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Immersed in Movies: Assessing the Costume Design Oscar Race, from ‘Anna Karenina’ to ‘Snow White’

Immersed in Movies: Assessing the Costume Design Oscar Race, from 'Anna Karenina' to 'Snow White'

This Oscar season is all about evoking power and poetry in the costume designs for frontrunner “Anna Karenina” (Jacqueline Durran), “Les Misérables” (Paco Delgado), “Lincoln” (Joanna Johnston), “Mirror Mirror” (Eiko Ishioka), and “Snow White and the Huntsman” (Colleen Atwood).

For starters, Tolstoy’s immortal characters from “Anna Karenina” are trapped like dolls in a dollhouse. Indeed, costume and setting are boldly linked, which is why Durran’s work is the Oscar favorite. Like her colleagues, she had to think metaphorically in terms of 19th century Russian aristocracy rotting from the inside out within the confines of a derelict theater.

But rather than going with 19th century Russian designs, Durran wrestled with the notion of 1950s’ couture per director Joe Wright’s desires. “It was not something that I would undertake to stylize just from my own imagination, but it’s a very happy combination because the two shapes fit together quite well,” she admits. “Because in 1873, there was a move toward a small waist and a fitted bodice and the ’50s couture is very similar. There wasn’t a clash. I think one of the reasons he chose the ’50s was that he wanted me to concentrate on silhouettes rather than surface detail and ’50s couture is very strong on silhouette.”

For Keira Knightley’s Anna, the thematic color scheme begins dark (especially with the red she wears at the beginning) and then grows somewhat lighter in tone when she falls in love with cavalry officer Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), before returning to the darker hues as she grows more anxious and paranoid.

The entire aesthetic was therefore predicated on subtraction in a power struggle but never more so than with Jude Law’s Karenin. In fact, the actor latched onto the idea of removing details and they gave his character an air of monasticism with his dressing gown and nightshirt. In the end, though, Karenin embraces life and hope in autumnal beauty outside the theater. Although it was difficult to imagine on paper, Durran made it all work beautifully.

“Les Mis,” of course, is also about political change and spiritual transformation, and Delgado returned to Victor Hugo for descriptive clues about characters and setting, and studied Spanish painter Delacroix for further aesthetic inspiration. From the Christ-like Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) to the oppressive Javert (Russell Crowe) to the doomed Fantine (Anne Hathaway) to the hopeful Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), the costume designer uses color to convey their dramatic arcs, particularly the clash of red and blue.

Ultimately, though, the characters clash with themselves. “But it’s about so many people suffering that I had to battle against the darkness of what I was thinking in terms of clothing,” Delgado remarks. “At the same time, because it was a musical, I had to do something with color. And I think that was the most challenging thing, really, to be honest.”

However, it begins and ends with Valjean, who rises from poverty to prosperity as part of a redemptive journey. Little by little he becomes more sophisticated and more tailored using more color.
With “Lincoln,” Abe’s clothing is simple (a frock coat, a hat, or a shawl) but Johnston was able to go deeper and deeper into his complex character on the exterior. The clothing was so coarse you could feel the texture as well as the culture clash of a man from the prairie trying to fit in with the aristocratic establishment of Washington and Virginia.

The fact that the political battle to abolish slavery and end the Civil War was so dialogue driven (talk about poetry), also helped determine the direction of the costume design.

However, Johnston was awestruck by Daniel Day-Lewis’ commanding performance. During her research she found Lincoln’s face “slightly ugly,” but the actor’s presence and transformation throughout the making of the movie left her with an extraordinary image of him.

“We found this Smithsonian set of clothing, and that was a springboard for me,” Johnston suggests. “He had a pre-tied tie. He wasn’t interested in messing with something or the fine details of clothing. He had his name written on the inside. I liked the fact that he was not labored in his portrayal on screen.”

Interestingly, the final two nominees are both vastly different variations on Snow White, with the late Ishioka (who died last year of pancreatic cancer at the age of 73) weaving her trademark sexy and opulent designs for “Mirror Mirror.” Why, the off-beat image of Julia Roberts as the evil queen dressed to kill like a Shakespearean femme fatale is enough to delight us.

It marked Ishioka’s fourth collaboration with director Tarsem Singh, who told Lynn Hirschberg in W Magazine: “A lace collar around the evil queen’s neck is designed to evoke the backs of reptiles; Snow White’s gossamer gowns include touches like overlapping leaves and climbing velvet vines that subtly underscore her exile in the forest…. Eiko would say that red is the most difficult color. But in many ways, red was Eiko: strong, intense, brilliant.”

Although the costume designer previously won the Oscar for Francis Ford Coppola’s “Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” can she pull off a posthumous win?

Meanwhile, Atwood goes back to the roots of the Brothers Grimm for the power play in “Snow White and the Huntsman.” But it was very much in keeping with 11th and 12th century texture and style. For me, the presence of heavy armor was also reminiscent of John Boorman’s “Excalibur.” The three-time Oscar winner rigged the costumes with stretch and lighter materials to make them comfortable and camera-friendly. Yet the wardrobes had to be grounded in a gritty reality despite the fantasy trappings.

Chris Hemsworth’s Huntsman was clothed with a hand-made quality; Kristen Stewart’s protagonist has a layered approach to her costumes to evoke a slow transformation from peasant to royalty; and Charlize Theron’s diabolical queen represents death so her wardrobe incorporates such ghoulish touches as beetle wings.

No wonder the Academy has finally created a separate design branch for costume separate from production designers, art directors, and set designers. It’s high time, given their special and unique craft.

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