The Oscar crafts contenders embrace a wide range of genres, periods, subjects, themes, and settings this season — costume design among them — with a particular emphasis on the movies, music, and political/social activism. The early frontrunner is two-time winner Catherine Martin, for her work on her husband and creative partner Baz Luhrmann’s delirious “Elvis.” Likely to join the Elvis Presley biopic in the race are such anticipated fall releases as Damien Chazelle’s epic “Babylon” (Paramount), Noah Baumach’s dystopian “White Noise” (Netflix), David O. Russell’s absurdist “Amsterdam” (20th Century), Ryan Coogler’s transformational “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” (Marvel/Disney), Andrew Dominik’s impressionistic “Blonde” (Netflix), Sam Mendes’ wistful “Empire of Light” (Searchlight Pictures), Steven Spielberg’s semi-autobiographical “The Fabelmans” (Universal), and Alejandro González Iñárritu’s introspective “Bardo” (Netflix).
Other noteworthy contenders include Chinonye Chukwu’s galvanizing “Till” (UA), Kasi Lemmons’ bittersweet “I Want to Dance with Somebody” (Sony), the Daniels’ metaphysical “Everything Everywhere All at Once” (A24), Robert Eggers’ medieval “The Northman” (Focus Features), Anthony Fabian’s enchanting “Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris” (Focus Features), and Oliver Hermanus’ inspirational “Living” (Sony Pictures Classics).
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Hollywood, the music business, and the power of cinema
The Academy loves a great Hollywood story, and Chazelle’s “Babylon” represents a giant leap from “La La Land,” as he explores the anxious transition from silents to talkies in the late ’20s. It’s been touted as “The Great Gatsby” meets “Wolf of Wall Street,” and doesn’t hold back in depicting R-rated, wild parties. The ensemble cast, largely playing amalgams of Hollywood figures from the period, represent various points on the trajectory to stardom: Brad Pitt as the established leading man Jack Conrad, Margot Robbie as the overnight sensation Nellie LaRoy, and Diego Calva as new-kid-in-town striver Manny Torres. For costume designer Mary Zophres (a three-time nominee, including “La La Land”), this undoubtedly marks her most ambitious work to date with large-scale glam, glitz, and decadence — “Babylon” will be visually layered in such a way that it displays the different strata of society during a time of major transformation for L.A. and Hollywood
With “Elvis,” Martin’s first biopic, the challenge was costuming Presley (Austin Butler) for each part of his life: ’50s teenage rebellion, ’60s Hollywood icon, and ’70s Vegas glam. This was creatively condensed into three transformational moments: the pink-and-black suit for his rambunctious 1954 performance at The Louisiana Hayride, tight black leather-on-leather for his ’68 NBC “Comeback Special,” and his white jumpsuit for the start of his legendary run at Las Vegas’ International Hotel.
“Blonde” (adapted from the Joyce Carol Oates novel) follows in the tradition of “Spencer” and “Jackie” as biographical fiction with its “sensorial” depiction of Marilyn Monroe’s (Ana de Armas) internal conflict with stardom. The mindscape battle between Marilyn Monroe and Norma Jeane allows costume designer Jennifer Johnson (“I, Tonya”) to costume the contrast between harrowing Hollywood artifice and her true identity.
“Empire of Light” is an ode to the power of cinema — a love story about Hilary Small (Olivia Colman), a ticket taker at a seaside movie theater in 1980s England. But she’s too busy attending to the needs of the patrons to watch the movies. That is, until she has an epiphany about the importance of movies in their humdrum lives. Oscar winner Alexandra Byrne (“Elizabeth: The Golden Age”) goes for her seventh nomination in her first collaboration with director Mendes. She will presumably showcase a range of outfits for the diverse moviegoers of the period and setting.
“The Fabelmans,” Spielberg’s personal coming-of-age story about an aspiring filmmaker growing up in post World War II Arizona, unlocks the personal themes that have energized his movies: the broken family, the desire to break free from suburbia, the passion for movies. Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle) serves as Spielberg’s alter ego, who learns a shattering family secret that he can only process and understand through watching and making movies. His parents are played by Michelle Williams and Paul Dano; Seth Rogen plays his favorite uncle, and David Lynch has a cameo as a veteran Hollywood director. For his first go-around with Spielberg, two-time Oscar winner Mark Bridges (“The Phantom Thread,” “The Artist”) takes a deep dive into the ’50s and ’60s clothing styles embraced by the Fabelmans and other important characters.
“I Want to Dance with Somebody,” the biopic of cultural icon Whitney Houston (Naomi Ackie), traces her journey to musical superstardom beginning in the ’80s, her pivot to acting in the ’90s, and her valiant struggle with addiction along the way. Ashton Sanders plays husband Bobby Brown and Stanley Tucci plays legendary record producer Clive Davis, who discovered Houston and produced the movie. Costume designer Charlese Antoinette Jones (“Judas and the Black Messiah”) helps transform Ackie as Houston through the sparkle of her iconic wardrobes (mini-dresses, gowns, jackets, scarves).
Courtesy of 20th Century Studios
Dressing for social impact
“Bardo (or False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths)” marks Iñárritu’s return to his native Mexico. It’s a fable shot in 65mm about the political and social concerns of his country, chronicling a renowned Mexican documentarian (Daniel Giménez Cacho), who returns home and works through an existential crisis. Costume designer Anna Terrazas (“Roma”) will be able to costume the conflicts associated with his identity, familial relationships, and the folly of his memories along with his country’s past.
“Amsterdam” offers its own comic fable of sorts for Russell: Three friends from World War I — a doctor (Christian Bale), a nurse (Margot Robbie), and an attorney (John David Washington) — become prime suspects in a ’30s murder tied to “one of the most shocking secret plots in American history.” Costume designers J.R. Hawbaker and Albert Wolsky (Oscar winner for “Bugsy” and “All That Jazz”) create a colorful and eclectic period wardrobe not only for the three stars but also for an ensemble that includes Chris Rock, Anya Taylor-Joy, Zoe Saldaña, Mike Myers, Michael Shannon, Timothy Olyphant, Taylor Swift, Rami Malek, and Robert De Niro.
“White Noise” (based on the novel by Don DeLillo) is Baumbach’s allegorical take on the post-pandemic horrors of our time filtered through the toxic ’80s. Adam Driver plays a Hitler studies professor married to Greta Gerwig, who has his comfortable life turned upside down after a train wreck unleashes airborne chemical waste on his college town. Legendary costume designer Ann Roth (two-time Oscar winner with “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and “The English Patient” and five-time nominee) dips into the period wardrobe for this dystopian black comedy.
“Till” dramatizes the true story of Mamie Till-Mobley (Danielle Deadwyler) and her fight for justice after the 1955 lynching of her 14-year-son, Emmett Till (Jalyn Hall). Costume designer Marci Rodgers (“Blackkklansman”) gets to creatively trace the Civil Rights Movement through the wardrobes, with Till-Mobley serving as a central figure because of her son’s racially motivated murder in Mississippi.
Heroic costume building
With “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” Oscar-winning costume designer Ruth E. Carter gets to build on the colorful pageantry of Afrofuturism that she created in the original film, which became a cultural milestone. Significantly, though, the sequel deals directly with the tragic passing of T’Challa/Black Panther actor Chadwick Boseman (which Marvel chose not to recast) by mourning the death of the character. The void will be filled by his sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright), soul mate Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), and mother Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett). As such, the characters mourn in the traditional Wakanda color of white. We can expect Carter’s continued emphasis of female empowerment, with the layers of the various relationships represented in the costumes. Judging from the trailer, the franchise introduces the Atlantis-inspired Talocan underwater civilization as the antagonists bent on world domination. Therefore, look for Carter to get very creative with the Azetec and Mayan influences.
In the surprise smash hit “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” clothing was key in tracing the characters within the complex multiverse. Thus, costume designer Shirley Kurata had quite an expansive challenge. Michelle Yeoh’s protagonist, Evelyn, had dozens of looks, as did her embittered daughter Jobu (Stephanie Hsu). In one sequence alone, Evelyn dons an opulent robe as a famous Chinese opera singer and then a chic long gown as a contemporary movie star attending a film premiere. For Jobu’s Elvis costume, it couldn’t be cheesy; luckily, Kurata found a nice-looking one in a large size that she shrunk down.
“The Northman,” despite being a box office flop, still could be a crafts contender for costumes, with Eggers’ go-to costume designer, Linda Muir, becoming the medieval Coco Chanel for his ambitious Viking action-adventure. She made intricate, culturally symbolic wardrobes encompassing three distinct worlds with different classes and cultures for principal actors Alexander Skarsgård, Ethan Hawke, Nicole Kidman, Anya Taylor-Joy, and Björk.
A couple of English wild cards
You can never count out three-time winners Jenny Beavan (who took home last year’s costume design prize for “Cruella”) and Sandy Powell from the Oscar race. This season they have dueling remakes, each set in ’50s London: Beaven designed “Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris,” a tour de force about costume design (like “Cruella”), while Powell designed “Living,” the reworking of Akira Kurosawa’s “Ikiru,” about a terminally ill civil servant (played by Bill Nighy).
In “Mrs. Harris,” the titular widowed cleaning lady (Lesley Manville) becomes obsessed with a client’s haute couture Dior dress, and travels to Paris on her war-widow’s pension to purchase her own. Beaven not only designed the initial dress that sparks Mrs. Harris’ imagination — centered on a dazzling floral design — but also recreated enough dresses to fill the struggling Dior fashion house.
“Living,” like “Mrs. Harris,” subverts the post-war, repressive funk to embrace life to its fullest. When Nighy’s Mr. Williams gets the bad medical news, he reevaluates the brief time that he has left and finds a sense of purpose that gives him joy. Powell starts off Mr. Williams and his paper-pushing colleagues in the Public Works department with proper tailored suits and bowler hats. From there, one suspects she has a striking change in clothing for Mr. Williams on his journey of self-discovery.
“Elvis” (Warner Bros.)
Note: Only films that the author has seen will be named frontrunners at this time
“Amsterdam” (20th Century)
“Avatar: The Way of Water” (20th Century)
“Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” (Marvel/Disney)
“Empire of Light” (Searchlight Pictures)
“The Fabelmans” (Universal)
“Armageddon Time” (Focus Features)
“Chevalier” (Searchlight Pictures)
“Don’t Worry Darling” (Warner Bros.)
“Everything Everywhere All at Once” (A24)
“Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore” (Warner Bros.)
“Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery” (Netflix)
“I Wanna Dance with Somebody” (Sony)
“Lady Chatterley’s Lover” (Netflix)
“Living” (Sony Pictures Classics)
“Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris” (Focus Features)
“TÁR” (Focus Features)
“The Banshees of Inisherin” (Searchlight Pictures)
“The Menu” (Searchlight Pictures)
“The Northman” (Focus Features)
“The Pale Blue Eye” (Netflix)
“The Woman King” (Sony)
“The Wonder” (Netflix)
“Three Thousand Years of Longing” (UA)
“White Noise” (Netflix)
“Women Talking” (UA)