this guy. That’s now how he looked, that’s not how he dressed.” Last choice for the actual winner, due to the recent time period and the limited scope.
Obviously, you can have terrible original costumes, just as you can have terrible historical recreations. There is skill in inventing a costume and then bringing that invention to life; there is likewise skill in recreating something that existed and can be checked against documentation. It would have been nice to see the Academy honor both kinds of skill, rather than leaning so heavily towards the one.