Period Ruffles and Lace Are Fun to Look at but Contemporary Costumes Are Just as Challenging to Create

Mackenzie Foy is Clara and Keira
Laurie Sparham

When it comes to costume design, Oscar has always loved period and fantasy — and the more beautiful the gowns and fabrics, the better. Last year’s winner — “Phantom Thread” — was a no-brainer. And this year the period category includes “Mary Queen of Scots” and, of course, Disney’s “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms.” The sumptuous period costumes for the latter were designed by Jenny Beavan, who has won Oscars for “A Room With a View” and “Mad Max: Fury Road.”

But among some of this year’s top contenders, a new trend appears to be emerging, one that favors contemporary realism and grit over timeless sophistication.

“I think contemporary costumes — including from the ’70s and ’80s — tend to get overlooked,” says Julian Day, costume designer on “Bohemian Rhapsody.” “I’ve done my share of period films, and I think it’s far easier to hide behind, say, Victorian ruffles and lace than more recent clothing where everyone has memories and opinions about the look.”

To get it right, Day did a lot of research. “It helped that most of the really fun, flamboyant stuff, like the stage outfits, was well-documented, so we were able to re-create Freddie’s famous harlequin and silver catsuits, and then [designer] Zandra Rhodes helped with his white batwing top she’d originally made for him from a wedding dress,” he says.

The film’s pivotal Live Aid sequence, which bookends the film, “was also well-documented, but hard to get right, especially for Freddie with the Adidas shoes, jeans and vest,” he adds. “It’s deceptively casual, but so much went into it.”

Jenny Eagan, who says her main challenge on heist thriller “Widows” was designing costumes “for a large ensemble cast that also helps tell their stories,” agrees that the trend “is moving away from that traditional, highly polished, high-fashion look to a more realistic look, which reflects our times and the world we live in.”

Eagan collaborated closely with director Steve McQueen, “who wanted the Chicago setting and the look to be very specific. No fashion show, no frills, but a focus on how the city and all these characters are different from other places and looks.”

She says the easiest character to design for was Colin Farrell’s politician: “Conservative suits, not too flashy, off the rack, and American-made.” The hardest? “Elizabeth Debicki’s character — tall and beautiful. It took a while to find the right balance between that visual and her character.”

In “A Star Is Born,” Erin Benach faced two main challenges: “First, getting Jack’s look, and initially we thought of dressing Bradley Cooper’ Jack as a glamorous rock star with leather pants — Jim Morrison reincarnated,” she says. “But as his character and music developed, we realized he was more grounded than that, and that was his role in the film. So we ended up with the jeans and shirt look, and he doesn’t have a big wardrobe. It’s more of a uniform he wears.”

By contrast, Lady Gaga’s Ally “starts as a waitress, then she’s the side performer to the star, and then she becomes the star, so her arc and evolution in clothing is much bigger. We went from jeans and T-shirts to beautiful dresses, and you see her blossom. There’s more of an emphasis on contemporary looks and fashion this year.”

“Black Panther” presented Ruth Carter with several challenges. “It’s about a superhero, and it’s both contemporary and futuristic. We had to design over 1,500 costumes,” she says. “This world had never been seen before. We worked hard to avoid anything cliché or that would date too quickly, and it had to be innovative and look powerful and regal.” Carter incorporated a lot of bright colors and African prints “to help create strong patterns and textures in the world of Wakanda. There’s no brooding darkness. It’s a very bright, colorful aesthetic.”

For “First Man,” Mary Zophres relied heavily on NASA’s records. “Damien [Chazelle, the director] was very emphatic about accuracy, so all the research was crucial, and we also got a lot of co-operation from the astronauts’ families,” she says. “The big challenge was that the story covers 10 years, so Neil Armstrong had nearly 70 outfits, while Janet [Armstong] had 40 and we also created 21 space suits covering four missions.”

Tellingly, while Zophres feels that more contemporary costumes are in the running this year, she predicts that “ ‘Mary Queen of Scots’ will win. People just love those historical costumes.”

And every costume on screen for “Mary,” including those for the crowds and extras, was created by Alexandra Byrne, well-known for all her period work. “We had a very tight schedule, an even tighter budget,” she recalls. “We shot in Scotland in the rain and mud, so we used a lot of denim, along with the more traditional lace, embroidery and fur.”

(Pictured above: MacKenzie Foy and Keira Knightly wear period costumes in Disney’s “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms.)