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Dressing the part

Designers define character through clothing

Today’s costume designers may never catch up to the legendary Edith Head, but it’s not for lack of talent. Her unprecedented eight Academy Awards, 35 nominations and public name recognition were more a function of the old studio system than superior artistry.

The death of the studio system has been a boon and a bane for costume designers. Greater opportunity and independence are the benefits, yet hundreds now labor in relative obscurity, unknown to audiences and underappreciated by the industry.

But what makes a great costume designer remains the same — the ability to successfully interpret characters through clothing; to tell a story without being showy; to transform actors into stars. Unlike fashion designers, with whom they are often confused, costume designers must consider how color and silhouette impact plot and character and how designs translate onscreen.

Those who succeed at this challenge do so under diminishing costume budgets and without the benefit of vast studio wardrobe staffs. Tight deadlines, fewer fully stocked costume rental houses and a shortage of skilled artisans further hinder their work. Despite these difficulties, designers share a passion for the business of making magic that keeps them striving to perfect what they do.

British costume designers top the list of the accomplished in terms of Oscar laurels. Anthony Powell (“Tess,” “Death on the Nile,” “Travels With My Aunt”) and James Acheson (“The Last Emperor,” “Dangerous Liaisons,” “Restoration”) each have received three Academy Awards and multiple nominations. Yet both say Italian Piero Tosi (“The Leopard”) is the greatest designer alive today.

Powell, who works deftly in both period and contemporary films, describes costume design as “a very subtle and delicate relationship.” Whether transforming Glenn Close into Cruella DeVille for “101 Dalmatians” or Dustin Hoffman into an owl-eyed prisoner in “Papillon,” Powell sees his job as inspiring confidence in actors.

“Actors, even the most famous and most glittering ones, are all very vulnerable people, because they’re out there exposing themselves, if they’re any good,” he says. “If you can make them feel secure so that they know they look as good as humanly possible or as right for the character, then they don’t have to worry about that.”

Costume designers are usually the first to meet with actors and discuss the interpretations of their roles. It’s a collaborative effort that makes for the greatest success, Powell says. “I wouldn’t dream of putting pen to paper until we toss things back and forth.”

Acheson is known for stretching the limitations of the period picture with inspired restraint. “You have to know the truth before you can be unfaithful,” he says. “One does as much research as one can in order to be able to work freely within the spirit of the period.”

Though the trend in the past 20 years has been greater historical accuracy in period costumes, designers speak fondly of Hollywood’s Golden Age when designers Adrian, Orry-Kelly and Travis Banton took greater liberties with period pieces and achieved unrivaled glamour in their designs.

“The danger of some of these (historically accurate) films is that they become dreary after a bit,” says Bob Ringwood, an Englishman renowned for his sci-fi work for the “Batman” and “Alien” films. “I personally feel it’s gotten to the point where if I see another tea-stained old frock, I’ll go crazy.”

Like many designers, Ringwood has struggled to avoid typecasting. His period work on “The Draughtsman’s Contract” and “Empire of the Sun” are testimony to the breadth of his skills.

Mostly, he laments the lack of respect for costume design in general and sci-fi in particular. “I’ve heard producers say to agents, ‘What do these rag-pickers expect to be paid, then?’ There’s an underlying attitude that it’s an easy job and their sister, mother, Auntie Flo could do it — sort of happy hands at home.”

Regarding sci-fi and fantasy films he says, “They don’t get considered (for Academy Awards) at all. They’re sort of not worthy of being considered. It’s like Oscar by the yardage. You know, if you put in a lot of silk, you might get an award.”

Current films being heavily touted for next year’s Oscar race include Miramax’s “Wings of the Dove,” with costumes by Sandy Powell (“Orlando,” “Interview With the Vampire”) and Paramount’s “Titanic,” costumed by Deborah L. Scott (“Legends of the Fall,” “Hoffa”).

