Oscars Lowdown 2014: Best Costume Design – Is ‘Gatsby’ all dressed up for the win?

In the lead-up to the 86th annual Academy Awards on March 2, HitFix will be bringing you the lowdown on all 24 Oscar categories with multiple entries each day. Take a few notes and bone up on the competition as we give you the edge in your office Oscar pool!

Costume design is perhaps my favorite below-the-line Oscar category to analyze. That’s partly because the craft itself is so integrally tied into the development of narrative, character and performance, but also because this voting branch can get so frisky with their choices. This year’s field contains two former winners, two first-time nominees and one recurring bridesmaid, and it’s an attractive collection — ranging from rags to riches, from 19th-century England to 1970s New Jersey. It is, however, a field that demonstrates the Academy’s overwhelming bias toward period work in this category — it’s nice when they find room for contemporary and/or fantasy work, but it wasn’t to be this year. (Meanwhile, the Costume Designers Guild has yet to weigh in, but the Academy frequently disagrees with them, so their awards are unlikely to shake the following forecast.)

The nominees are…

“American Hustle” (Michael Wilkinson)
Period pieces may rule this race, but voters don’t just favor any old era. Films set in the 1970s and beyond tend to be viewed as more or less “contemporary” and can struggle to gain traction. (As a rule, Oscar voters don’t usually vote for clothes they remember wearing themselves.) So the nomination for first-time contender Michael Wilkinson’s flashy, trashy disco-era wardrobe for “American Hustle” is already an unusual achievement – but the costumes themselves (especially Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence’s synthetically sexy evening gowns) are just sparkly enough to override the ribbons-and-ruffles bias in the final vote. What is more, it’s a film where costume is integrally tied into character; even the male leads’ contrasting but uniformly hideous suits reveal much about their status, aspirations and insecurities. (Check out our interview with Michael Wilkinson here.)

“The Grandmaster” (William Chang Suk Ping)
The costume designers always throw us at least one curveball in this category, and they’re friendlier than most to foreign-language fare – so it was a qualified surprise to see William Chang Suk Ping make the cut for Hong Kong’s shortlisted (but unnominated) Oscar submission. Wong Kar-wai’s films are famous for their ornate lensing (and DP Philippe Le Sourd was nominated too), but their design work is equally elaborate – and the costuming of this martial arts epic, spanning the 1930s and the 1950s, is is a study in sleek, East-meets-West glamour, all rich black-on-black silks, knife-sharp fedoras and alive-looking fur collars. Of all the clothes in the category, these might be the ones you most want to reach out and touch – but they’re probably also the least likely to triumph.

“The Great Gatsby” (Catherine Martin)
Nine times out of 10, the “best = most” equation will serve you well in the technical categories, and no nominee this year features more fabric – whether feathered, bejeweled or crisply pressed – than Baz Luhrmann’s eye-popping adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s study of Jazz Age decadence. As a critique of heedless luxury and excess, “Gatsby” lends itself to sartorial dazzle; Jack Clayton’s Robert Redford-starring version won this very award in 1975. Luhrmann’s wife, Catherine Martin, has never been one for restraint, and truly went to town here, incorporating contemporary designs from the likes of Prada into her flamboyant period vision. A former winner in this category for “Moulin Rouge!,” she won the BAFTA last weekend; the smart money’s on her repeating on Oscar night. (Check out our interview with Catherine Martin here.)

“The Invisible Woman” (Michael O’Connor)
When you’re truly stumped in this category, the contender with the most corsets and hoop skirts is often the safest bet – and if Ralph Fiennes’ delicate portrait of Charles’ Dickens’ secret romantic life had been a little more widely seen, I’d consider Michael O’Connor’s exquisitely faded Victorian wear a major threat. Then again, lower-profile films can triumph here over heavyweight opposition, as O’Connor himself learned with the extravagantly ruffled “The Duchess” in 2008. Call it the dark horse, then – albeit one of a dusty rose hue. Strangely, the Guild overlooked O’Connor this year, though between this and his nominated work on “Jane Eyre” two years ago, he’s now the go-to guy for lived-in English period pieces.

“12 Years a Slave” (Patricia Norris)
If you’re looking for the most olde-worlde of these five period nominees, that’d be (by a couple of years, at least) “12 Years a Slave,” though it goes without saying that Steve McQueen’s slavery drama is the most modest sartorial showcase of the lot. But 82-year-old veteran Patricia Norris’s wardrobe is an exemplary study in texture and authenticity: where so many period pieces make the mistake of looking overly box-fresh, here you can practically feel the sweat and dirt ingrained into every one of the characters oft-repeated garments, though with careful differences in fabric and finish that distinguish even the grubbiest haves from the have-nots. With credits such as “Days of Heaven” and “The Elephant Man” to her name, Norris is a six-time nominee in this category, her last loss having come way back in 1989 for “Sunset”; it;d be sweet to see her finally get up on the podium, but I sense this work is too (necessarily) drab to get her there.

Will win: “The Great Gatsby”
Could win: “American Hustle”
Should win: “American Hustle”
Should have been here: “Stoker”

Deep as this field is, a lot of my favorite costume work in 2013 was in the contemporary sphere — I was never overly optimistic that this branch would notice Kurt and Bart’s haute-couture-meets-American-Gothic designs for “Stoker,” but for me, it was far and way the year’s standout achievement in this category. I also loved the subtle, silhouette-adjusted futurism of Casey Storm’s work in “Her,” and Suzy Benzinger’s crucial recycling of key items in “Blue Jasmine,” but they were never going to turn voters’ heads.

What do you think deserves to win Best Costume Design this year? Vote in our poll below.

And how do you think this race will pan out? Who should be here instead? Share your thoughts in the comments.