The analysis

And the winner was … Sandy Powell for ‘The Aviator’
Sleek suits and fedoras, languid silk chemises, and Cate Blanchett striding across the screen in Kate Hepburn-inspired slacks and spectators — it’s no wonder that Powell took home last year’s Academy Award for costume design. But it wasn’t just the sharp-cut suits that made Leonardo DiCaprio look like a grown man once and for all, nor the breathtaking gowns that Kate Beckinsale poured herself into as she channeled Ava Gardner. There was more, much more, in the matching waiters and showgirls at the Cocoanut Grove nightclub to the war uniforms in “Hell’s Angels,” the film within the film. Powell made each character onscreen look as if they really had stepped right out of Hollywood during its golden years.

Since Powell won last year, it’s possible Acad voters will go with one of the other four nominees in 2006.

History repeats itself in the Oscar costume design category, and often in more ways than one. First, Academy voters love to go back in time when choosing winners, and this year’s crop of nominees continues Oscar’s love for clothing from another place and period. Second, votes are usually cast for designers with proven abilities, a la the legendary Edith Head, whose 35 nominations and eight wins in the category is the shining example.

In the current race, there are three previous winners, along with two newcomers to the fold. Four period pieces are included, ranging from Georgian England (“Pride & Prejudice”) to the 1930s and 1940s (“Memoirs of a Geisha” and “Mrs. Henderson Presents”), and finally the 1950s (“Walk the Line”).

Then there’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” whose time frame is slightly skewed. It’s partly modern, yet with a distinct dollop of Victorian style, incorporating a clever blend of clothing from past and present to match the personalities of the characters involved.

And costume designer Gabriella Pescucci’s vision of Willie Wonka, in dapper velvet and child-touch-avoiding purple gloves, has already become an iconic Hollywood image. But does that make the Italian native the front-runner? It helps that this is a popular film (over $200 million domestic B.O. and counting), and it’s nommed in only this category.

The competition, however, is stiff: Colleen Atwood’s “Memoirs of a Geisha” designs are not only stunning examples of traditional Japanese dress, but also sparked a fashion trend in the real world. She’ll have to fight Sandy Powell, whose figure-flattering styles for the British upper-class character (played by Judi Dench) in “Mrs. Henderson Presents” are breathtaking, furs and all. They may not be politically correct these days, but Powell makes Mrs. Henderson look like the luckiest (and best-dressed) woman in all of wartime England.

The other two nominees are newcomers to the Oscar race. Jacqueline Durran’s costumes for “Pride & Prejudice” evoke Jane Austen’s time with accuracy and aplomb, from the ever-so-slightly shabby looks of the five Bennet sisters to the lushly expensive styles of their wealthy acquaintances. She subtly allows the clothing to reflect the realities of the plot without resorting to the obvious.

“Walk the Line” designer Arianne Phillips pulls off a similar feat, transitioning Johnny Cash and June Carter from poverty to wealth over a span of time that some Academy voters might just remember, from the early 1950s to the mid-1960s. Especially fetching is her ever-changing wardrobe for Reese Witherspoon, whose outfits remind viewers of just how much the world changed in those years.

All five nominees use clothing not only to express character but evoke a time and a place that may be unfamiliar to most moviegoers. Their contributions leave this a category wide open for any one of the five to win the Oscar.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
Gabriella Pescucci

Oscar pedigree: “Age of Innocence” win (1993) and “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen” nom (1989)
Current kudos: BAFTA (nom), Costume Designers Guild (nom)
Why it’ll win: She is the sole nominee for a hugely popular movie, plus her use of some eye-popping colors makes Pescucci’s designs impossible to forget.
Why it won’t: Perhaps her work is a tad too wacky for the often conservative Academy voters.

Memoirs of a Geisha
Colleen Atwood

Oscar pedigree: “Chicago” win (2002) plus 4 noms
Current kudos: BAFTA (nom), Costume Designers Guild (nom), Satellite (nom)
Why it’ll win: Atwood’s costumes were the most memorable aspect of the novel-to-screen adaptation.
Why it won’t: The film hasn’t been on the Acad radar.

Mrs. Henderson Presents
Sandy Powell

Oscar pedigree: “The Aviator” win (2004) and “Shakespeare in Love” win (1998) plus 4 noms
Current kudos: BAFTA (nom), British Independent (nom)
Why it’ll win: Powell makes Judi Dench look simply gorgeous, and does the same for the beautiful young girls who perform in her theater — when they actually have their clothes on, that is.
Why it won’t: Powell already has won twice, and that includes last year for designing similar costumes from the same era in “The Aviator.” Oscar voters may want to spread the wealth around a bit.

Pride & Prejudice
Jacqueline Durran

Oscar pedigree: none
Current kudos: BAFTA (nom), Satellite (win)
Why it’ll win: Oscar traditionally loves period pieces, especially ones dressed in English threads.
Why it won’t: The Acad may decide to go exotic, and so the geisha garb of “Memoirs” aces out Durran’s Georgian period advantage.

Walk the Line
Arianne Phillips

Oscar pedigree: none
Current kudos: Costume Designers Guild (nom)
Why it’ll win: Reese Witherspoon looks cute as a button in Phillips’ inspired designs, and with all eyes on her for the actress Oscar, her clothes may register with voters as much as her performance.
Why it won’t: Might be too close to modern-day garb to truly excite Academy voters.

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