Deep reds. Solemn blacks. Spirited yellows. This year’s Oscar-nominated costume designers selected specific color tones to communicate character, period and place, and their choices reverberate for the audience often before a word of dialogue is spoken. Dressing shows that range from fairy tales to historical dramas, they made color a rich part of the storytelling.
For double nominee Jacqueline Durran (“Beauty and the Beast,” “Darkest Hour”), the wardrobe for Belle, with its yellow dress, was just as telling as the dark tones for Winston Churchill. Luis Sequeira, nommed for “The Shape of Water,” takes his heroine from muddy green and blue tones and brings in reds when she discovers her love. For “Victoria & Abdul,” designer Consolata Boyle keeps Queen Victoria in black while giving her adviser, Abdul, bold colors. And in “Phantom Thread,” the female lead begins with bold color but is literally sewn into subdued tones by designer Mark Bridges as she becomes less herself.
Bridges dresses the female lead in a bright red dress as she begins her relationship with famous couturier Reynolds Woodcock. As the story moves forward, her clothes change in hue. “She’s bold at the beginning of their romance,” says Bridges. “She wants to be seen, and that’s what that red means, but as she goes on, the clothes become more fitted and constrained and the colors change.”
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Belle in “Beauty and the Beast” has the reverse journey with color. Her clothes begin in drab tones as she sings about her boredom. After she enters the Beast’s castle, things morph. “That yellow was part of the story of this Disney princess,” says Durran. “It’s who she is, and we see her as she really is once she can see the Beast as he really is.”
Durran’s historical research for “Darkest Hour” informed her choices. “You think of [Churchill] as this person who faced enormous challenges and waivered,” she says. “His suit was his armor as he went into battle. The clothes of everyone in Parliament were in black-and-white tones to keep with the gravity of what they were all facing.”
Queen Victoria also lived in a time when black was a kind of uniform; she wore it as a sign of mourning after her husband died. Boyle had to find a way for that layered, heavy black clothing to read on camera. She discovered Victoria loved embellishment and an ornate style. “I used black and lace and jewels and textures, so you see this woman buried beneath her position, tradition and what society expects; she’s deeply depressed,” Boyle says. “After she meets Abdul we see a lightness in her, but his clothes reflect it, not hers. He enters her life wearing these soft clothes that aren’t constraining, and as he becomes more bold and arrogant, we see him in colors that almost confront the other characters.”
In “The Shape of Water,” Elisa, a janitor, is also constrained by her position. She’s dressed in drab, muddy tones. “Elisa is anonymous when we meet her; she can’t speak, and we think she won’t be able to communicate,” says Sequeira, a first-time nominee. “But she can communicate. And as she feels more in love with the fishman, she wears a red sweater, a red coat, something red in her hair, because of her passion. That red becomes part of the story. Color is always that way — it tells you about the character’s inner life.”