This season’s period costume design was marked by a striking blend of authenticity and artistry in such Oscar contenders as “Black Panther,” “The Favourite,” “Mary Queen of Scots,” “Colette,” and “Outlaw King.”
And the secret weapons were denim and wool, the Pan-African flag, and going black-and-white. How’s that for evoking a sense of modernism?
Ruth Carter’s colorful costume designs for “Black Panther” represented a diverse celebration of African cultures — past and present — and elevated the Marvel superhero genre to a new aesthetic realm per director Ryan Coogler’s mandate. She mixed a panoply of tribal influences along with Afropunk for the fictional Wakanda in making a beautiful and positive cultural statement about Africa. And in keeping with the indigenous direction, she stayed true to the authenticity of fabrics in adapting them for a superhero aura.
“Ryan Coogler and I discussed representing Africa in a beautiful way,” said Carter (Oscar-nominated for “Amistad” and “Malcom X”). “We had meetings about King T’Challa [Chadwick Boseman] needing to look magnificent. This was a place where people come together and represent their various tribal cultures, and they can wear a lot of traditional clothes. But we were very specific about not making it look like a documentary or anthropological.”
The primary color palette, though, was the black, red, and green from the Pan-African flag, which came from Coogler. Thus, T’Challa/Black Panther wears black, Danai Gurira’s Okoye, and her Dora Milaje female fighters wear red, and Lupita Nyong’o’s Nakia spy wears green.
Three-time Oscar winner Sandy Powell (The Young Victoria,” “The Aviator,” and “Shakespeare in Love”) is no stranger to period costume design. However, for Largos Lanthimos’ wicked comedy — a romantic power triangle between Queen Anne (Oscar frontrunner Olivia Colman) and rival cousins, Sarah (Rachel Weisz) and Abigail (Emma Stone) — she used black-and-white for a reductive, sculptural look.
“I spend so much time working in color, which I adore, but I quite liked the idea of banishing it from the Royal Court,” Powell said. “There was so much going on with the plot, that I wanted to simplify and strip it back and make it almost like silhouettes, so it didn’t get complicated, especially in the setting with all the queen’s tapestries and colors.”
But when it came to Anne, Powell crucially defined the queen by her sleepwear: a voluminous nightgown and heavy dressing gown because she spent so much time in bed as a result of her illness.
Speaking of rival cousins, Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie square off as Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth in Josie Rourke’s “Mary Queen of Scots.” Alexandra Byrne had previous clothed Elizabeth twice (“Elizabeth” and the Oscar-winning “Elizabeth: The Golden Age”), so here she strove for something more inventive: the use of denim.
“It’s a very contained story and it needed to have a modern sensibility to it,” Byrne said. “And we were on a tight budget, so I needed to limit the materials to manipulate the fabric to tell the story. The essence of the movie is when the two queens meet and the last thing you wanted was the costumes to be distracting.”
Thus, Byrne reverse engineered her costume design based on that climactic meeting. But she wanted a lived-in look. “They’d get wet and dirty and the clothes got molded to their bodies, which you don’t often see in costume dramas,” she added. “That made me think of jeans and denim. They are sculpted, denim doesn’t degrade…it takes on another life.”
In Wash Westmoreland’s “Colette,” the most famous female writer of the early 20th century (played by Keira Knightley) dressed the part in subversive fashion. Which provided the perfect opportunity for costume designer Andrea Flesch to express the forward-thinking, androgynous icon through her wardrobe.
“I tried to design her style by her writings, by her inner thoughts, by her strong behavior and not caring what others think,” said Flesch. “So I put the image of masculinity in her wardrobe, even when it was sexy or feminine. Ties and very simple cuts and this black-and-white, which is the most elegant thing but very different. And I always gave her a tie pin with a meaning: her pet bulldog.”
Flesch’s obsessive attention to detail extended to her making her own designs and then searching the globe to find them in original clothing. She wanted the colors and fabrics to be true to the period. “I wanted to recreate the portrait paintings,” she added.
For David Mackenzie’s “Outlaw King,” starring Chris Pine as 14th century Scottish lord, Robert the Bruce, Jane Petrie (“The Crown”) went for authenticity. “This was not ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’ or ‘Braveheart,'” she said. “There are no kilts because they didn’t wear them in the 14th century.”
But in doing photographic research on early Laplanders, Petrie discovered oiled wool, thick tunics. Then she found a company in Scotland that waxed the wool for her. It’s the same process used for cotton in hunting or motorcycle jackets, and that became her fabric of choice.
Meanwhile, Petrie made an important design choice in dealing with linen: no curves, only rectangles, like kimonos. This proved to be an economical choice in cutting wardrobes for factory production for such a large cast. This became yet another instance of authenticity and artistry at its best.