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2019 Oscar Circuit: Best Costume Design

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The Costume Design category often contains some of the wildest and most interesting nominees in any given year. Usually this is because the Costume Designers often look beyond the Best Picture frontrunners and towards genre and period pieces doing interesting work. Of the past ten winners, five came from films without a Best Picture nomination (or any significant above-the-line nominations). Unfortunately, this year bucks the trend. For the first time in Oscar’s 92 year history, all five of the Costume Design nominees are from Best Picture nominees. While great costuming work was done in many high profile films, this speaks to the notion that a truncated Oscar timeline caused voters to see less films.

The nominees for Best Costume Design are:

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  • “The Irishman” – Sandy Powell and Christopher Peterson
  • “Jojo Rabbit” – Mayes C. Rubeo
  • “Joker” – Mark Bridges
  • “Little Women” – Jacqueline Durran
  • “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” – Arianne Phillips

Now let’s take a deeper look at the nominees:

“The Irishman” (Netflix)
Costume Designers: Sandy Powell and Christopher Peterson

Over three and a half hours, “The Irishman” sure covers a lot of ground. Costume designers Sandy Powell and Christopher Peterson had their work cut out for them as they helped chart the passing of fifty years over the course of the film. Both Powell and Peterson managed to make every period and every look feels distinct. That’s saying a lot, as they’ve gone on record estimating they worked on “250 characters and 6,500 extras,” according to an Esquire interview.

Still, it’s never wise to bet against Sandy Powell at the Oscars. The legendary costume designer has won three Oscars from her fourteen previous nominations. Yet, her last win was a decade ago for “The Young Victoria” in 2009. Will nomination fifteen be the one that gets her Oscar number four? “The Irishman” may not be the most flashy of the nominees and the film’s buzz has cooled overall. One can likely place this towards the bottom of the pack in terms of likelihood to win.

“Jojo Rabbit” (Fox Searchlight Pictures)
Costume Designer: Mayes C. Rubeo

On the surface, the costume design work in “Jojo Rabbit” appears like little more than brighter, more colorful and certainly more cartoony versions of Nazi uniforms. Yet, costume designer Mayes C. Rubeo uses color in costume to make the satire seem lighter, warmer and funnier. The costuming also helps shape our perception of our characters. Rosie and Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) get bright ensembles, while the Nazis (other than Adolf (Taika Waititi)) remain comically slovenly. Captain Kienzendorf (Sam Rockwell) never takes care of his uniform, looking drunk and disheveled through most of the film. However, he comes alive when he designs a more flamboyant and feathery outfit. This works its way into a pivotal turn in the third act. Speaking of reveals, Rosie’s shoes are likely to be burned into the brains of all “Jojo Rabbit” fans after a particularly surprising moment.

Recently “Jojo Rabbit” has been gaining traction with guild wins. Victories at the Writers’ Guild Awards (WGA) and Costume Designers’ Guild (CDG) have catapulted this underdog into the race. The Oscars have been going for zanier picks over the past few years. “The Grand Budapest Hotel” mixed time period accuracy with a bright color to create a similarly heightened universe. Recent fantasy winners like “Alice in Wonderland,” “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” and last year’s “Black Panther” suggest the Oscars are over the more traditional period pieces. All this helps “Jojo Rabbit” become the late surging victor.

“Joker” (Warner Bros.)
Costume Designer: Mark Bridges

Sometimes all it takes is one magnificent outfit. Regardless of one’s opinion on the film, Joaquin Phoenix’s bargain-basement clown suit certainly stands as one of the most indelible costumes of the year. There’s something both frightening and disarming about this villain maniacally strutting around in his Sunday best. It certainly beats saggy tighty-whities, perhaps one of the more horrific sights in “Joker.” While Costume Designer Mark Bridges’ work is most prominently displayed on the titular character, the entire ensemble reflects the movie’s overall palette. Robert De Niro’s Murray Franklin specifically calls back to “The King of Comedy,” of which this is loosely based on. The rest of the cast stays in muted, dark tones to further accentuate the hopelessness of poverty, as seen through the lens of director Todd Phillips.

