Oscars 2014: Costume Design – Place Your Bets!

Let’s face it: the make-or -break items on everyone’s Oscar pool are always the technical categories, so if you really, really want to beat out Kevin from HR, read on as the Dandizette gives its odds on the nominees. And while Costume Design is easier to predict than, say, Sound Editing (poor Sound Editing, it always seems to be the category that people reference first when it come to obscure Oscar categories), the rule of thumb “Go for the one with the biggest dresses” doesn’t necessarily apply in a year with an interesting mix of nominees, each with their own unique styles. This is also a year without any fantasy nominees, as the Oscars usually break towards history. This year, it’s all history.

Let’s go to the nominees!

Michael Wilkinson, American Hustle
Ping Chang Suk, The Grandmaster
Catherine Martin, The Great Gatsby
Michael O’Connor, The Invisible Woman
Patricia Norris, 12 Years a Slave

Keep in mind, this isn’t an assessment of the quality of the costumes–we all know more factors than quality go into Oscar voting–but an analysis that includes the other mitigating factors. All the nominated costume designers deserve to be nominated and deserve to win.

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The Grandmaster

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The Grandmaster is the Dandizette’s long shot for a number of reasons.

Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai has always been more concerned with the formal elements of film as opposed to, say, narrative coherence. Normally this wouldn’t have any bearing over the costume design, but it’s important in the case of The Grandmaster. There’s no doubt that the film is gorgeously visual in every sense, costumes included. The transition from traditional Chinese dress to incorporate western influences in the early 20th century is captured perfectly. The problem is the costumes are only a part of an overly impressionistic whole. This makes it hard to judge context and motivation for the costumes because the characters are themselves impressionistic and vaguely drawn.

The Grandmaster is also the lone foreign language film, and its setting in early- to mid-20th century China makes it lack context for some Academy voters who will marvel at the exoticism and aesthetic appeal of the costumes, but will have difficulty judging their authenticity. And even were they so included to do additional study, Chinese dress in general is notoriously difficult to research. There are precious few sources for those of us who cannot read Chinese, and they are extremely rare to find.

Oscars 2014 - The GrandmasterImage Source

The Invisible Woman

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Ralph Fiennes’ Dickens drama The Invisible Woman would otherwise have “biggest dresses” going for it, but it is a bit of a surprise nominee, because it’s a small movie that’s only just opened to limited release in North America in January. Still, those Victorian dresses are indeed big, so it’s got that going for it. In any case, the audience simply isn’t wide enough to give it enough votes. It hasn’t opened yet at the Dandizette’s local cinema, but it’ll be a surprise winner in any case.

Oscars2014 - The Invisible WomanImage Source

American Hustle

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Here’s where the voting gets tough. David O. Russell’s American Hustle is a blockbuster and a crowd-pleaser, but the Best Costume Design award rarely goes to a film set in modern times, and the last time a film set in the seventies won the award was All That Jazz in the seventies. It’s a glittery, greasy, trashy decade, and Michael’s Wilkinson’s Dorito-stained designs convey that in every scene. More to the point, the costumes are highly motivated by the characters and the story, and the film strikes the right balance between historical authenticity and artful interpretation. All are important factors in great costume design. Still, the artfulness is perhaps a little too subtle and the aesthetic appeal of the costumes isn’t as boldly foregrounded as some of the other nominees (unless you’re a fan of Amy Adams’ cleavage, in which case it’s the clear winner.)

Oscars2014 - American HustleImage Source

The Great Gatsby

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The Great Gatsby had the earliest release date of all the nominated films, and has had a few months to allow itself it be forgotten. Catherine Martin’s daring designs, however, are easily the most memorable part of the film.

Like all Baz Luhrman movies, The Great Gatsby is in love with its costumes. You can feel the joy and creative energy the filmmakers had in their approach to the costumes. If a film existed solely to show off its costumes, that film would be The Great Gatsby. Indeed, this is the closest nominee to a fantasy film, at times sacrificing historical authenticity for aesthetic appeal, sartorial excess and overall artsy fartsiness.

