On Modern Movie Costumes | From the Draft Files

Here's another post from the draft files of this old blog. This one comes from about 2013. I never published it... Until now.

As you know, I'm a slob. (Read A Slob Recants) Although classic movies have occasionally inspired my wardrobe (Read that here.), sartorial splendor is still not my strong suit.

Perhaps this is why I have such tremendous respect for costume designers. Their eye for just the right cut, color and line, their intelligence in blending it all with the story line.... It's fun to try to reverse engineer what the designer might have been thinking when swathing a character in an outfit.

I grieve at how they are often not recognized much for their contribution unless it's for something obvious, like a costume drama with corsets and capes. (Or unless they are a personal brand genius, like Edith Head.)

I listened to the commentary track of Ocean's 11 - the Brad Pitt version. The costume designer -Jeffrey Kurland- notes that he used kimono fabric for the vests of the villain, instead of the button-down-the-front type of vest. This gives the enigmatic character a sense of being wrapped up, or closed up and invulnerable. I was floored by the amount of detail that went into the simplest outfit for a modern RomCom heist. I love it!

A few years ago, I meant to rail against the injustice meted out to costumers who dress modern characters in modern movies, discussing how unless the characters are in bonnets and shawls, then awards shows seem to ignore them. However, as I researched the problem, I found there were already solutions for this. The Costume Designers Guild (founded in 1953) holds annual awards shows. Although they tend not to be televised, I can breathe easier knowing that the designers are receiving recognition in multiple categories among their peers.

By the time I calmed down enough to realize this fact, I had already gathered information about which types of costumes tend to win at the Academy Awards. It's definitely the period pieces that win awards, whereas modern characters in a basic RomCom tend not to win or even be nominated.

The last time a movie won an Academy Award for Best Costume Design, and the characters and the audience lived in the same time and dimension - and thus the costumes were like something that could be worn easily off the rack in the audience - was for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966).

Woolf won for Best Costume- Black and White at the Academy Awards. That was when there were two separate categories for costume design - black and white and color.  The winner for best costume in color that year was A Man for All Seasons - another movie with capes. It's doubtful that Woolf would have won if there were only one category for costume designers then.

After that, the Academy has awarded costume design for characters living in the past - like Death on the Nile- or fantasy characters -like those in Lord of the Rings. Bold, dramatic costumes. Not for clothes that you might see every day, no matter how much thought was put into the details of the clothing and the plot line and the character.

Oh, well.

Here are a couple of news bits on the subject:

The Hollywood Reporter mentions how the Oscars gives weight to period pieces in this article:
Which Costume Designer Will Win Oscars Gold? (Analysis)

Interview with costumer for Death on the Nile - Anthony Powell- over at the British Film Institute:
"Clothing Tess, Poirot and Indiana Jones". Discusses his long career and how period pieces wind up influencing mainstream wardrobe and thinking.

What's your take on the subject?


  1. Hi Java! I think that it is more difficult to dress people from more modern times ... mainly becaused people are familiar with the styles, and to make the costumes stand out, a lot of special work has to be done. Designers don't just buy off the rack at J.C. Penney! As you remarked on Jeffrey Kurlan: "... kimono fabric for the vests of the villain, instead of the button-down-the-front type of vest. This gives the enigmatic character a sense of being wrapped up, or closed up and invulnerable." I enjoyed this well-researched and interesting article.

    1. Thanks. I love costume design that fits the plot. This is why I spent a while looking for the inspiration for Judy Garland's first outfit in the PIRATE. That outfit is so unique I wanted to know the thinking behind it.

      Turns out it was inspired by a French painting, which subtly links the character to her dreams of visiting Paris! I was thrilled when I learned of this.

      Thanks for stopping by.
      -- Java/ Deborah


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"Java's Journey: A really fun, informative well-written blog that explores all of the things - and I mean all - I love about classic films."-- Flick Chick of A Person In The Dark Email: java-rush@hotmail.com


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