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Immersed in Movies: Assessing the Costume Design Oscar Race, from 'Anna Karenina' to 'Snow White'

Photo of Bill Desowitz By Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood February 18, 2013 at 1:49PM

This Oscar season is all about evoking power and poetry in the costume designs for frontrunner "Anna Karenina" (Jacqueline Durran), "Les Misérables" (Paco Delgado), "Lincoln" (Joanna Johnston), "Mirror Mirror" (Eiko Ishioka), and "Snow White and the Huntsman" (Colleen Atwood).
Keira Knightley in "Anna Karenina"
Keira Knightley in "Anna Karenina"

This Oscar season is all about evoking power and poetry in the costume designs for frontrunner "Anna Karenina" (Jacqueline Durran), "Les Misérables" (Paco Delgado), "Lincoln" (Joanna Johnston), "Mirror Mirror" (Eiko Ishioka), and "Snow White and the Huntsman" (Colleen Atwood).

For starters, Tolstoy's immortal characters from "Anna Karenina" are trapped like dolls in a dollhouse. Indeed, costume and setting are boldly linked, which is why Durran's work is the Oscar favorite. Like her colleagues, she had to think metaphorically in terms of 19th century Russian aristocracy rotting from the inside out within the confines of a derelict theater.

But rather than going with 19th century Russian designs, Durran wrestled with the notion of 1950s' couture per director Joe Wright's desires. "It was not something that I would undertake to stylize just from my own imagination, but it's a very happy combination because the two shapes fit together quite well," she admits. "Because in 1873, there was a move toward a small waist and a fitted bodice and the '50s couture is very similar. There wasn't a clash. I think one of the reasons he chose the '50s was that he wanted me to concentrate on silhouettes rather than surface detail and '50s couture is very strong on silhouette."

For Keira Knightley's Anna, the thematic color scheme begins dark (especially with the red she wears at the beginning) and then grows somewhat lighter in tone when she falls in love with cavalry officer Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), before returning to the darker hues as she grows more anxious and paranoid.

Anne Hathaway in "Les Miserables"
Anne Hathaway in "Les Miserables"

The entire aesthetic was therefore predicated on subtraction in a power struggle but never more so than with Jude Law's Karenin. In fact, the actor latched onto the idea of removing details and they gave his character an air of monasticism with his dressing gown and nightshirt. In the end, though, Karenin embraces life and hope in autumnal beauty outside the theater. Although it was difficult to imagine on paper, Durran made it all work beautifully.

"Les Mis," of course, is also about political change and spiritual transformation, and Delgado returned to Victor Hugo for descriptive clues about characters and setting, and studied Spanish painter Delacroix for further aesthetic inspiration. From the Christ-like Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) to the oppressive Javert (Russell Crowe) to the doomed Fantine (Anne Hathaway) to the hopeful Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), the costume designer uses color to convey their dramatic arcs, particularly the clash of red and blue.

Ultimately, though, the characters clash with themselves. "But it's about so many people suffering that I had to battle against the darkness of what I was thinking in terms of clothing," Delgado remarks. "At the same time, because it was a musical, I had to do something with color. And I think that was the most challenging thing, really, to be honest."

However, it begins and ends with Valjean, who rises from poverty to prosperity as part of a redemptive journey. Little by little he becomes more sophisticated and more tailored using more color.

This article is related to: Immersed In Movies, Academy Awards, Awards, Awards, Anna Karenina, Les Miserables, Lincoln

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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.