Crafts Roundup: Best Costume Design Contenders Play Dress-Up for the Past and Future

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by Bill Desowitz
January 2, 2014 2:48 PM
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Costumers finally got their own branch this year, which mean they're no longer lumped in with the other designers, so we'll see how that impacts the nominations in two weeks. Not surprisingly, there's an abundance of upscale period pieces ("American Hustle," "12 Years a Slave," "Lee Daniels' The Butler," "The Great Gatsby," "Philomena," "Inside Llewyn Davis"). But even when dealing with the future ("Her") there's a retro vibe, save for the idiosyncratic and flamboyant "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" (see our TOH! interview with Trish Summerville).

For costume designer Michael Wilkinson, channeling '70s fashion was the obvious goal with David O. Russell's "American Hustle." But for con artists Christian Bale and Amy Adams, the key component was reinvention for survival, which found its way in the selection of their wardrobes. The characters not only lived large but took risks, mixing colors, prints, and fabrics. As a result, their clothes were less structured and had fewer underpinnings, with inspiration coming from disco and Halston. They walked tall and pretended to be comfortable in their own skin.

Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender in "Twelve Years a Slave"

With "12 Years a Slave," veteran Patricia Norris, meanwhile, relied heavily on books that described where slaves got their clothes and discovered that the owners often provided castoffs. She had most of the clothes made on location in New Orleans. "By back-dating what people gave away by 10 or 20 years, that's how we came up with what slave clothes looked like," she explains. "Then I got the owners to look more in the correct period. And it was easier to make the owners and other white people more colorful and slaves to stay in beige and a greenish tone. Steve [McQueen] and I wanted Epps [Michael Fassbender] to look slightly romantic where the sleeves are puffier."

For costuming "The Butler," Ruth Carter had a dual task: primarily exploring the black experience from the '50s to the present along with eight presidencies. In fact, the search for authenticity became a transporting experience for her. What a study in contrasts. For instance, you'd have Dwight Eisenhower (Robin Williams) looking dapper in a double-breasted suit while civil rights protesters were bloodstained and disheveled. But the most fun she had was dressing Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey in matching jogging suits.

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