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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).

With "Lincoln," Abe's clothing is simple (a frock coat, a hat, or a shawl) but Johnston was able to go deeper and deeper into his complex character on the exterior. The clothing was so coarse you could feel the texture as well as the culture clash of a man from the prairie trying to fit in with the aristocratic establishment of Washington and Virginia.

The fact that the political battle to abolish slavery and end the Civil War was so dialogue driven (talk about poetry), also helped determine the direction of the costume design.

However, Johnston was awestruck by Daniel Day-Lewis' commanding performance. During her research she found Lincoln's face "slightly ugly," but the actor's presence and transformation throughout the making of the movie left her with an extraordinary image of him.

"We found this Smithsonian set of clothing, and that was a springboard for me," Johnston suggests. "He had a pre-tied tie. He wasn't interested in messing with something or the fine details of clothing. He had his name written on the inside. I liked the fact that he was not labored in his portrayal on screen."

Interestingly, the final two nominees are both vastly different variations on Snow White, with the late Ishioka (who died last year of pancreatic cancer at the age of 73) weaving her trademark sexy and opulent designs for "Mirror Mirror." Why, the off-beat image of Julia Roberts as the evil queen dressed to kill like a Shakespearean femme fatale is enough to delight us.

It marked Ishioka's fourth collaboration with director Tarsem Singh, who told Lynn Hirschberg in W Magazine: "A lace collar around the evil queen's neck is designed to evoke the backs of reptiles; Snow White's gossamer gowns include touches like overlapping leaves and climbing velvet vines that subtly underscore her exile in the forest…. Eiko would say that red is the most difficult color. But in many ways, red was Eiko: strong, intense, brilliant."

Although the costume designer previously won the Oscar for Francis Ford Coppola's "Bram Stoker's Dracula," can she pull off a posthumous win?

Meanwhile, Atwood goes back to the roots of the Brothers Grimm for the power play in "Snow White and the Huntsman." But it was very much in keeping with 11th and 12th century texture and style. For me, the presence of heavy armor was also reminiscent of John Boorman's "Excalibur." The three-time Oscar winner rigged the costumes with stretch and lighter materials to make them comfortable and camera-friendly. Yet the wardrobes had to be grounded in a gritty reality despite the fantasy trappings.

Chris Hemsworth's Huntsman was clothed with a hand-made quality; Kristen Stewart's protagonist has a layered approach to her costumes to evoke a slow transformation from peasant to royalty; and Charlize Theron's diabolical queen represents death so her wardrobe incorporates such ghoulish touches as beetle wings.

No wonder the Academy has finally created a separate design branch for costume separate from production designers, art directors, and set designers. It's high time, given their special and unique craft.

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

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Thompson on Hollywood

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.