Department of Rhetoric and Writing

The University of Texas at Austin

What Makes an Award-Winning Costume Design?

Image Credit:

             You may or may not have noticed that the Oscar for Best Costume Design went to The Grand Budapest Hotel this year. Like most of the winners in this category in the recent past, the movie is a period piece. In the last 25 years, only one movie that is not technically a period piece has won Best Costume Design, and it was The Lord of The Rings: The Return of the King. The fantasy movie, however, is effectively a period piece from a fashion perspective, with its medieval-style aesthetic. You have to go back to 1979 to find a Best Costume Design winner that is in no way a period piece: Bob Fosse’s semi-autobiographical All That Jazz. What do these costumes look like? I could only find a couple of pictures, but here they are.

 Image Credit: Laser Blast Film Society

Image Credit: Serendipity Cinema

            Based on the winners of the past 25 years, one might say that an award-winning costume designer immerses the audience in the environment of the story. All That Jazz is mostly set in theaters doing musicals, so it makes sense that the glitzy costumes pictured above would win – costume designer Albert Wolsky seems to have immersed his audience in the environment of Fosse’s theatrical career. Wolsky’s designs are costumes pretending to be costumes, apparently with great success.

All costumes pretend, of course. They pretend to be ordinary clothing, but they are always making an argument about the character’s identity. A good costume designer shapes that argument to fit with the story, of course, but perhaps this type of success isn’t as easy to identify as whether costumes convincingly simulate the clothing of a given historical period. Perhaps this is why period pieces generally win the Best Costume Design Oscar: it’s easy to argue for why they should.

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