Period films and historical epics are always well rewarded for costume design at the Oscars, but what about the contemporary films that may not look as showy, but define characters through carefully chosen costume?
There wasn’t an award for best costume until 1948, but when it was introduced there were originally two categories, for best colour and best black and white costume. This was merged into one category from 1967 as black and white film became almost redundant. The exception being The Artist last year, in its homage to silent cinema.
Only a handful of contemporary films have ever been awarded for costumes. Period films naturally make more of an impact with their elaborate pieces and the extensive, time consuming research involved.
But here are some of the contemporary-set films that have won the Oscar, all capturing a little bit of the period in which they were made.
All About Eve captured the exclusive New York theatre world of the early 1950s. Bette Davis was boozy stage actress Margo Channing, who uttered one of the most famous lines in film history – ‘fasten your seatbelt, it’s going to be a bumpy night.’
While Charles Le Maire costumed the rest of the cast, Bette Davis requested Edith Head to design her wardrobe, which was partly inspired by Tallulah Bankhead and perfect for an actress terrified of getting old. Despite the different designers, the cocktail dresses during the party scene work off each other. Anne Baxter wears a younger fresher version of Davis’ brown off-the shoulder New Look dress, while Marilyn Monroe is over-exposed in a show-stopping evening gown.
Edith Head’s task was to design a wardrobe for fashion-conscious early 1950s teenagers who had the time and luxury of summers spent at Lake Tahoe. But the designer said “My clothes were middle of the road in terms of the current fashion trends…it was a case of taking the styles that were current in early 1949 and translating them into something timeless.” Elizabeth Taylor’s white strapless violet-strewn evening gown was the dress that every girl wore to the prom in 1951. Edith Head based it on the New Look in the hope that it wouldn’t look dated when the film came out. Montgomery Clift was one of the original angst ridden rebels, brooding in a leather bomber jacket and white t-shirt, a uniform left over from the Second World War.
Vincente Minnelli’s musical extravaganza won the Oscar for best colour film for the hard work of its three costume designers as Gene Kelly and Leslie Car fall in love in Paris, to a Gershwin score.
Irene Sharaff solely designed the twenty minute ballet scene, creating 500 costumes in the style of four different painters – Dufy, Toulouse-Lautrec, Rousseau and Renoir. With her background in ballet costuming, she created colourful, vibrant costumes making up snapshots of Parisian life.
The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) Helen Rose
As costume designer for MGM during the 1940s and 1950s, Helen Rose dressed some of Hollywood’s most glamorous stars – Elizabeth Taylor, Esther Williams, Ava Gardner, Natalie Wood and Grace Kelly (she even designed her wedding dress when she became Grace de Monaco.) Luxury was her signature – chiffon overlays, sparkling embroidery and lace.
Directed by Vincente Minnelli, The Bad and the Beautiful was a tale of Hollywood intrigue, and Helen Rose dressed Lana Turner in chiffon, white fox and shimmering gowns as befitting a spoilt movie star.
Roman Holiday (1953) Edith Head
For Audrey Hepburn’s Oscar-winning film debut, Edith Head dressed her in a costume that she said was designed to hide the actress’s supposed flaws – rolled sleeves to disguise thin arms and a neck-tie for her long neck. But as a runaway princess having the time of her life in Rome, Audrey’s jaunty little outfit of shirt, skirt and belt was a refreshing change to the structured, early 50s look of shoulder pads and nipped in waist.
The New York Times wrote at the time, “Thanks to their first glimpse of Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday, half a generation of young females stopped stuffing their bras and teetering on stiletto heels”.
Another win for Edith Head – but this one caused controversy when Givenchy, who designed Audrey Hepburn’s post-Paris make-over wardrobe, received no credit for it. Audrey personally selected three outfits from Givenchy’s Paris shop – the wool double-breasted suit worn when arriving back from Paris, the ball gown which wows the rich society guests and a black cocktail dress with two little bows at the neckline. Givenchy wrote, “What I invented for her ended up a style so popular that the T-shirts and boat neck dresses of the period became known as the ‘décolleté Sabrina’”
Edith did however design the mousy costumes for Sabrina pre-make-over, the black slacks and top, as well as the costumes for the other female characters.
