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.

* * *

The Grandmaster


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


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


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


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.


12 Years a Slave


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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