×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

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

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famous harlequin and silver catsuits, and then [designer] Zandra Rhodes helped with his white batwing top she’d originally made for him from a wedding dress,” he says.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.)

Popular on Variety

More Artisans

  • 'The Durrells' TV Show

    Greece Sweetens Production Incentives as Struggling Country's Economy Rebounds

    It’s taken the better part of a decade for Greece to show signs of recovery from the crippling crisis that almost pushed it out of the Eurozone. Now, with the economy slowly on the mend, the government is doubling down on efforts to jump-start the local film industry, giving a dramatic overhaul to the incentive [...]

  • John bailey Academy President

    Former Academy President and DP John Bailey to Receive Camerimage Lifetime Achievement Award

    John Bailey, the cinematographer and former president of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, will receive a lifetime achievement award from the 27th Camerimage film festival in Torun, Poland. The Fest, attended by top DPs and other artists from around the world, will run on Nov. 9-16. Bailey’s credits include Lawrence Kasdan’s “The [...]

  • Alita: Battle Angel VFX

    How Previsualization Helps Create Pitches for Projects Like 'Alita: Battle Angel'

    Filmmakers are increasingly using previsualization, a now-standard technique for planning highly technical shots and sequences, as a tool for pitching a project to production companies, investors and studio executives — before a single full scene has actually been shot. More creatives are relying on the technique, dubbed “pitchvis,” to fashion a compelling and engaging presentation [...]

  • A Quiet Place

    Production Growth Stretches Crafts Talent Pool, but Experience Is Still Needed

    The growing number of outlets for movies and television means that demand for qualified artisans is at an all-time high. But while job opportunities have multiplied, the path to success — and potential elite status — is still a difficult one that requires on-the-job training, experience and skill development to deliver top-notch results. Some of [...]

  • Queen and Adam Lambert Live

    How the Queen + Adam Lambert Tour Brought the Opera to Arenas

    Just as “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the biopic of late Queen frontman Freddie Mercury, wowed moviegoers last year, stage design firm Stufish Entertainment Architects has helped Queen + Adam Lambert’s current U.S. tour deliver a screen spectacular of its own. The tour, which plays New Orleans on Aug. 20 and Atlanta on Aug. 22, touched down at [...]

  • Mark Damon, CEO & Chairman, Foresight

    Mark Damon's DCR Finance Receives $150 Million for Financing Georgia Films (EXCLUSIVE)

    Mark Damon’s DCR Finance Corp., co-headed with financer Adi Cohen, has received a $150 million investment from Go Media Productions for Georgia projects, Variety has learned exclusively. Damon, whose credits include “2 Guns” and “Lone Survivor,” made the announcement Monday with Cohen. The deal calls for Atlanta-based Go Media Productions to join a private placement as [...]

  • The Handmaid's Tale -- "Household" -

    ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Crew on Why the Lincoln Memorial Shoot Was Worth the Effort

    Shooting on location at a national monument may seem glamorous, but it often involves extensive prep to comply with strict regulations, restrictions and crowds — all for a short on-screen moment. For the cast and crew of Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” the seven months of planning and negotiations required for a one-day shoot at the [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content