“Clothes don't make the man?” That rule certainly doesn't hold true in the movies. Dress can say a lot about characters, their class, their self-image, their self-consciousness, the period and place in which they live, the story they're living and how a director wishes an audience to perceive them.
Fortunately, the Academy's Costume Design branch recognizes this, as it consistently proves itself to be one of the most original sects of the organization, not overtly swayed by a film's overall perception. Every year, films that are critically maligned and/or have no other nominations tend to score here and the overall state of the Best Picture race tends to play only a peripheral role.
Nevertheless, trends can be noted. Period pieces almost always take a majority of the nominations, frequently all five. Glamor is also awarded frequently. There are also great designers (such as Sandy Powell, Milena Canonero and Colleen Atwood) who usually score when in contention. But not always.
There are plenty of riches on display this year, and let's start with Ms. Atwood. The 10-time nominee/three-time winner earned her first two statuettes (“Chicago” and “Memoirs of a Geisha”) for her collaborations with Rob Marshall, and also earned a nod for her third Marshall feature (“Nine”). This year, she's back in that musical comfort zone with the director's adaptation of “Into the Woods.” Will the movie be any good? That's to be determined. But what is not in doubt is that Atwood will have plenty of chances to fashion multiple fairy tale stars, combining elements of period and fantasy. I'll be surprised if she doesn't make the final five.
Atwood is also in the running for Tim Burton's “Big Eyes.” She earned her third win for a Burton film (“Alice in Wonderland”) and has two other nominations for Burton collaborations (“Sleepy Hollow” and “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”). This film's status in the race is still very much to be determined, and the work is unlikely to be as splashy as “Into the Woods.” But given the pedigree and the fact that, judging by the trailer, the costumes certainly pop, don't rule out the potential for a double dip.
Atwood is not the only contender with two films in contention this year. Anna B. Sheppard has provided the threads for both “Maleficent” and “Fury.” I don't think the latter's World War II work is showy enough, to say nothing of its lackluster reception, but perhaps it could propel her to the nod for “Maleficent?” The costumes there were extravagant indeed, the film has its fans and Sheppard, previously nominated for “Schindler's List” and “The Pianist,” has been on the cusp of a third nod for a while (“Inglourious Basterds” being a particularly curious snub).
Jacqueline Durran has had a good past decade with the Academy, earning nominations for Joe Wright's “Pride & Prejudice” and “Atonement” before winning for his “Anna Karenina.” Will she be able to earn a nod outside of a Wright collaboration? With “Mr. Turner,” her odds must be considered very good. Her work has been praised as meticulously detailed, and 19th Century England seems a particular fetish of this branch.
Milena Canonero is a legend in the field, pure and simple. Since collaborating with Stanley Kubrick on “A Clockwork Orange” at the age of 25, she has been selective in her film choices, winning Oscars for “Barry Lyndon,” “Chariots of Fire” and “Marie Antoinette.” “The Grand Budapest Hotel” was filled with trademarks of Wes Anderson's design, but it is also more classicly period than his previous efforts. Though the designs may be eccentric, that may not be damning (see “The Great Gatsby” last year), especially with Canonero's name attached.
Ruth E. Carter is another designer with two nominations to date (“Malcolm X” and “Amistad”) who may be poised for a third. “Selma” remains, in my opinion, a very uncertain title. It is an incredibly “baity” project through and through, in terms of subject matter and release date. But why have we seen so little of it?
Fourteen years ago, Janty Yates won this category for Ridley Scott's “Gladiator.” She has yet to return to the race, despite efforts like “Kingdom of Heaven,” “American Gangster” and “De-Lovely.” “Exodus: Gods and Kings” is one of December's great unknowns. But if it becomes a hit, it could be a tech category behemoth.
Mark Bridges is another contender who has only one nomination (a win, for “The Artist”) despite doing quality work on numerous films for years. Much of that work has been for Paul Thomas Anderson, who has used no other costume designer. I have every confidence that Bridges' threads for “Inherent Vice” will be appropriately film-serving and character-building. What I have less confidence in is that the film will catch on (not that that's always a terrible problem in this category, as noted).
So far, I've only discussed contenders who have already been nominated. But it is quite rare for this category to consist entirely of past nominees (it's been over a decade since the last time it happened). So I suspect someone among the following will be nominated.
Louise Frogley may be the contender most “overdue” for a first nomination, with outstanding work on Steven Soderbergh's “The Good German” and George Clooney's “Good Night, and Good Luck.” on her resume that likely brought her close to nominations. She'll have her period designs once again on display in Angelina Jolie's “Unbroken.” Her biggest obstacle may be that uniforms and war accoutrements tend to be overlooked here. We'll see.
Bob Buck and Ann Maskrey have been lurking on the periphery of this category for the last two “Hobbit” movies. “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” is the last chance to award them. I'm not sure if the branch feels particularly obliged to do so, but it's a possibility that should be considered.
I fully expect “The Imitation Game” to rack up plenty of nominations. And Sammy Sheldon Differ has been doing solid work for years on titles such as “Kick-Ass,” “V for Vendetta” and “X-Men: First Class,” among others. Can this one become a true sweeper, propelling her to her first nomination? The work isn't the showiest aspect of the film, but it's a possibility.
Steven Noble is working in the same era as Differ on “The Theory of Everything.” Except his costumes are slightly more contemporary in feel, slightly less showy. But one never knows.
Finally, I'll end on another contender with two films in the running: Kasia Walicka-Maimone for “Foxcatcher” and “A Most Violent Year.” With efforts such as “Capote” and “Moonrise Kingdom” on her resume, I'd say this talented costume designer is headed for a nomination sooner as opposed to later. These two titles may be a tad subtle, but that's not always a determining factor.
Those are the primary contenders as I see them. But this category always produces surprises. What will they be? Chime in below with your thoughts and predictions!