How the Costume Design Oscar Race Sets a High Bar for Period Looks

Emma Movie Costume Design
Sketch: David Downton/Focus Features; Taylor-Joy: Focus Features

Dazzling duds dominate the Oscar race for costume design this year.

Ann Roth landed her fifth nomination and potential second win for “Ma Rainey’s Black
Bottom”; the costume designing legend only had a few scarce pictures of the real-life Rainey to use as research but she managed to bring the Godmother of Blues to life.
As Rainey, Viola Davis rocked a show-stopping blue velvet dress over a rubber suit, which gave Davis a big- ger frame similar to the real Rainey. Chadwick Boseman’s dapper Levee also had to make a big impression, especially his shoes, as those items stand in for more than just nice footwear.

Mank’s” Trish Summerville is a debutante at Oscar’s ball this year. Despite having worked in black and white before on projects — she dressed Justin Timberlake and Jay Z for the “Suit & Tie” music video — the David Fincher-helmed film marks Summerville’s full feature in monochrome.

She had to create glamourous gowns and suits galore, finding colors that would translate to the specifics of black and white filmmaking.

Summerville dressed a large cast of characters, in a wide range of socio-economic classes, over a decade. Her costumes offer visual shorthand, defining each person before they speak, including dressy costumes at Hearst’s party, homeless people and “Mank’s” support group when he’s writing “Citizen Kane.”
In re-creating the glamour and troubles of Hollywood in that era, her costumes are notable without being showoffy. The only costume designer to win for a B&W film in the past 50 years was Mark Bridges, for “The Artist” (2011), but don’t be surprised if Summerville joins that club.

Another newcomer to the Oscar race is Bina Daigeler, who dressed Disney’s “Mulan.” Numerous versions of warrior armor were created for the action sequences, which were further enhanced in visual effects. Daigeler’s costumes allow all the actors maximum mobility — a necessity when you have a film as action-packed with martial arts. The film also runs a wide gamut.

On one side, there is the toughness of the leather and scales of the villains’ armor, in stark contrast to the heroine’s side. And then there are the intricate, beautiful gowns seen in the early matchmaking scene, wildly feminine in contrast to the rest of the film and made of yards of colorful fabric.

Six-time Oscar nominee Alexandra Byrne earned her latest nod for her work on “Emma.” Blues yellows, maroons and pinks were the core of Byrne’s color palette for this incarnation of the Jane Austen classic, with the title character, played by Anya Taylor-Joy, given different shades for each season.

Massimo Cantini Parrini’s world of costumes in “Pinocchio” was a blend of traditional, modern and poetic for this version of the fairy tale. Parrini took inspiration from the 18th and 19th centuries with much of the film’s looks echoing his research of those periods. For Pinocchio’s red suit, Parrini used a crepe fabric to reflect the “paper” costume he wears in the book.

Clayton Davis, Tim Gray and Jenelle Riley contributed to this report.

Winner prediction: “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”

Look out for: “Emma” or “Mank”