“A designer is only as good as the star who wears her clothes.” It’s a philosophy spewed by Edith Head, one of the most celebrated names in the history of the Academy Awards.
Edith Head’s name isn’t synonymous with star-power or box office success, as most of the politicized institutions associated with the words “awards” and “season” tend to be. She’s no Angelina Jolie. She’s no Meryl Streep. Alas, she’s bounds ahead of them; She was a costume designer, one with more Academy Awards than any other woman in history.
Her line of work is visual and prominent throughout each of the 433 films she worked on, but remembered only as a fleeting compliment to the performers who donned her creations.
Yes, Edith Head dressed everyone from Gloria Swanson to Joan Fontaine, and if her career as a costume designer throughout Hollywood’s golden age up until her death in 1981 proves anything, it’s that she made such glamorous stars, well, shimmer.
That’s the job of a costume designer, after all; to aide in the illusion, to craft the cinematic fantasy which envelops us, sometimes out of materials we’d be hard-pressed not to find at a local Pat Catan’s. It’s not everyday someone like Anne Hathaway can whip up a sustained, award-winning performance out of a clearance bin at a flea market. Costume designers often shop on a budget, with some of the most effective pieces finding their way onto a set because a diligent member of the costume department strolled off set and into a sale rack at a shoe store (I speak from firsthand experience: I once sold a pair of $15 Vans that were to be worn by Viggo Mortensen, purchased by the costume designer for 2009’s The Road which filmed here in Pittsburgh).
In short, it’s a costume designer’s ability to turn the ordinary into spectacle. That’s why the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences has taken it upon itself to recognize the countless men and women who sew, pluck, rip, tear, and stitch together the framework of some of the biggest spectacles in American cinema each year with an Oscar for Best Costume Design.
Representing 2011’s crop of contenders are five designers who crafted gorgeous pieces representing eras as far apart as Shakespearian Britain (Lisy Christl’s work for Anonymous), the brooding moors of 1800s Gothic fiction (Michael O’Connor’s designs for Jane Eyre) and the streets of 1930s Paris (Sandy Powell’s contributions to Hugo).
Most of 2011’s nominees (as is true for every year, actually) crafted dazzling wardrobes which harken back to periods of years past, what with the most contemporary representation hailing from Arianne Phillips’ work in W.E., a film whose narrative spans between the 1930s and 1998 as it chronicles the love affair between Britain’s King Edward VIII and an American, Wallis Simpson.
Its director, having never been a stranger to the aesthetically rich, Madonna’s film boasts perhaps the most arresting costumes of each of the nominees with hats by Stephen Jones, gowns by John Galliano, and other contributions from the likes of Balenciaga, Christian Dior, Elsa Schiaparelli, and even the National Museum of Costume in Scotland, who donated a Michael O’Connor wedding gown for filming.
The power of film to incorporate so many contemporary facets of the fashion industry into a single lavish homage to historical fashion is particularly evident in W.E., a film which utilizes the savvy of head designer Arianne Phillips to string together other magical pieces which drape the veil of 1930s European glamour over the delicate cheeks of Madonna’s sophomore directorial effort.
Recreating the fantasy of the past through fashion is often the primary task of a costume designer. As CGI and digital projection technologies evolve to elevate the medium itself to higher standards of sophisticated (albeit illusory) presentation, the spectacle itself becomes simply representational. Yes, the fantastical flora and fauna which populated Pandora in James Cameron’s Avatar were imaginative and spectacular, but they ultimately remain fantasy, relying on our classically trained tactic of suspending disbelief in order to “accept” them in context.
But, costume designers have a different job. They must create the past in the physical, in the present, in the now, bringing a glorified age of, say, 1920s Hollywood to life with every stitch, sequin, and wing-tipped shoe at their disposal. Of course, I’m referring to Mark Bridges’ work as seen in The Artist, also nominated this year. The film is a cinematic love letter to the silent era of Hollywood, when looks were everything and an actress’ wardrobe was the yesteryear equivalent to a computer generated explosion. Bridges’ costumes here do more than just catch the eye, they serve as a reminder of the simplicity of an era, the ability of an audience to listen with their hearts to a film which didn’t contain a single spoken word of its own. Costumes were more than just flashy adornments, but rather beacons of prosperity or shining testaments to the desire of the public to one day afford something just as beautiful as the drapery cascading down the frame of the actress dancing before them. Yes, the stars are the ones who conspicuously consume and uphold the business. Maintaining the fantasy, however illustrious the illusion; that’s what costume designers have done throughout history.
It seems as if Ms. Head’s observations are correct. A designer’s work can certainly be esteemed by its presence on the frame of a Hollywood actress as she poses for photographers on the red carpet outside the Kodak Theatre. But as the evening of February 26 comes to a close, one costume designer at the Academy Awards is going home with an Oscar; the other starlets just pretty girls playing dress-up.