This year’s Academy Award-nominated films featured costumes that can best be described as dazzling, elegant, and gritty. Here, Best Costume Design nominees discuss how they brought those looks to life.
Designer: Sandy Powell
Director Todd Haynes’ drama about a photographer, Therese (Rooney Mara), who falls for an older woman, Carol (Cate Blanchett), takes place in 1950s New York during the winter, a setting that plays an important role in the aesthetic and emotion of the film, particularly the costumes. Powell was inspired by colors captured in the street photography of the time. “In the photographs, you see a sort of highlight of yellow in a taxi cab or a red traffic light or a piece of neon or something,” she tells EW. “That’s kind of what I used in the costumes, elegant color palettes for Carol and then a pop of color like the coral scarf and hat, or Therese’s beret and scarf.”
Carol’s color palette is elegant, and so too is her style. Powell describes it as an “effortless sophistication,” which especially shows when you first see her on screen, wearing a blonde mink coat that sets her apart in the crowd, while browsing through the busy department store where Therese works.
Her romantic counterpart, Powell explains, begins with a style that’s simple but pops, artsy but unselfconscious. “She’s not so much interested in her own appearance until she meets Carol and starts noticing what’s attractive about her,” she says of Therese, who appears at the end of the film in a chic, tailored number with a new haircut and confident attitude to match. “Her own style it’s not an exact replica of anything Carol wears, but it’s influenced and inspired by her.”
Designer: Sandy Powell
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Powell also designed the costumes for director Kenneth Branagh’s update of the classic fairy tale. The looks scream whimsy, and Powell says that came naturally. “It wasn’t difficult making the costumes fun because it’s a fairy tale,” she says. “You can let your imagination run wild and be as colorful and as bold as you like.” Colorful and bold it certainly is, with the most standout example visible the moment Cinderella (Lily James) enters the ball wearing a voluminous, dazzling blue gown. “She has to walk into the ballroom and immediately look different from everybody else,” Powell says. “She has the biggest dress in the room, but it’s also the simplest and it was deliberate.”
How did Powell create that effect? The dress is impressive in size and is about 8 feet in diameter, but looks weightless as though it was “made from air.” And while other women in the crowd are fully made up and accessorized, Cinderella doesn’t have a fancy hairstyle or any jewelry to wear, an indication that “she’s from the opposite world.”
As for the movie’s other looks, Blanchett is wonderfully intimidating as the wicked stepmother, dressed in jewel tones and sharp silhouettes. Helena Bonham Carter’s fairy godmother, on the other hand, stands apart in a light, bright, and sculptural number that is complemented by wings (which Carter had to fight to keep in the film, and Powell admits was a good choice).
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The Danish Girl
Designer: Paco Delgado
The 1920s-set The Danish Girl, directed by Tom Hooper, centers on artists Lili Elbe (Eddie Redmayne) and Gerda Wegener (Alicia Vikander) as they address their marriage and careers as Lili undergoes sex reassignment surgery. Costumes in general are an important factor in the development of a story’s character, but here, they are instrumental in reflecting Lili’s transition.
“The first meeting I had with Tom, he just told me to think that Lili was a woman trapped in a man’s body and that man’s body was a jail somehow for her,” Delgado explains of his starting point with the costumes. “Then we tried to to make two complete opposite worlds.”
Before transitioning, Lili Elbe was born Einar Magnus Andreas Wegener, a man who wore very tailored clothes with high, structured collars that acted as a sort of armor. The palette is dark with greys, blacks, and navy blues, and there’s a lot of heavy wool. “It shows that all the emotions were suppressed, and it was like the body was fading inside,” says Delgado, who already won the trophy for Excellence in a Period Film for The Danish Girl at the 2016 Costume Designers Guild Awards. As Lili starts to blossom, she opts for flowing clothes in warm reds, pinks, and peaches, and softer blues in fluid fabrics like silk.
Then there are the costumes that fall somewhere in between, like a fitted, beige suit Lili wears in a scene in which she is beat up. “I think it’s very interesting how ambiguity [can be] much more threatening,” Delgado says, adding how powerful clothes are in the myriad reactions they can inspire. “If Lili went into the streets wearing a lady’s dress people probably wouldn’t have felt so strange, but it was a man’s suit with very feminine [details].”
Mad Max: Fury Road
Designer: Jenny Beavan
Mad Max: Fury Road has a much grittier look and feel than the other nominated films. Directed by George Miller, the film set in post-apocalyptic Australia tells the story of a group of road warriors fighting against a tyrannical leader. Its costumes are perfectly dystopian, with a grimy aesthetic and metal details.
Beaven, who took home the prize for Excellence in Fantasy Film for Fury Road at the 2016 Costume Designers Guild Awards, sought to make the costumes their own as the film was meant to be another installment rather than a sequel. “I wanted to make our characters much more modern and sort of butch, beefed up, not sort of very overtly steampunky,” she says, adding that Fury Road struck her as being more real and story-based. She worked closely with hair designer and makeup artist Lesley Vanderwalt to bring that vision to life with characters like Nux (Nicholas Hoult). “Nux is a complete collaboration between me and Lesley because Nux only wears trousers with his pockets to keep his personal items,” she says of the War Boy. “A lot of his look has to do with the scarification, the white powder they all cover their bodies with.”
The desert landscape also played a big role, though it did present challenges. “I love all the dirt and dust,” Beavan says, “but funny enough real dirt doesn’t always stick and the dust would certainly cover them and sort of fall off them, so we had spray glue.” Additionally, the team sought out stronger fabrics and made everything themselves as a workaround to the harsh environment and demands of the shoot.
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Designer: Jacqueline West
Another film that put its costumes through the wringer was The Revenant, director Alejandro Iñárritu’s survival epic of frontiersman Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), who works in the 1820s’ blistering cold American wilderness and fights his way back to life after being attacked by a bear and abandoned by his crew. Namely, West applied “black wax” to pristine costumes to give them a more authentic, worn look. Black wax is a name West and her team gave to an animal lard concoction they created, inspired by real trappers returning home with their clothes looking unrecognizable as a result of applying bear grease to them to stay warm. “It gave the leathers and the skins such luster in that dark, natural light of the Rockies,” she says of the wax’s effects. “It had a shine, but a depth.”
West found inspiration in her director and his passion for the story. “There was so much philosophy involved, and he’s a metaphorical and metaphysical director, so it was a great challenge from the beginning,” she says, highlighting how the film looks at early contact with Native Americans, the spiritual experience of Glass, and the relationship between a father and son. “How do you portray all of that, the evolution of man capsulized in one person, Hugh Glass, through costume?”
One outfit that touches on that is the skin of the bear that attacked Glass, which he then wears in an effort to survive the blistering cold. “It had a real symbolic meaning for Alejandro and Leo that the thing that almost killed him ends up saving his life,” says West, who recently created a fashion design scholarship for Native American youths in partnership with FIDM. Beyond being symbolic, it shows a real resourcefulness. “He has the wherewithal and intuitiveness to take it with him.”