Oscars 2015: The Art and Business of Costume Design

Credits: Photo - Anonymous, Styling - Sarah G. Schmidt, Location - Plaza Theatre in Kensignton

Much anticipation builds about who will wear what to the Oscars is the norm come February. Though many are delighted by the looks on the red carpet, I feel that the Oscars are typically the most boring in terms of celebrity style of all the awards shows. I find that the attendees play it way too beige, or boring if you’re new to my blog, and all you see a neutral wash of practicability. Every so often you get a group of stunners. This year was not that kind of year. 

While I could provide my arguments for the best and worst dressed, I choose to focus on some on the more modest heroes of the Academy Awards: the costume designers. Bloggers, gossips and grocery check out magazines tend to focus on the big names that are up front and centre. Rather than spend more time arguing with the masses on who wore the best version of the body-con blush strapless, I chose to spend time learning and admiring the work of the costume designers. Further, I wanted to highlight the enthralling work of the five nominees. This year the five costume designers, in alphabetical order, recognized are below. 

Into the Woods designer Colleen Atwood had designed for many films including Silence of the Lambs, Big Fish, Edward Scissorhands, and more recently, Snow White and the Huntsman. She has sixty-two costume design credits on her IMDb profile and usually works on two or three films each year since her start in the mid-eighties. Her career is more consistent than many A-list actors. She has three Oscars in the (designer?) bag and shows no signs of slowing down. When asked about her work, she said, “Costumes are the first impression that you have of the character before they open their mouth-it really does establish who they are.”  

Costume designers are key to a film’s aesthetic and help to set the tone. It is vital in the actor’s transformation into his or her role. Everyday viewers easily see the influence of designer’s work on a film set in another time period. It may be harder to see the work set in present time, but I assure you it is no less impressive. A great example to illustrate my point is Mark Bridges. Bridges’ work osculates between time periods. This year he was recognized for his work in Inherent Vice. To date, he has worked as the lead on thirty-eight TV/Film projects and one Oscar win. Some of his most memorable work can be seen in Boogie Nights, Punch Drunk Love, The Artist, and the blockbuster, Fifty Shades of Grey: The untrue story about the most basic gal on the planet and a man who doesn’t exist. All joking aside, the subtly need to pull off a horned up romance novel adaptation is no small feat.

Milena Canonero, nominated for Mr. Turner, studied art and design as a young adult in Italy and England. Her solo work started with Stanley Kubrick films in the seventies. Her breakout opportunity was Clockwork Orange. She also contributed to the Godfather trilogy. Over her five-decade career she has forty-one projects credited. In more recent years she has been the go-to designer for Wes Anderson, receiving her fourth Oscar on Sunday for The Grand Budapest Hotel. Not only does she excel in film, she is also well versed in designing for the stage with New York Met and Vienna State Opera.
Jacqueline Durran may be best known for her work on Atonement, Pride & Prejudice, and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. This year her work on Mr. Turner has earned her another nomination. She has led eighteen projects since 2001 and has snagged an Oscar and this year’s nomination is proof that she can delivers results on even the tightest budgets. It was rumoured that for Mr. Turner she could only create new costumes for the lead character and had to source existing pieces for the rest of the cast. Now that’s thrifty.
The final Oscar nominee, Anna B. Sheppard, has been designing since the early seventies on forty-nine projects and counting. She may be best know for her work on Inglorious Basterds, Schindler’s List and, The Pianist. Not only excelling with period art films, she has also assembled the costumes for huge blockbusters including Captain America: The First Avenger and her most recent nomination Maleficent. A quick glance at her portfolio reveals that she has a knack for the World War Two era film wardrobes citing more than five different projects, including a favourite of mine, the mini series, Band of Brothers. She has been nominated three times for an Oscar but has yet to win. 

If the work was not an attractive enough reason to become a costume designer, it turns out there’s another draw: a decent income. In the 2010* report of the more than 15,000 American based Fashion Designers, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, United States Department of Labor notes that the costume designers subset make up only 260 persons of that (just over than 1 percent) of the overall industry. They may be small, but they are the mightiest, or shall I say, nearly the highest earners of the entire industry. The same source reported that the average annual salary for a costumer designer was over $92,000 annually while the average for all fashion designers was just over $74,000 annually.

Pulling from the same article, location of residence plays a role in the designer’s salary as well. I was surprised to find out that those located in California make on average $15,000 less annually than those living in New Hampshire. I thought being at the epicentre of Hollywood would have its financial advantages but I was incorrect. I can’t hypothesize what the underlying reason for the variance. Perhaps the West versus East grudge is still alive and very well?

These five, among the many other costume designers, should be celebrated. Their work is captivating. They are storytellers they need no words or action to express the intended meaning.

Do you have a moment when what you wore transformed your presence? Perhaps a childhood costume or special event? Tell me. 

*The 2013 numbers are not yet released but I assume they will follow similar trends to the 2010.