Crazy Great Costumes

The Night Before the Oscars, Hollywood’s Best Costume Designers were the Hottest Ticket in Town

The hottest ticket in L.A. this weekend wasn’t the Oscar ceremony itself, but the 9th annual Sketch to Screen panel of costume designers at UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television, with 800 people vying for fewer than 300 free tickets. Many more watched the livestreamed event at home.

Obligatory “Designing Women” caption. Photo by Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell.

UCLA traditionally holds the event before the Academy Awards, when all of the nominated designers are in town. In a preview of the ceremony itself, the audience sat through three montages before a single nominee took the stage. Then, moderator Deborah Landis, director of the David Copley Center for Costume Design at UCLA, was joined by Ruth E. Carter (Black Panther), Alexandra Byrne (Mary, Queen of Scots), frequent Coen Brothers collaborator Mary Zophres (The Ballad of Buster Scruggs), and three-time winner Sandy Powell (nominated this year for The Favourite AND Mary Poppins Returns). The designers responsible for two of 2018’s biggest non-nominated hits, Mary E. Vogt (Crazy Rich Asians) and Erin Benach (A Star is Born), also joined the panel.

Pan Shot
The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs

The event always provides an opportunity for costumers to commiserate candidly about the quirks and challenges of their craft. For Buster Scruggs, Zophres received a script describing, among other characters, “a man covered in pans” and “an armless, legless performer.” Because the Coens wanted to use minimal CGI, Zophres’ costume had to camouflage the actor’s four healthy limbs. They also tasked her with dressing not one but two Native American tribes consisting entirely of stuntmen. Their costumes had to be culturally and historically accurate while also concealing kneepads and other safety features. In the end, “you saw them for, like, half a second” onscreen, Zophres admitted.

Tights and Pumpkin Hose

Byrne, who received an Oscar for Elizabeth: The Golden Age, was anxious not to repeat herself in another film about Queen Elizabeth. “I didn’t want to make it another queen in another frock,” she said. Because they shot the film in Scotland on a tight schedule, the show had to go on regardless of the weather. Hard-wearing denim stood in for historically-accurate silk. But Byrne’s biggest challenge was “how to make Elizabethan men sexy,” she confessed. “I don’t think tights and pumpkin hose really are the best look.”

Crazy Rich Asians, virtually a feature-length montage of makeover, shopping, and party scenes, showcased the OTT style of Singaporean high society. Although the cast was, famously, entirely Asian, Vogt is Caucasian and director John Chu grew up in Northern California.  Vogt consulted Kevin Kwan, the Singapore-born author of the novel that inspired the film, and Malaysian actress Michelle Yeoh for advice on the film’s costumes. She hired an army of young assistants on location and used designers from Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, as well as internationally-famous couturiers.

The Clothes Make the Killmonger
Black Panther

Ruth E. Carter found herself inspired to clothe Wakanda—a fictional, futuristic African nation—from scratch. “The supersuits were the challenge,” she revealed. T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) and Killmonger (Michael B.  Jordan) wore skintight Black Panther suits that had to be similar while also being subtly distinguishable (Killmonger was “a little more chiseled, a little more aggressive”). In addition to the many fragile layers that made up the supersuits, including Vibranium, “different stunt people wanted to wear different shoes,” Carter remembered. The karate expert wanted flat soles, while Boseman favored Nikes.

Hollywood’s Favourite Designer

Sandy Powell is such a legend in the costuming community that it’s hard to believe Mary Poppins Returns was her first musical. The long rehearsal period that allowed the actors to nail their songs and choreography was a luxury for Powell. It gave her access to them “from day one.” Indeed, they followed such a leisurely pace that, when the opportunity to do The Favourite on a less-than-Disney budget arose halfway through the production, she was able to spend six weeks prepping the costumes, then went back to finish Mary Poppins. After working for two years straight on the back-to-back films, she took eight months off last year to “binge relax.” She’s now working on Julie Taymor’s Gloria Steinem biopic The Glorias. Powell chooses her projects by asking herself: “Would I pay money to see that film?”

For A Star is Born, “the title is the character arc” that dictated Lady Gaga’s “very clear costume road map,” Benach said. The star’s clothing reflects her personal journey to pop stardom. In one scene, she stands backstage in nondescript sweats, an “undercover” look that’s true to Lady Gaga’s own pre-concert routine. This is the fourth version of ASIB, and “each time it’s made, they’ve made it very modern and current,” Benach pointed out. “We shot at actual venues; we looked at actual pop stars.”

Many of the designers on the panel ruefully joked about the lack of respect—and money—paid to their field. Unfortunately, the oversold event seemed to confirm this tendency to underestimate costume’s allure. Maybe in honor of Sketch to Screen’s 10th anniversary next year, UCLA will move it to a larger venue.

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Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell

Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell writes about fashion, art and culture for the Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, and Book + Film Globe.

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