Art of Motion Picture Costume Design Draws Oscar-Nominated Frocks and Suits

Art of Motion Picture Costume Designs
Alex J. Berliner/ABImages

Perhaps the only thing more spectacular than the costumes at the opening night of the 25th Art of Motion Picture Costume Design exhibition were the attendees, dressed to the nines in elaborate hats and intricate sequined cocktail dresses. The costumes on display at the exhibition, sectioned off into groups representative of the year’s most glamour-filled and best-designed films, mimicked the guests’ glad rags in style and flamboyance, expanding on their luxe extravagance and drama.

Fans of film fashion will be able to check out the exhibit until April 22. The Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising, located in downtown Los Angeles, charges no fee for admission to the three-room show, where guests can wander through 1950s Pittsburgh (à la “Fences”), Underland (“Alice Through the Looking Glass”), all the way to ancient Japan (“Kubo and the Two Strings”). Oscar-nominated costumes from “Allied” (designed by Joanna Johnston), “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” (Colleen Atwood, who had work from three other films on display as well), “Florence Foster Jenkins” (Consolata Boyle), and “La La Land” (Mary Zophres) are also on display at the exhibition.

For years, FIDM has brought together costumes from a wide range of films, each an achievement in design and technique. The exhibition has grown from a few dresses on display to a show of more than 100 costumes from 23 films. FIDM hosts a similar exhibition for Emmy nominees in the summer. Also currently on display at the institution is early 20th-century garb at a complementary side exhibit, Exotica: Fashion & Film Costume of the 1920s.

In all, 40 Academy Award nominations are represented at the current exhibition, the outfits from “Jackie” the only nominated costumes missing from this year’s display.
Curators Kevin Jones and Christina Johnson say they try to predict which films will get nominations. But even when they’re right, they can’t always get access to the costumes.

“One of the movies that was so important for costumes was ‘The Devil Wears Prada,’” says Barbara Bundy, director of the museum and vice president of education at the school. “Well, after the movie, they sold everything on eBay.”

Over the years, the profile for the exhibition has grown. This time around, opening-night attendees included Zophres, along with “Fences” designer Sharen Davis, “Kubo” designer Deborah Cook, and “Live by Night” designer Jacqueline West. Zophres was previously nominated for “True Grit,” and Davis has also had two nominations, for “Dreamgirls” and “Ray,” while West has been previously nominated for “The Revenant,” “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” and “Quills.”

West was treated like the celebrity that is her close friend, “Live by Night” director Ben Affleck. People approached her while she described her muses and the search for the perfect fabrics and patterns. West, known in the industry as a “method costumer,” became an expert in 1920s gangster attire, drowning herself in books on Al Capone and speakeasies.

Zophres, a longtime collaborator of the Coen brothers who had worked with Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone on previous films before “La La Land,” originally thought “Hail, Caesar!” was the “best, most fun movie” she’d ever designed. And then four months later came “La La Land.”

“I took a huge cut in pay just to design this film, because I thought, if I don’t, someone else is,” Zophres says. “It’s just gratifying to me that people are responding to this movie the same way I responded to the script.”

While Zophres has had her work shown on the FIDM stage in previous incarnations of the exhibition, perhaps more surprising is that Cook has, too. For the trained sculptor, who stood by the tiny models of Kubo, Sister, Monkey and Beetle, the production looked quite a bit different than her comrades in design. Laika, the production company, animates entirely in stop motion, so the costume pieces are small and design elements favor constant handling and manipulation. Cook studied ancient Japanese culture for months so she could incorporate those elements throughout the film, such as infusing samurai or classic masks and battle armor into the characters of Sister and Beetle, respectively.

“We create our own library of techniques and disciplines,” Cook says, noting in-house dyers, laser cutters, sculptors, Almost entirely absent from the galleries was anything Fashion Week would consider ready-to-wear attire.

The curators say they “tend to always get a selection of fantasy, sci-fi, historical, and contemporary pieces.” But even the contemporary costumes lean away from wearable.

“This is a great year for costumed films. The actors are wearing garments that don’t look like this,” Jones said, gesturing to his own smartly cut suit. “They look like a costume. There are a lot of years where it’s very ‘suit,’ like, lots of guys in suits over and over and over. It’s not as interesting, because when you take the actor and the face out of the suit, it’s a suit. This year, [the costumes] can stand on their own.”

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