Quick: Name the one Oscar category outside of acting that’s routinely dominated not just by female nominees, but female winners.
Here’s a hint: It involves dressing for success. Or, rather, dressing others for success.
Ever since the award for Best Costume Design was established in 1948, back when there were separate honors handed out for color and black-and-white films, women have increasingly dominated the profession along with the ballot boxes.
Jokes Tom O’Neil of the Gold Derby awards site, “It’s probably because the Academy members with their traditional frame of mind automatically put women same category as mothers, whose job it is to clothe the family.”
Or it simply could be that they are good at what they do. In the past two decades, a female designer has won or been a co-winner with a male collaborator — as was the case with 1994’s The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, 2001’s Moulin Rouge! and 2003’s The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King — 17 out of 20 times.
In the early days of cinema, when such artists were often affiliated with a single studio, there was a more equal footing between male and female designers. MGM relied heavily on Adrian (aka Adrian Adolph Greenberg), known for enhancing Joan Crawford’s outfits with large shoulder pads and creating the ruby slippers for 1939’s The Wizard of Oz, to oversee their costume department.
The equally legendary Orry-Kelly, however, spread his magic throughout Hollywood by working at all the big studios, providing attire for such classics as 1933’s 42nd Street and 1942’s Casablanca. His career lasted long enough for him to win three Oscars for his designs in 1951’s An American in Paris, 1957’s Les Girls, and 1959’s Some Like It Hot.
But if anyone in the field is the equal of music man John Williams of Star Wars fame with his 49 nominations (the most for someone living and topped only by Walt Disney, with 59), it is Edith Head. An in-house fashion maven at Paramount for 43 years before moving on to Universal along with frequent cohort Alfred Hitchcock, she still holds the record for the most wins (8) and nominations (35) in the costume category.
Head, who died in 1981, would be forever immortalized in animated form as Edna Mode, a top designer of superhero outfits, in Pixar’s 2004 Oscar winner The Incredibles.
This year, judging from the picks made by Oscar prognosticators over at the Gold Derby, four out of the five spots in the costume lineup are expected to be occupied by a woman. And one name could appear twice: Colleen Atwood.
A ten-time nominee and three-time winner, she is expected to be in the running for the adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s fairy-tale musical Into the Woods (which is currently pegged to take the gold) as well as for the biopic Big Eyes, about the legal battle between Margaret and Walter Keane over ownership of the kitschy big-eyed waif paintings popular in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Both open on Christmas Day.
These days, it is more likely for designers to be aligned with specific filmmakers than a studio. Catherine Martin, wife and business partner of director Baz Luhrmann, won her second trophy last year for The Great Gatsby. Sandy Powell, who is tied with Atwood with ten nominations and three wins, often joins forces with Martin Scorsese and was last up for an Oscar for his Hugo from 2011.
Atwood, meanwhile, has reunited with the two visionary filmmakers who were responsible for her trio of Oscars: Rob Marshall (2002’s Chicago and 2005’s Memoirs of a Geisha), who has now directed Into the Woods, and Tim Burton (2010’s Alice in Wonderland), who is behind the camera for Big Eyes.
Why is clothing the stars such a female-friendly profession? “Rather than being a grip or an electrician, it is a field that accepts women more easily,” says Atwood, 66. “There’s a connection between women and fabric. It is something we grow up with, something that is encouraged at an early age.”
She also suggests a more tragic reason why the door is open to more women as well. “My generation lost a lot of guys who would have been designers to the AIDS epidemic,” she notes. “The profession was laid open because of that. We have to give them a certain silent thanks.”
As for networking opportunities with other female designers, Atwood – who got into costumes late in life after attending film school in New York because it spoke to her love of art, movies, and clothing – says everyone is too busy. “There is no club time. Our relationships are more with producers and directors.”
One reason for Atwood’s admirable track record? Consider the titles that provided her with nominations beyond her wins: Little Women (1994), Beloved (1998), Sleepy Hollow (1999), Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events (2007), Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007), Nine (2009), Snow White and the Huntsman (2012). All are either period pieces or fantasies – and in the case of Sweeney Todd and Nine, musicals.
Contemporary movies just don’t provide enough razzle-dazzle to wow the voters, especially in an age when you have to compete with overpowering CGI effects. The last time a film found its way into the costume category that was set in current times was The Devil Wears Prada, a movie whose very subject was the fashion industry, in 2006. It lost to Marie Antoinette.
Atwood’s current projects presented her with plenty of challenges, whether it was granting Johnny Depp’s request for a zoot suit to don as the Wolf and choosing not to upstage Meryl Streep’s scary hair with a hat as the Witch in Into the Woods. Or draping Amy Adams in mid-century Capri pants and knee-length cocktail dresses for Big Eyes.
Atwood will soon be busy on Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, her 12th effort with Burton directing. And she has just finished the sequel, Alice in Wonderland: Through the Looking Glass, which Burton is producing.
As for how she feels about possibly being in the running for two Oscars this year, Atwood says, “It would be unlikely but weird.” Not that she wouldn’t welcome the opportunity for double dipping. “You don’t ever get sick of being recognized by peers. It always feels good, even if you never get over the shock of it.”