Do the Oscars Need a Contemporary Costume Design Category?

Do the Oscars Need a Contemporary Costume Design Category Illustration by Yifan Wu
Illustration by Yifan Wu

The Academy overwhelmingly favors designs for period or fantasy films — not just with wins but with nominations — ultimately ignoring designers who work on movies set in the present day.

In the golden age of Hollywood, the Academy Awards recognized costume design with two categories: color film and black-and-white. Since the categories merged in 1967, only three contemporary-set films have won the best costume design Oscar: Travels With My Aunt in 1973, All That Jazz in 1980 and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert in 1995. Subsequent nominations have been scarce: The Devil Wears Prada and The Queen in 2006, I Am Love in 2011 and La La Land in 2017.

Oscar voters overwhelmingly recognize period, often honoring the same set of designers. Fifteen-time nominee Sandy Powell even dedicated her third win for 2010's The Young Victoria to the "costume designers that don't do movies about dead monarchs or glittery musicals." Should the Academy return to the days of old Hollywood with two costume design categories?

"Costumes for contemporary film definitely tell as strong a story as a period one, except it's harder because you don't have all the folderol that goes with period," says Jeffrey Kurland, a governor of the Academy's costume designers branch. He custom designed and built Tenet's costumes to define each mysterious character through tailored suiting and engineered immobile jacket linings for natural movement during time inversions. A designer of all genres, Kurland received his Oscar nomination for the 1920s-set Bullets Over Broadway, but his contemporary work in Erin Brockovich, Ocean's Eleven and Inception received Costume Designers Guild Award nominations (along with a period nod for Dunkirk).

The IATSE Local 892, with about 1,100 members, recognizes designers with three film awards: period, sci-fi/fantasy and contemporary. "We need to educate the public and our industry as to what we do and how we do it," notes CDG president Salvador Pérez.

For regular viewers, taking contemporary costumes for granted may be understandable. "People think it's so easy — that you just go shopping," says Nancy Steiner, who just received a Critics Choice Award nod for her work on Promising Young Woman. On a limited budget with minimal prep time, she artfully combined new and vintage pieces to illustrate writer-director Emerald Fennell's treatise on sexual assault and the way women are judged based on appearance — while turning that misogyny on its head. "It really does take some effort to give you those subtleties that really make a character who they are," she continues.

The Academy's costume designers branch, numbering 154 members in 2020, determines nominations — which means voters understand the hard work, nuance and detail that goes into, say, the level of cozy texture, shade of eggshell and amount of unraveling threads on an Aran sweater — all hinting at, say, the nature of a ne'er-do-well heir played by Chris Evans in Knives Out. Academy member Jenny Eagan received her third contemporary CDGA win last year for the contender, but period films composed all of 2020's Oscar noms.

A confluence of change in the 20th century may have created the perfect storm for lingering perception of contemporary costumes, even to the creatives who design them. The Hollywood studio system phased out in-house costume workshops, while ready-to-wear created unprecedented accessibility. Into the '80s, budget-minded studios relied on costumers, in lieu of costume designers who often actually design and produce the costumes from scratch, to source and manage contemporary wardrobe.

"When I started working professionally in 1975, it really seemed like costume designers were becoming obsolete," says Deborah Nadoolman Landis, founding director of the David C. Copley Center for Costume Design at UCLA. "That was a deliberate effort on the part of the producers to just eliminate costume designers for all contemporary work."

Ignoring contemporary, which makes up the majority of productions on an annual slate, also counters the Academy's recent inclusivity efforts. Those films tend to feature the most diverse stories, casts and below-the-line crew. "It doesn't look like equity, diversity and inclusion," says branch founding governor Nadoolman Landis. "It looks white." That said, this year's period contenders do include BIPOC stories and costume designers: Judas and the Black Messiah's Charlese Antoinette, One Night in Miami's Francine Jamison-Tanchuck and Minari's Susanna Song.

Attitudes are evolving, albeit at a slow pace, with notable fantasy wins: Jenny Beavan for Mad Max: Fury Road and Ruth E. Carter for Black Panther. But ultimately, the solution to recognizing contemporary excellence lies closer to home, instead of Academy overlords making the fix. "It's the costume designers themselves," says Kurland, since guild members set the nominations before the Academy as a whole votes on the winners. "They can solve their problem."

This story first appeared in a March stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.