“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.