The thing that keeps the film from being the our front-runner is confusing authorship. It might be difficult for voters to give the nod to Catherine Martin when some of the costumes were designed by Miuccia Prada (Prada, Miu Miu) and Brooks Brothers. Not that this has been a problem for some of the great costume designers in the past. If you’ve read our post on Edith Head, you know that even the most Oscar-awarded costume designer of all time worked with the fashion houses of the day to give their characters the latest looks (See: Givenchy and Sabrina, 1954). If an existing look is what’s right for the characters, story and the overall design of the film, that’s the costume designer’s decision, too.

THE GREAT GATSBYImage Source

12 Years a Slave

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Steve McQueen’s inevitable Best Picture winner is the Daily Dandizette’s bet for the Best Costume Design statue in 2014. The film is a stunning, powerful, essential film we never, ever want to see again. In between the scenes of unspeakable human degradation and horror, there are a large volume of highly accomplished costumes. Indeed, the costumes are an essential to establishing the disparity of power between slave-owners and slaves. We’d otherwise marvel at the antebellum dresses Sarah Paulson’s character wears throughout the film, but their opulence becomes a stomach-churning counterpoint to the plight of the slaves–exactly as it should be. The film is a perfect example of how costume is used to tell the story.

Patricia Norris also won the Costume Designers Guild Award for Excellence in Period Film this past Saturday for 12 Years a Slave, so it definitely has the most momentum going into the Oscars.

Oscars 2014 - 12 Years a SlaveImage Source

There you have it. The smart money’s on 12 Years a Slave, but the real winners are the fans of great costume design! Congratulations to all the nominees and good luck on Oscar night.

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Hopped-up Honey Hallucinates Old Hollywood Horror: Pretty Little Liars Goes Noir

Here at the offices of the Daily Dandizette (the living room) Pretty Little Liars is a staff favourite.  While some teen shows try to be hip and “with it” by chasing trends and dating themselves immediately with au current pop culture references, PLL has always felt out of time.  Its central town of Rosewood is a lot like Gilmore Girls’ Stars Hollow if you replace dance marathons with film noir film festivals and whimsy with murder.  We marvel at the adventures of besties Spencer, Aria, Emily and Hannah as they navigate the perils of high school and the murder of their best friend.   It’s the kind of trashy genre fare that teen TV does well these days.  And yet the plot twists and melodrama always take a backseat to the more sartorial aspects of the show, so it was no surprise that the show just went straight up noir homage for an entire episode.

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Back in September, while I was working away at my Snow White costume, I perused Netflix in the hopes of finding some mindless TV show to play in the background of my sewing. I decided to put on Pretty Little Liars. I had heard the title before, but I basically knew nothing about the show. I was quite surprised to find a few episodes in that I was more focused on my mindless TV show than my actual sewing!

Pretty Little Liars has its issues, it’s not a perfect show: it tends to spin its wheels (as is common in most North American TV) and draw out a season into 24 episodes, when it easily could have been three. But aside from that, it is the kind of show I’d like to see more on TV. The show draws heavily on Hitchcock, notably one Halloween episode when the main characters are caught unwittingly in the story of Psycho. Despite its shortcomings (as mentioned above), this show does not dumb down for an audience that probably misses half the old Hollywood horror/thriller references.

So, the moment I heard about “Shadow Play”, I was excited. If you’re unfamiliar with the show, “Shadow Play” went beyond the neo-noir genre and straight into the noir! It pays a homage to the noir genre in a way that actually seamlessly blends into the actual plot of the story, and it’s not poking fun either. This is a serious noir genre episode. The episode drew inspiration from Laura, Cat People, The Big Combo, and several Orson Welles’ projects. Serious attention is given to chiaroscuro lighting. I’d say the only fault of the episode is that sometimes the actors fall flat, not able to shape their delivery of the lines in a way that suites the mood of the genre, but which would otherwise be fine in a normal episode of PLL.

For those of you who follow the show, Spencer  is the only one of the quartet who bothered with historical accuracy when dressing up for an historic ball.  She is the smart one, after all.  By contrast, Aria thought it would be nice to wear her underwear over her dress.   So it was nice to see the episode stay true to her character’s sense of being right, damn it, by accurately recreating the genre.  The integrity with which the creators approached the episode is admirable.  It wasn’t just a pastiche of well-worn noir tropes; in the costumes, hair, make-up, cinematography, and set design, it was a love letter to the genre.

