Staying in character — whatever the era

Emmy expected to favor rich aesthetic offered by historical pieces

This year’s Emmy nominations for costume design do not diverge much from historical patterns, industry veterans say.

Once again, in both the series and miniseries/movie/special categories, there is a stark contrast between lush period or fantasy work, such as “Rome,” “Elizabeth I” and “Bleak House,” and contemporary shows such as “Desperate Housewives,” “The Sopranos” and “Everybody Hates Chris.”

And once again, many industry pros expect Emmy to favor the rich aesthetic offered by historical pieces.

Voters can judge all costumes by one basic standard says Mary Rose, a longtime costume designer and governor for the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences’ costume design peer group.

“How did the costume help enhance the character or the story that the filmmakers were trying to achieve, should be the only thing that matters,” says Rose. “A costume could be bought at a department store, but if it expressed the character and environment well, then it’s a good costume.”

That’s the unifying thread that brings this year’s honored designers together.

“Ostentatious or theatrical, or not, it’s about what can we do with the character,” emphasizes Juliet Polcsa, costume designer for “The Sopranos,” who was nominated for her work on that show for the fourth time.

“A toga in ancient Rome or a running suit in New Jersey — the point is still to tell you who the character is. That’s the criteria I use to make judgments,” Polcsa says.

Michael T. Boyd, costume designer for TNT’s “Into the West,” thinks industry pros should be credited more for their meticulous research than for their fabric skills.

“You have an obligation to do that kind of work,” he says. “I got a lot of questions about why we had Native American males bare-chested in cold weather — people said that didn’t make sense. But, in my research, I learned they rarely wore shirts — only for ceremonial occasions. The rest of the time, if it got too cold, they put on buffalo robes. That’s a lot different than an old Jimmy Stewart Western set in the 1880s, in which he’s wearing a jacket from 1954.”

Thus, the designers agree, having their peers recognize their work at all is reward enough, so most avoid angst over the fairness of having contemporary sitcoms face off with grandiose epics like “Rome.”

“The nomination is the award, obviously,” insists Julie Weiss, costume designer for the HBO movie “Mrs. Harris,” who has six Emmy nominations, three wins, and two Oscar nominations to her credit. “Yes, the category is diverse. But we are all just storytellers. Did we help them tell the story? That’s pretty much all we should be discussing.”