Mark Bridges joins Sandy Powell in the 3-time Oscar winners club this year. His third win came very recently, with “Phantom Thread” in 2017. This means there’s likely little momentum to give Bridges his fourth win so soon. In the past 30 years, the smallest gap between wins was three years between “Chicago” (2002) and “Memoirs of a Geisha” (2005) for Colleen Atwood. Voters would have to love “Joker” to an incredible degree to propel it to a win here. If there were any craft categories where “Joker” could surprise, Makeup & Hairstyling feels like the best bet (after Original Score, of course).

“Little Women” (Sony Pictures)
Costume Designer: Jacqueline Durran

Costumes can do a lot to distinguish characters. In “Little Women,” costume designer Jacqueline Durran sketches out distinct personalities for each of the March sisters, seemingly just through the fabric. Eldest daughter Meg (Emma Watson) craves the finest of dresses, always seeking to be the belle of the ball. Her desire for perfection in dress contrasts with her younger sister, Jo (Saoirse Ronan), who favors sturdier material. She needs it to, as her skirts catch fire often. Jo experiments with a masculine dress, communicating her ability to traverse the world of commerce and business. As seen in the clip above, Amy March (Florence Pugh) uses a dress for economic means. She invests in nice things as she strives to raise the social ranks. Meanwhile, youngest daughter Beth (Eliza Scanlen) feels content with hand-me-downs. She doesn’t need the brightest or boldest outfits, though she does embrace her femininity, even with a budget.

Jacqueline Durran has been prolific this decade. Five of her seven Oscar nominations came since 2010, including double nominations two years ago (“Beauty and the Beast” and “The Darkest Hour”). With only one win under her belt (“Anna Karenina” in 2012), Durran could easily win a second Oscar this year. When in doubt, the Oscars often default to the oldest period piece (think “The Young Victoria,” “The Duchess” or “Elizabeth: The Golden Age”). While they’ve gotten creative in the past years, “Little Women” manages to make the old seem new again. Traditionalists and modernists within the category can both find things to love about the new “Little Women.”

“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” (Sony Pictures)
Costume Designer: Arianne Phillips

Sometimes re-creating a look can be just as hard and daunting as creating a whole new world. “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” brought to life Hollywood of the 60s, complete with style icon Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), the destitute Manson girls and a whole western subplot to boot. Costume designer Arianne Phillips got the chance to spectacularly bring to life some of Sharon Tate’s best looks, while still creatively designing a whole swath of characters. Fading movie star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) gets to model a whole host of hilariously comfortable robes. Meanwhile, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) gets to be a retro and modern style icon. The Hawaiian shirts, T-shirts, and jeans that fit just right make a perfect ensemble on Pitt. It’s hard to think of a portrait of 60s Hollywood that is simultaneous as detailed and as carefree as “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.”

Hollywood stories have done well in this category. “The Artist” won this category in 2011 for its recreation of silent-era Hollywood. Meanwhile, “The Great Gatsby” also proved that lavish parties and fancy cocktail dresses could earn a film a Costume Design win. Despite two previous nominations (“Walk the Line,” “W.E.”), Arianne Phillips has not won her first Oscar yet. If the Oscars are looking to reward a fresh face, Phillips could easily win for perfecting a look at Hollywood that many voters lived through.

Final Words

It’s hard to discount guild wins. With surging momentum, “Jojo Rabbit” looks to peak at just the right time for Oscar glory. There is still the chance that love for period pieces puts “Little Women” or “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” back in the lead. However, the Costume Design category has favored creativity over recreation many times recently (“Fantastic Beasts…” over “Jackie,” “Black Panther” over “The Favourite”). This trend stands to continue this year.

Will Win: “Jojo Rabbit” (Mayes C. Rubio)

Should Win: “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” (Arianne Phillips)

Could Win: “Little Women” (Jacqueline Durran)

Should have been nominated: “Hustlers” (), “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” (Dorothée Guiraud), “Rocketman” (Julian Day)

Which Costume Design nominee are you rooting for at the Oscars? Who should have been nominated? Comment below and share your thoughts! Also, make your picks at the Circuit Hub.

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Written by Christopher James

Christopher James has been an Oscar obsessive ever since watching his first ceremony at age 5 when "Titanic" won Best Picture. He is a recent graduate from Loyola Marymount University with degrees in Screenwriting for Film and Television and Marketing. Christopher currently works in media strategy and planning at Liquid Advertising, based out of Los Angeles, CA. You can find Christopher running on the sunny beach, brunching at trendy restaurants or mostly just sitting in a dark room watching movies and TV in sweatpants. Follow me on Twitter @cwj92movieman


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