Costumes in Oscar-Contending Films Reveal Emotional Journeys

Costumes Oscar-Contending Films Reveal Emotional Journeys
Courtesy of the Weinstein Co.

In the crop of movies contending for awards this season, many costume designers dressed their characters for unpredictable journeys — into space, across harsh lands, even to a new gender identity — and used their art to reflect how those men and women changed along the way.

Perhaps one of the most harrowing trek tales ever filmed, “The Revenant” follows frontiersman Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) on the path to revenge. He begins the film looking worn and only goes on to look worse after being mauled by a bear.

“It’s the skin and the fur of the bear that changed his journey forever,” says costume designer Jacqueline West, a two-time Oscar nominee. “What almost killed him saves him from the cold and allows him to survive.”

She adds, “The furs we used were all responsibly sourced in Canada because (director) Alejandro (Gonzalez Inarritu) wanted that strong of sense of authenticity for the character.”

Like DiCaprio, Matt Damon also finds himself stranded far from home with slim possibilities for survival in “The Martian.” Janty Yates — who won an Academy Award for “Gladiator,” another pic by the same director, Ridley Scott — relied on NASA research for the design of Damon’s spacesuit. But as she pursued the work she quickly realized the suit would have to be modified.

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It turned out that actual NASA suits are so heavy and cumbersome that astronauts need a team to help get into them. The helmets are also constructed for protection and don’t allow a clear view of the actor’s face, which would deprive thesps of the ability to tell a story with expression.

“The viewing area on our helmets is much wider and allows you to see the sides of Matt’s face, and our suits were made much lighter and thinner,” Yates says. “We had to be able to see his body language so those adjustments were important.”

Jenny Beavan, Oscar winner for “A Room With a View,” also had to make adjustments on an iconic clothing item — the leather jacket once worn by Mel Gibson on the original “Mad Max” film for the franchise’s fourth installment, “Mad Max: Fury Road.”

“(Director) George Miller had been thinking of this film for 10 years, so when I came on there were already lots of ideas,” Beavan wrote in an email. “This character has a history but this is a new film and Charlize (Theron) is a new character.”

Beaven says she used “a crew with welding equipment to help with the steel masks that Max wears.” The same team also made soft plastic versions of anything in metal that was worn by stunt performers.

On Tom Hooper’s “The Danish Girl,” costume designer Paco Delgado, previously nommed for his work on the same director’s “Les Miserables,” narrated the transition of Einar Wegener to Lili Elbe from man to woman by focusing on the character’s struggle to evolve.

“We see Einar almost trapped and restrained in a highly formal costume,” says Delgado. “As Lili becomes more prominent, there’s liberation, there’s joy and we see that through all these beautiful warm colors and soft fabrics that let her move the way she wants to move.”

In the Cold War-set “Bridge of Spies,” costume designer Kasia Walicka-Maimone contended with a period’s formality, but in Steven Spielberg’s picture the stiffness never dissolves. Nonetheless, rather than limit the male characters in the film to charcoal hues, she introduced other colors.

“We think of that time being so dark but I didn’t want it all to be gray, so I added browns, navys, greens and blues,” Walicka-Maimone says. “I also shopped vintage stores and looked at photos that helped us bring in essential ideas of the time about accessories.”

Sandy Powell, winner of three Oscars, dealt with similar restrictions in the love story “Carol,” in which two women are pushed and pulled by the norms of the 1950s.

“I looked at a lot of issues of Vogue from the time period since these would be the colors and shapes that women were wearing at the time,” Powell says. “I knew that Carol’s look could not be a full skirt, though, because she would be more constricted by her life and so that tighter look, that fitted skirt would make sense for her.”

On “Brooklyn,” for 1950s-era Ireland, Odile Dicks-Mireaux fought against notions that it was only a dour, depressing time for the fashion of her characters, and color became an important tool to achieve her vision. Budget constraints forced her and her team to source original costumes in vintage stores. It was a period during which a person of modest means might not have many clothes so the range of costumes was limited.

But when Eilis, played by Saoirse Ronan, goes to Brooklyn, things change. “At that point we see more colors and more clothes because in Brooklyn there are suddenly more choices for her,” Dicks-Mireaux says. “Her clothes have come to reflect the place to which she traveled.”