What: Seventh Annual Costume Designers Guild Awards
When: Feb. 19 — 5:30 reception; 7:00 dinner followed by awards presentation
Where: Beverly Hilton Hotel, Int’l Ballroom
Wattage: Hosts are Mary Steenbergen, Ted Dansen; presenters include Mike Nichols, Leonard Nimoy, Marcia Cross, Carrie Fisher, Kathryn Morris and Paula Abdul.

Whether it’s a desire to beat the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences to the punch, or a push to extend its reach overseas, this year the Costume Designers Guild has opened its awards to non-members for the first time.

As a result, four out of the five Oscar nominees for costume design are also CDG contenders in the period/fantasy category. That’s in stark contrast with last year’s race, when only one CDG nominee was up for a statuette.

Board member Mary Rose says a proposal to include non-members was put before the board three years ago after current CDG president Deborah Landis took office, but it was voted down.

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Like most Hollywood guilds, a large percentage of CDG members are often out of work and are feeling the pressure from losing jobs to overseas production. The board couldn’t justify spending guild money to promote the work of non-member designers until sponsorship money from Lacoste, Swarovski, Bulgari, Lancel and Anne Cole made the gala self-sufficient.

Board member Carol Ramsey says it was the right decision, given the high quality of work being done by non-members, especially those living and working abroad. “It’s nice to think that we want to honor our own and all of that, but if we’re going to cut out a lot of the really big costume films, what does it really mean? And I think we have to take a really international approach. Films are made all over the world.”

Brit designer Janty Yates, who won an Oscar for “Gladiator” (2000), but whose non-member status made her ineligible for a CDG mention, was surprised to find herself in the reverse situation this year: She is a contender in the guild’s fantasy/period category for “De-Lovely,” but she did not make Oscar’s cut. Says Rose: “(Yates) told me, ‘I’m not sure what you guys do, but I want to join.’ ”

Other contenders in the category include three-time Oscar nominee Alexandra Byrne for “The Phantom of the Opera,” newcomer Sharen Davis for “Ray” and familiar faces Sandy Powell (“The Aviator”) and Colleen Atwood (“Lemony Snicket’ s A Series of Unfortunate Events”).

Vintage advantage

That none of the CDG nominees for contemporary film nabbed an Oscar nomination underscores the reason the guild started its awards. Even costume designers in the Academy branch find it hard to give the gold statuette to designers of contemporary projects.”You’ re never going to get away from that,” says Ellen Harrington, director of exhibitions at AMPAS. “It is a huge challenge to do a historical film.”

Davis’ work on “Ray” underscores this point. “This is definitely the hardest film I’ve ever done,” she says, “because I’ve never moved through time like this.” “Ray” begins in the ’30s with singer Ray Charles’ childhood in Florida sharecropper country, then follows his rise to stardom through Seattle and Los Angeles, from the ’50s and beyond. Davis created dozens of believable ensembles in every decade and walk of life from vintage finds culled from thrift stores nationwide.

The nominee paid strict attention to the tactile aspect of Jamie Foxx’s hand-built costumes, choosing fabrics and cuts that would have suited the blind musician’s sense of touch.

Several period designers were highlighted in the contemporary category this year, including “Alfie” designer Beatrix Aruna Pasztor (who also did the work on 2004’s “Vanity Fair”) and Milena Canonero, for both “Ocean’s Twelve” and “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou.”

Were guild members sending a message with these nominations?

“I don’t think it was deliberate, but it really makes our point very strongly,” says CDG prexy Landis. For contemporary and period work, “in terms of imagination, our research process is exactly the same.”

Whether crafting the stylish sequel “Ocean’s 12” or creating a quirky world for “Life Aquatic,” Canonero “takes costume design into another realm — her brilliant eye, her knowledge and her creativity raise the standard of any film she works on,” says Anjelica Huston, co-star of the latter pic.

“A lot of the most brilliant, cutting-edge work in costumes right now is being done on contemporary films, with costumes that have a note of satire or comedy to them,” says the Academy’ s Harrington.

For “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” contempo nominee Melissa Toth placed muted tones on Jim Carrey, while creating a “bird of paradise” wardrobe for Kate Winslet’s character.

Given “Eternal Sunshine’s” time lapses and flashbacks, the costumes are an essential element in making the film believable and helping viewers navigate the wild plot. “It was a real brain tease the entire time, so that was mechanically very challenging,” Toth recalls.

Toth was “surprised and shocked” to be nominated, because like most contemporary designers, she’s accustomed to having her work overlooked.

Femme-heavy competition

Male designers are almost totally absent from this year’ s nominations. For the second year in a row, all 10 mentions for work on features went to women. It’s not that the profession that produced Edith Head and Irene Sharaff wasn’t always rife with female talent, but one wonders what costume hall-of-famers like Adrian, Travis Banton, Walter Plunkett and Jean Louis would think of their gender taking so few mentions in the current awards climate.

But Landis doesn’t view this development as a huge surprise, given that the field is now 95% women, she says. Save for “Nip/Tuck” nominee Lou Eyrich, the remaining TV nominees are female. Contemporary contenders are Catherine Adair (“Desperate Housewives”), Patricia Field (“Sex and the City”), Jill Ohanneson (“Six Feet Under”) and Juliet Polcsa (“the Sopranos”).

Vying for the fantasy/period award are Patia Prouty (“Cold Case”), Katherine Jane Bryant (“Deadwood”), Caroline Harris (“Iron Jawed Angels”), Jill Taylor (“The Life and Death of Peter Sellers”), and Consolata Boyle (“The Lion in Winter”).

While period/fantasy is more conspicuous in its craft, Polcsa’s work on “The Sopranos” points to the more subtle nuances of contemorary design, nailing reality by avoiding mob stereotypes.

Most designers of Mafia characters reference trial and surveillance photos, which wouldn’t work for a day-to-day show about working New Jersey mobsters, says Polcsa. Instead of the typical pinstriped suits, she scoured Brooklyn and New Jersey for “running suits and polyester slacks and cheesy shirts and mock turtlenecks.”

Peers appreciate not only the realism, but the difficulties she faces with HBO’ s on-and-off schedule, where she must help the actors re-establish their characters after long breaks.