“Captain Fantastic” costume designer Courtney Hoffman likes to think of herself as “almost a sidekick director.”
Before you jump to the conclusion that she’s overinflating her job description, consider this: “As a costume designer you’re interacting with the actors very early in the process — having conversations about what’s in their pockets, how the shoes make them walk, how their clothes make them feel,” she says. “That directly informs their performance if you’re doing it right.”
As with all choices in a film, the costume designer’s decisions on color, fit and overall appearance telegraphs something about characters’ personality, history, emotion and story arc. But during awards season, every stitch is up for scrutiny in a whole new way as peers try to decide who deserves the big prizes.
“Costume isn’t separate from character design,” says Deborah Cook, who clothed not people but stop-motion creations in “Kubo and the Two Strings.” But not having live individuals to interact with and develop character with didn’t stop her from assessing every inch of fabric she created.
“I work with the director, the character designer, and project designer on the color script, and then I work with the character designer to draw them up,” she says. “It’s never a direct drawing from one person [in stop-motion].”
In Cook’s case, title character Kubo’s outfit had to reflect his warrior father and make him pop for the audience. “He’s young and vibrant, and out there to prove himself in the world, so he wears red, which is a youthful color in Japanese culture,” she says. Similarly, his mother’s early costume of ancient robes covered in symbols spoke to her history, and the combination directly supported her narrative for the first part of the film.
For “The Handmaiden,” Cho Sang-kyung also drew from historical Asian imagery, but had to express Korean and Japanese cultures and outfits with layered subtlety. She knows that the “Japanese audience might have thought it was wrong” to feature Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong) in a twisted-up traditional Japanese jacket and trousers, but “I intended it to show his desire to be a Japanese man as well as subconsciousness of his true identity as a Korean,” she explains in an email.
Other period films face their own challenges in trying to illustrate character with costume. “Jackie’s” Madeline Fontaine was constrained by the fact that most of the world already knows what Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman) wore on the day her husband was assassinated. So Fontaine chose less-public moments to find ways to get her costumes to convey character.
“I think I had two sequences where she was not public,” she recalls, noting that they adhered to colors of the period (the 1960s), and ensured that even outside the public eye she remained “very fashionable.”
“I try to do a lot of sociological research,” says “Café Society’s” Suzy Benzinger, who matched clothes with class and aspiration. “Poor girl” Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) was always seen “looking perfect. She starts out very sweet and girly, this Hollywood starlet,” Benzinger says. “Girls always had to have their hair done and look adorable. Girls never looked relaxed.”
So when Vonnie rises in society, that meant a shift to classic Chanel outfits and “ostentatious jewelry,” she says. “It worked out beautifully and historically.”
Wanting a particular type of silhouette led to placing “Love & Friendship” in the late Georgian period, where corsets had not yet been eclipsed by Empire-waisted looser dresses, and helped underscore the seductive humor in the script, says costume designer Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh. Lady Susan (Kate Beckinsale) has a larger-than-life personality and presence, so keeping her costume choices bold (as she moved from dark mourning clothes to mauves that signaled her availability again) was important.
“We made a decision to build things up big,” she says. “Bigger hats, bigger hair. If Lady Susan had been a wallflower, I wouldn’t have pitched the colors I used.”
The period in “Passengers” is the distant future and the story takes place in space, which costume designer Jany Temime decided would be “beyond fashion.” She helped telegraph who “working-class hero” James (Chris Pratt) was by dressing him in T-shirts and overalls largely in the color of the materials he works with — wood and metal.
“When you meet him, you think, this is safe, this is good, this is old value, he’s a good guy,” she says.
In contrast, Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence) is a dream girl, and wears mostly white and light gray. “I only gave her color in flashbacks, because that’s when she’s a character of flesh,” Temime says. “As she evolves she gets more and more white, more peaceful.”
In the end, it’s about trying to tell the film’s story in parallel with the action, but silently. When costume designers and directors work in symbiosis, the film as a whole benefits. And the designers themselves can have a moment of feeling like they directed it a bit, too.
“Sometimes, actors say that this character would have worn this outfit,” writes “Handmaiden’s” Cho. “This is a great compliment, since this sounds like the character says that to me.”