Los Angeles based scholar Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell* contributes the following guest post for Worn Through:
For the sixth year, a who’s-who of Hollywood costume designers gathered at UCLA on the eve of the Academy Awards for Sketch to Screen, a panel and Q&A organized by the David C. Copley Center for the Study of Costume Design in the university’s School of Theater, Film and Television. The Center’s director, Professor Deborah Nadoolman Landis, opened the event with a quote from costume historian James Laver: “Clothes are never a frivolity. They alwaysmean something.” This is especially true on film, where every piece of clothing represents a deliberate choice by the costume designer and director.
The lineup was a study in split identities: the six panelists had dramatically schizophrenic resumés, bouncing from costume dramas to contemporary films to fantasy and from low-budget indies to studio blockbusters. But, as Joy costume designer Michael Wilkinson pointed out, the constants outweigh the contrasts. “We all use color, silhouette, and texture to reveal a character,” he said. “It’s the same whether it’s Amy Adams in American Hustle or Wonder Woman.”
All four of this year’s Oscar-nominated costume designers—Sandy Powell, Jenny Beavan, Paco Delgado, and Jacqueline West—participated in the panel. Three-time winner Powell was nominated twice for two very different projects, the live-action Disney fairy tale Cinderella and the intimate 1950s drama Carol. She had just six weeks to prep for Carol, but six months for Cinderella. However, she noted that “even on a big film like Cinderella, I’m always there gluing the sequins on at the end.”
Jenny Beavan—long known as “a bonnets and corsets girl,” in her words—was nominated (and subsequently won) for the dystopian, sci-fi action movie Mad Max: Fury Road. It’s a long way from her previous Oscar, for 1987’s Merchant-Ivory romance A Room With a View. “The materials are different; I’ve never used so much vellum and metal and weird combinations of rubber,” she quipped. “But the process is exactly the same.”
Before Paco Delgado earned his nomination for the acclaimed period piece The Danish Girl, he worked with Pedro Almodódovar on what he described as movies about “women cleaning floors dressed in Dolce & Gabbana.” Jacqueline West’s last project before her Oscar-nominated work on The Revenant was The Social Network. After all those “hoodies and flip-flops,” West was nervous about taking on a historical film, until her husband reassured her: “Know the characters, know the period, and they will dress themselves.”
Also joining the panel were Wilkinson and Suttirat Anne Larlarb, whose close creative partnership with director Danny Boyle resulted in 2009’s unlikely Academy favorite Slumdog Millionaire as well as this year’s slick, studio-produced Steve Jobs. Larlarb remembered being hit by a truck on her first day of filming Slumdog in Mumbai. “I thought to myself: ‘I’m just going to get up and keep going.’ It was a good metaphor for the rest of the film!” Nevertheless, she said she prefers working on smaller films; the bigger the budget, the more opinions she has to take into account when designing the costumes.
Wilkinson has done two films with auteur David O. Russell: Joy and 2013’s American Hustle, for which he received an Academy Award nomination. But he has also made a name for himself costuming superhero movies: Man of Steel, Batman v. Superman, and his current project, Justice League. He admitted that “it’s difficult to keep the daily creativity flowing” on a year-long, special-effects-heavy studio production, compared to a Russell shoot.
Landis pointed out that five of the six designers worked on films with acting nominations—a record she credited in part to effective costumes. West said that when you first put a costume on an actor, “if their body language doesn’t change, you’ve got to go back to work.” But she added that two of her previous films—Argo and The Social Network—were not nominated in the costume category, though they racked up other nominations and awards, including Best Picture for Argo. Landis noted that films set in modern times are typically shut out of the costume category; the costumes in this year’s Best Picture winner, Spotlight, were similarly ignored.
Both Beavan and West shared how they earned their most recent nominations in grueling conditions: Beavan in the Namibian desert (“I battled sand on a daily basis, often going horizontally”) and West in the Canadian wilderness, where it was so cold that parts of her hair froze and broke off. “I didn’t want anyone to die on the shoot—especially me,” West laughed. “Looking back, it was all worth it, but at the time you think: ‘Is this the film that’s going to be dedicated to me?’”
The panel ended with a fascinating digression into the use of multiples. Given the harsh and isolated locations and extensive stunt work in Mad Max and The Revenant, Beavan and West had as many as twenty copies of some costumes made. But the other panelists revealed that even smaller, less action-packed films can require multiples. The title character of Steve Jobs famously wore the same outfit all the time; furthermore, the film was shot in San Francisco, where, Larlarb discovered, there is no overnight dry cleaning. Powell made eight blue ballgowns for Cinderella, and Delgado added a disposable panel to a one-of-a-kind vintage dress to film multiple takes of a nosebleed scene. Powell, too, used vintage garments for Carol. “I wish I’d had more of that fur coat,” she said. “Cate’s fur coat fell apart every single day.”
With many UCLA film and theatre students in the audience, the designers offered parting advice for breaking into film costuming. “Be prepared to do anything,” Powell suggested; West added that “anything” should include working for free. Beavan encouraged students to “learn every skill you can: metalwork, leatherwork, distressing, aging, patternmaking.” It might lead to not just a job, but an Academy Award.
*Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell is an independent scholar and author of ‘Fashion Victims: Dress at the Court of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette‘ (Yale University Press, 2015).