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‘Darkest Hour,’ ‘Beauty and the Beast’ and More Costumes Take Viewers on a Journey

In any given movie, costumes are about evolution: As a character’s story is told, so do her clothes evolve — or de-evolve — in tandem. And the journeys this year’s Oscar nominees for costume design have taken them in are both familiar and entirely unique.

Jacqueline Durran holds two slots in this year’s set of five nominees, and couldn’t have worked on two more different films. “Beauty and the Beast” is a live-action retelling of the 1991 Disney animated classic, and arguably Durran had it easy: the audience knew what to expect from the signature outfits. That meant starting out with Belle (Emma Watson) in her 18th century French country girl uniform: a blue dress with practical pockets and bloomers. Once inside the castle, audiences would want to see her in the tulle, satin and taffeta yellow dress she waltzes in with the Beast (Dan Stevens). But Durran considered things a step further: any outfits in the castle had to look as if they were MADE by the castle; this led to Beast’s ragged fabric patchwork, and even threaded into his earthy, regal formal look.

Durran’s palette for “Darkest Hour” was considerably smaller: wartime London was not a place for yellows and taffeta. It also took place over a relatively short period of time, so the focus was more on transforming Gary Oldman into Winston Churchill than showing the man himself changing over the years. For help, Durran solicited tailors and companies who outfitted the real Churchill and had them create suits to evoke his quirks and needs that could fit Oldman. What emerged was a sort of modern armor: Winston’s black suit, white handkerchief, bowtie and Homburg hat. With Churchill it was about ease in his dressing; for example, his shoes featured a zip, rather than laces.

London was also the setting for “Phantom Thread,” in which mercurial couture designer Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) finds a strange kind of love, and changes in the process. Mark Bridges had the challenge of creating not just outfits for the cast, but also to fashion the dresses Woodcock himself would make. A dressmaker who avoids fast fashion and pours his heart and soul into the outfits, Woodcock’s dresses are beautifully made, but not showstoppers. Instead, they are the outward expression of his inner passions. Bridges found some of his inspiration in consultations with Victoria and Albert Museum experts (some of whom appear in the film), who helped replicate the handmade looks of the 1950s and ’60s. As for Woodcock, he is a fussy formalist, often in shirtsleeves and bowtie while working, and presents a sense of being entirely buttoned up — until he meets his match with lover Alma, and begins to unravel.

The first time we see elderly Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) in “Victoria & Abdul,” clothes are her burden: she’s being tugged into all-black mourning gown created by Consolata Boyle, and then dragged down with the badges of her office and an absurdly long train for a state dinner. So it’s glorious to see her shrug off her darks and begin to wear purples, lavenders and even white as her friendship with servant-turned-friend Abdul (Ali Fazal) deepens. Abdul himself also starts out overlaid in heavy embroidered servant’s garb, but when Victoria’s “munshi” becomes part of her everyday life, he shifts into traditionally colored Indian silk outfits — as both characters become more their true selves.

As a fantasy, “The Shape of Water” might have sunk under too much fantastical garb; instead, the magical realism of the story contrasts sharply with the brutalism of the Cold War — a place of metal and seawater green. Using natural fabrics such as wool and cotton, Luis Sequeira, who was not responsible for the water creature’s costume, placed his antagonists in governmental grays and browns. These matched their settings and allowed lead Elisa (Sally Hawkins) to stand out in her blue cleaning-lady costume and thrift-store vintage outfits. But as the film’s story advanced, both villain Strickland (Michael Shannon) and Elisa underwent a transformation. His “just the facts” straitlaced suits and shirts begin to fray, while she donned shades of deep red like an armor — including some glorious red heels — to show her falling in love and as a person of passion, conviction and strength. Once we see those shoes, there is no question: Elisa has become the warrior who will prevail.

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