Oscar Showdown: The Costume Design Race Heats Up

46 FEA Costumes A Dangerous Method H
Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Cronenberg's constricted, elegantly precise early-1900s costumes are a visual manifestation of the rigid society against which Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen, below left) and Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) are rebelling with their radical psychological theories.

Period looks and those who've won already tend to dominate, but among these six films may lie one big spoiler.

In the race for a costume-design Academy Award, having already won or been previously nominated can give a designer an edge over lesser-known talent. Last year, Colleen Atwood, already a two-time winner and eight-time nominee, picked up the Oscar for Alice in Wonderland. In fact, just six designers have accounted for almost 20?percent of the total nominations in the past 15 years (on par with the domination by established names in the categories of cinematography and score). This could increase the chances for Hugo's Sandy Powell, who has won for Shakespeare in Love, The Aviator and The Young Victoria, and for Jane Eyre's Michael O'Connor, a winner for The Duchess. History also has shown that elaborate costumes in period films tend to impress. Since 1967 -- when the separate categories of costume design for color and black-and-white films were merged -- only three movies have won for contemporary looks: Travels With My Aunt (1972), All That Jazz (1979) and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994). And this year, voters will have a smorgasbord of showy garb from which to choose. Each film will be considered by peers, with the costume-design members of the Art Directors Branch of the Academy choosing five top films to be voted on by the Academy at large.

A Dangerous Method
Denise Cronenberg

Cronenberg's constricted, elegantly precise early-1900s costumes are a visual manifestation of the rigid society against which Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen, below left) and Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender, below right) are rebelling with their radical psychological theories. "Women wore high-neck virginal lace dresses and men wore high starched collars and buttoned-up serious black suits," she says. As the film progresses, styles begin to change with Keira Knightley's character, a patient named Sabina Spielrein, moving from frilly dresses to more structured costumes, such as the cropped jacket at left.

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Water for Elephants 
Jacqueline West

For the Depression-era romantic drama, the twice-nominated West (Quills, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) created crystal-encrusted performance wear and elegant bias-cut silk evening gowns for Reese Witherspoon's horse acrobat character. West took cues from actresses like Carole Lombard and Jean Harlow. "Reese's character would probably try to emulate these stars," says West.

Jane Eyre 
Michael O'Connor

For his fresh take on the much-adapted story, O'Connor created the majority of the clothes, including this dress that the title character (Mia Wasikowska) wears when first arriving at her employer's estate. "The pattern is a subtle ribbon-like stripe and was expertly cut to highlight the different angles," says O'Connor, who relied on paintings by 19th-century artists Franz Winterhalter and Mary Ellen Best for inspiration.

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Arianne Phillips

Phillips had the daunting task of re-creating the rarefied looks of international style icons the Duke and Duchess of Windsor (James D'Arcy and Andrea Riseborough). "It was a huge challenge on an independent film budget," she says. For Wallis Simpson, the duchess, Phillips fashioned re-creations from the archives of Dior, Schiaparelli and Vionnet, while Cartier specially made reproductions of jewelry originally worn by Simpson.

My Week With Marilyn
Jill Taylor

Monroe was known for va-va-voom outfits, such as this satin gown for 1957's The Prince and the Showgirl. "But she was very casual in her private life," says Taylor, who made a closetful of neutral sportswear separates for the screen icon, played by Michelle Williams. "Marilyn Monroe was the original Calvin Klein girl."

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Sandy Powell

Powell's idea was to dress Hugo (Asa Butterfield, right) and Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz) like children's book illustrations with very few or no costume changes. "It was important in crowd scenes to be able to recognize them easily."