Powell’s lush Fortuny-inspired gowns show the loosening of European attitudes from the corseted Edwardian period to the Bohemian-flavored ’20s, while Scott’s elaborate high Edwardian creations depict wealthy excess in pre-income-tax America.

One of the few Stateside designers challenging foreign dominance of the costume Oscar is two-time winner and five-time nominee Albert Wolsky (“Bugsy,” “All That Jazz”). Aside from Ann Roth, who won in 1996 for “The English Patient,” Wolsky is the only American to win the coveted statue in the past 12 years.

Sharing the wealth

As a member of the board of governors of the Academy, Wolsky has seen his share of debates over the Oscar going to period vs. contemporary films. At one time there was talk of splitting the Oscar again into two awards — one for contemporary films and one for period. (Originally, costume design Oscars were given for black-and-white and color films.)

“I don’t think it’s feasible,” Wolsky says. “Then they would have to split every other award, too. It would be a grab bag of awards. I know that period costumes get recognized over modern costumes, and they always will be. But then again, a drunk scene gets noticed over just good quiet acting. That’s life.”

In any case, Wolsky is grateful for the recognition he’s received and doesn’t believe designers work to win awards. His greatest hope is that the industry will create more interesting plots and characters. “Just because it’s wonderful costumes, even that isn’t good enough. I’d like to work on some interesting movies. There should be something you can contribute visually to help explain and define the particular story.”

Historical challenge

Two upcoming films focusing on African-American slavery presented new design challenges for their critically acclaimed designers. For the upcoming “Beloved,” Colleen Atwood (“Little Women,” “Edward Scissorhands”) had to do extensive reading to determine what free slaves wore in the 1800s, as “few people took photos of their slaves.”

Designer Ruth Carter (“Malcolm X,” “Cobb”) also tackled 1800s slavery for “Amistad,” including Cuban slave factories and a seaport featuring British and U.S. sailors, homeless people, fish peddlers, vendors and aristocrats.

Designer Ellen Mirojnick (“Starship Troopers,” “Wall Street,” TV’s “Cinderella”) have been battling a form of fashion slavery in her current project, “A Perfect Murder.” Studio execs, product placement reps and fashion designers have been pressuring her to let them dress stars Gwyneth Paltrow and Michael Douglas.

“There’s a group of fashion designers who are very, very keen on dressing celebrities,” she says. “This is for their own good. They want their clothes seen. They want them sold. Which means, as an end result, more money and ego gratification.

Lack of realism

The problem is that fashion design has an entirely different goal from costume design. No real person would dress entirely in Donna Karan or Calvin Klein, yet designers expect to do that on a character in a film. That’s not about designing a character, she says: “It’s about having a runway show.” Mirojnick also maintains that fashion designers won’t donate a piece of clothing if they can’t dress the whole star.

As a result, she refuses to use their clothes and designs and manufactures all of the principle’s clothes in her films. “I feel so strongly about the lack of integrity that has permeated this area of film because of everybody wanting something for nothing and jumping on the bandwagon and disrespecting the craft for which we are hired.”

TV designer Melina Root, who earned an Emmy this year for “3rd Rock From the Sun,” says TV shows present an incredible time challenge and require incredible creativity and thought, whether they’re shopped and redesigned or designed from scratch. She describes the “3rd Rock” look as garments gathered from the thrift shop of the universe.

One relative newcomer to film work, Australian Kym Barrett, has created excitement in the field with her stylish marriage of Elizabethan and modern influences in the latest remake of “Romeo + Juliet.”

Barrett may be the first costume designer in history hired to create costumes for an animated feature, Fox’s “Planet Ice,” still a year or more in the works. Computer technology has given animators the ability to replicate complicated costumes that were difficult with the old cell method.

The process was a little more confusing for Fox executives, who didn’t know how to cast or pay Barrett. Even the Costume Designers Guild was at a loss to categorize her work. “I had to join the animator’s union,” she says.

Maybe they’ll have to add a new category to the costume design Oscar after all.

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