PLL - 001 Barbara Stanwyck / Troian Bellisario

PLL - 005Troian Bellisario and Keegan Allen / Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in The Big Sleep

PLL - 004Teresa Wright in Shadow of a Doubt / Lucy Hale

PLL - 003Richard Widmark in Kiss of Death / Ian Harding

PLL - 002Dana Andrews in Laura / Keegan Allen, Troian Bellisario (Sasha Pieterse in portrait)


Also, if the show is trying to say that taking drugs will turn your life into a stylized film noir, it’s not exactly the most effective anti-drug message.

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Vintage on My Mind

I was in the car with my husband last week, he was driving us home from dinner with his family. I was doing my best impression of 1940s/mid-century fashion with whatever I could find in my closet: fitted black sweater and brooch, tan knee-length straight skirt, belt above the natural waist, black faux-fur coat and the vintage cocktail hat I found in my parents’ basement. I felt extremely well put-together. At the restaurant, despite wearing a simple black sweater and corduroy skirt (and my husband in a Mickey Mouse t-shirt beside me), the waitress asked us what we were celebrating. Well… nothing.

(This is not going to turn into a social commentary on how people dress, though I certainly have plenty to say on that topic!)

Back to the car ride home. I turned to my husband, and asked: Can I ask you something weird? How would you feel if I started dressing like this all the time? What would you think if I stopped following modern fashion trends and started wearing vintage-inspired only?

Has anyone seen TLC’s show Wives with Beehives? The show itself is a horrible mockery of reality, but the gist is a group of people/couples who choose to live a rockabilly lifestyle, and do things 1950s style. Well, I’m not sure I want to live a 1940s lifestyle, just wear some 1940s fashions, like hats and peep toe shoes. Would such fashion “subversiveness” be respected or ridiculed? And, more importantly, how would it feel to probably always be the most over-dressed person in the room? According to Oscar Wilde, “you can never be overdressed or overeducated,” but I’m sure there are plenty who would beg to differ. Ultimately, should I care?

It takes a long, long time to transition a wardrobe. But you have to start somewhere, so with that in mind I raided my fabric stache looking for usable pieces. To sum up the long-winded introduction, I want to charge up my wardrobe with some vintage fashion stables. Real vintage pieces are a little out of my price range, and can be hard to find in my size (i.e. larger than a size 4). Unfortunately my current fabric collection left me a little underwhelmed. I found some leftover black wool crepe and black twill which would makes some nice skirts, but I was hoping for something a little more interesting.

On the weekend I hit up the local fabric store, with high expectations. My expectations are always  too high when I go to this store, because generally all they have is crap (“100% Unknown Fabric Content,” anyone?). But they had a sale on! In the end I didn’t actually get anything that was part of the sale, and not a single toile de jouy which I was specifically on the hunt for, but I did find some interesting prints at reduced prices.

Fabric One:

red-deco-fabric

Red and Gold deco print in cotton with a seriously luscious sheen. The photo reads more pink, but it is a true candy apple red. I saw this and instantly knew I had to have it. I’m picturing something a little more evening for this one; I had this design in my head while browsing at the store and this fabric may work if nothing else inspires me.

V8850Source: Vogue Vintage

At $8 per meter this one was the least on sale, but at least it’s all natural!

Fabric Two:

green-fabric

Green “European Designer Fabric” in probably cotton. This one has a very soft hand. I think it would make a really nice 1940s day dress. The fabric jumped out at me, but I really see-sawed on it. It’s a dark grey-green, not a colour I typically gravitate towards, but I liked the print. It was $4 per meter.

This fabric on Reproduction Fabrics is similar in design

Fabric Three:

floral-fabric

Black and Floral poly fabric, probably. I also see-sawed on this. But it reminded me of some prints I saw on Reproduction Fabrics in the 1930s-1950s. Small dots or thin grid with large print, specifically flowers superimposed on top. The actual flowers are more realistic and the print more organized than most period prints, but I’m okay with that. Anyway, I’m also thinking some kind of blouson day dress for this. $3 per meter.

Next step is working on sketches and designs. And I have another project idea (re: the toile de jouy), I will get into that later.