The art of film costume design

Forget period dramas and fantasies, says Tim Walker – costume design for contemporary films is much harder to get right

On the morning after the Oscars, there are always groups of filmmakers guaranteed to have been under-represented among the award-winners. Directors of unwieldy, high-quality blockbusters whose surnames aren't Cameron, for example. Or, say, the only studio in Hollywood with a 100 per cent critical success rate and still no Best Picture prize. But Chris Nolan and Pixar both get their rewards at the box office. Less high-profile but no less significant, costume designers have supposedly long dreaded awards season, since so few of them stand a chance of being recognised.

This year's Oscar for Best Costume Design went to Colleen Atwood for Alice in Wonderland. Atwood also won in 2006 for Memoirs of a Geisha and in 2002 for Chicago. The past decade's other winners include: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, The Aviator, Marie Antoinette, Elizabeth: The Golden Age, The Duchess and The Young Victoria. Notice anything missing? Not to belittle the great work of Atwood and her peers, but there's a glaring lack of any films from beyond the period or fantasy genres. The only contemporary title to earn even a nomination in that time is The Devil Wears Prada – a film about the fashion industry.

The same prejudice afflicts the Baftas. Black Swan's costume designer, Amy Westcott, was shortlisted for the British awards (Atwood won again), but presumably on the basis of its semi-fantastical ballet outfits. How are the costumiers on contemporary Best Picture nominees supposed to feel when not a single one of them gets so much as a nod? Granted, 127 Hours only featured one character – and thus one costume – for most of its duration. But the designers on Winter's Bone, The Fighter and The Kids Are All Right all created superbly authentic looks for highly specific circumstances: the rural poor of the Ozark mountains; the urban poor of Boston; the organic-only, liberal middle-class of California.

According to the film's subject, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, the most accurate aspect of The Social Network was the costume design. "It's interesting, the stuff they focused on getting right," he said. "Every single shirt and fleece they had in that movie is actually a shirt or fleece that I own."

Jacqueline West, The Social Network's costume designer, helped to distance Zuckerberg (played by Jesse Eisenberg) from his partners and peers by putting them in suits: Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake) accessorised his with T-shirts and hoodies, a rebel hacker in businessman's clothing. Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) tried his best to dress as smartly as the captains of industry he aspired to join. The Winklevoss twins (Armie Hammer) naturally wore immaculately tailored outfits, like the captains of industry they were always destined to become.

The job of dressing contemporary characters has its advantages, but it has its challenges, too. In a period drama, let alone a fantasy, it's far easier to convince the average viewer of a costume's plausibility. Most will have no idea when the ruff went out of fashion, or when pantyhose first went on sale. They can spot, however, when someone is too old for a hoodie, or too posh for trainers.

The website Recycledmoviecostumes.com demonstrates the flexibility of period costume by compiling images of outfits used in more than one film or TV production: a ballgown from The Madness of King George, which has since appeared on screen a further six times, for instance – not to mention at least half the clothes in Downton Abbey. Could a present-day film get away with such casual chronological costume-swapping? What if the deeply Noughties Zuckerberg had been dressed in a deeply Nineties Pearl Jam t-shirt?

The Costume Designer's Guild has its own awards each year, with one prize for contemporary costume design, another for period design, and a third for fantasy. Far be it from me to suggest the ceremony go on any longer than it already does, but surely the Academy ought to acknowledge the same distinctions?

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Arts and Entertainment
Corporate affair: The sitcom has become a satire of corporate culture in general

TV review

Broadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: There are some impressive performances by Claire Skinner and Lorraine Ashbourne in Inside No. 9, Nana's Party spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Glastonbury's pyramid stage

Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair

Arts and Entertainment
Ewan McGregor looks set to play Lumiere in the Beauty and the Beast live action remake

Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere

Arts and Entertainment
Charlie feels the lack of food on The Island with Bear Grylls

TV

The Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Arts and Entertainment
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, in a scene from Avengers: Age Of Ultron
filmReview: A great cast with truly spectacular special effects - but is Ultron a worthy adversaries for our superheroes? spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Ince performing in 2006
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Beth (played by Jo Joyner) in BBC1's Ordinary Lies
tvReview: There’s bound to be a second series, but it needs to be braver spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, the presenters of The Great Comic Relief Bake Off 2015

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A still from Harold Ramis' original Groundhog Day film, released in 1993

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence