On Saturday, Patricia Norris won the Costume Designers Guild Award for her work in the widely acclaimed period film, 12 Years a Slave. This win certainly puts Norris in good stead for an Oscar statue March 2.
But it’s not a done deal. She’ll be up against some formidable competition from previous Oscar nominee (Australia) and Oscar winner (Moulin Rouge) Catherine Martin, whose designs in Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, already won the BAFTA Costume Design award, historically a good portent for an Academy Award.
Of course, BAFTA nominated Michael Wilkinson could get caught up in a wave of Academy votes for David O. Russell’s late ‘70s Abscam scandal period comedy, American Hustle.
And there are still two dark horse nominees in the running, both of whom stand a decent shot at Oscar gold.
The first is Michael O’Connor, who was also BAFTA nominated for his period work in Ralph Fiennes’ The Invisible Woman, the true story of Charles Dickens' well-hidden affair with a young actress named Nelly Ternan. O’Connor is well known to academy voters, having been nominated for Jane Eyre in 2012 and winning the 2009 Oscar for his work in The Duchess, both starring Keira Knightley.
The other is Chinese-born William Chang, whose work in The Grandmaster spans three decades of Chinese political and martial arts history, from the 1920s to 1950s in the life of Kung Fu master Ip Man; from Imperialist and Revolutionary China to a China defeated by the Japanese then reprieved by the Japanese defeat in WWII. Chang is used to accolades in his country and internationally for his costumes, production design and editing. But this is his first Oscar nod. Asked what he will wear to next weekend’s black tie evening, he gave it some thought and decided, “There aren’t any Chinese designers I would like. Maybe Tom Ford.”
Both men were drawn to the challenge of creating intricate period specific costumes and educating viewers on the historical accuracy of two distinct cultures at specific points in time.
“Most of the time, people outside China have a preconceived notion of how Chinese dressed in those periods that comes from inaccurate Hollywood films,” Chang explains. ”Those films created a very strange idea of how Chinese should look. I wanted to dress them (the actors) as authentic as possible to show people that we had very interesting clothes with interesting details. In this film, you can see something else instead of those strange Hollywood Chinese costumes.”
His designs for the prostitutes in the brothel stand out as glaringly bright in a sea of black, grays and neutrals silks throughout the film. "The most fashion-conscious women in those times were always in the brothels. They were not from very good families because they liked garish things, very sheer things," he says.
In his research, Chang noted slight differences in the '20s and '30s that may be imperceptible for a foreign eye. “I want to do something that says, 'It’s like this. Not like that.' Back then, there were high collars and long robes with a very slim silhouette. But in the '40s, came shorter robes and lower collars. In the '50s, the higher collars came back with slightly longer cloaks," says Chang.
Even the shoes had to be authentic, he adds: “The entire Chinese shoe is made from layers of hard fabric, even the soles. We don’t use leather. So for the snow scenes and rain scenes, I put a layer of plastic inside to waterproof the shoes and lined them with fur as well. It was 35 degrees below.” No toes were lost, he recalls. “We had heaters all around but it was still very cold."
O’Connor immersed himself in Victorian style while doing Pride and Prejudice and jumped at the opportunity to do Dickensian era, which was 15 years later.
“I wanted to do that story and to capture that particular moment in time. There is a big change in fashion," says O'Connor. "The train comes into use, the underground is built in London. People travel on big ships. People move in different ways and much faster, and that impacts fashion."
He acknowledges that many fashion scholars don’t care for the 1850s Victorian era, explaining, “A lot of people try to avoid it because they feel its too fussy, too much trim and bonnet and flowers, lots and lots of crinoline.”
But those period perfect bell-shaped dresses used to be achieved by an increasing number of crinoline petticoats. “But it soon became impossible to move. So the crinoline cage was invented around this time," says O'Connor. "The dresses are then supported by these cages, which make the dress move like a hoola hoop. There are actually moments in the film when the actresses are moving and you can see the dresses moving independently.”
In more than one scene in Woman, the young trio of Ternan daughters wear the same color dresses, which may seem an anathema to the jaded modern eye.
“It was quite common in the 1850s for young girls to wear dresses in the same material to parties and events,” explains O’Connor. “It sounds unimaginable today but that’s what the Victorians did. “
As for why young Nellie wears green frequently during her early meetings with Dickens, O’Connor explains: “We know from his books that Dickens liked girls in pale green and pale pink. In her hair, she wears a geranium and that was his favorite flowers. She actually wears that dress twice and one time she wears a red geranium, which was actually his favorite flower.
One of the least favorite aspects of the 1850 Victorian era for modern actresses is the dreaded center part with the hair cascading down the sides of the ears. “It’s very Princess Lea,” says O’Connor. "And it’s also very Mongolian, that’s where the inspiration comes from. Most actresses go 'Please, please, please don’t get me a center party. It puts ten years on me straight away!'"