Love is a Many-Spendored Thing (1955) Charles Le Maire
In Hollywood of old, it was quite acceptable for white actors to play Asian roles with the help of make-up, so with Jennifer Jones as Chinese doctor Han Suyin it wasn’t as controversial as it would be now.
Charles Le Maire created beautiful cheongsam for Jennifer Jones, but when this love story was awarded best costume for a colour film over To Catch a Thief, Edith Head was not happy. She said the costumes “were blah compared to my gowns for To Catch a Thief.”
Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita is considered a milestone in world cinema, the first Italian neo-realist film that showed the optimism in the recovery and future of Italy.
Costumes, designed by Piero Gherardi, reflected the differences between old and new Italy and he placed as much emphasis on the male characters in fine Italian tailoring. Journalist Marcello Rubino wears expensive, stylish suits to show his pride in his appearance and playboy manner. Anita Ekbert in the Trevi Fountain is almost spilling out of her black strapless gown. Gherardi also won the Oscar for costume design in 1963, for 8 1/2.
As with other versions of the Romeo and Juliet tale, in West Side Story the two gangs had to look distinctive from one another. So the Sharks wore aggressive purples, reds and blacks while the all-American Jets wore beige, indigos and yellow.
Irene Sharraff created street-wear that was tough enough to withstand the vigorous routines. The jeans were in reality made from an elasticated weave, and distressed with bleaching, washing and dying, to create an authentic denim look.
Sharaff once said: “I relied on colour to contrast the two gangs with touches in their outfits that were taken from Renaissance clothes. In the fifties, the teenage boys on the streets of New York had arrived at a uniform of their own – not yet taken up as fashionable by men and women – consisting of blue jeans or chinos, T-shirts, windbreakers and sneakers.”
Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962) Norma Koch
Bitter rivals Bette Davis and Joan Crawford played decaying movie stars in this camp classic film, which, like Sunset Boulevard and the Bad and the Beautiful, was a satire of Hollywood.
Norma Koch’s costumes reflected the fact that the two sisters were still stuck in the past, with a hankering for the time when they were at the height of their success. Davis is grotesque but frumpy in her childish frills, ruffles and cartoon make-up, while Joan Crawford is more somber and muted as the neglected sister trapped at home.
Dorothy Jeakins, designer for films including Samson and Delilah, the Sound of Music and the Way We Were, won three Oscars and was nominated twelve times in total. Her Oscar-winning costumes in the Night of the Iguana were more character-led than flattering to the actor, and it was an unusual win because there were very few changes of clothes. Ava Gardner played against type as frumpy hotel owner Maxine, Richard Burton was an alcoholic former reverend in crumpled shirts and trousers, Deborah Kerr played a button-upped spinster and Sue Lyons was the alluring teenager in tiny shorts and shirts.
“I was always a director’s designer more than an actor’s designer,” Jeakins once said. “My work was literary.”
Darling (1965) Julie Harris
Julie Harris immortalised Swinging London on screen with her costumes for Darling. She dressed Julie Christie in Chelsea-girl outfits of mini-skirts, headscarves and long socks, a look partly based on the actress’s own wardrobe. Harris was also costume designer for two other films which capture that era – Help (1965) and a Hard Day’s Night (1964).
Harris later said: “Of course when we made it, Darling was just another contemporary film. I had no idea that it would become such an iconic portrayal of that time. I had no idea it was making such a statement.”
She believed that it wasn’t rewarded for costumes in the UK because it was just normal life, but in America they went mad for it. “I think they fell in love with the whole Swinging London image of that time. And it was very fortunate for me because they awarded me the Academy award for it,” she said.