The Costume Designer

Behind the seams.

NUVO Magazine: FYI Talent, The Costume Designer

Imagine Saturday Night Fever without John Travolta’s white three-piece suit. Or The Wizard of Oz without Judy Garland’s blue gingham dress. Seems impossible. Costumes, created by the meticulous hands and utopian minds of costume designers, need actors to breathe life into them and the camera to capture them on film, resulting in a mystery moment of alchemy when it all comes together.

Onscreen, costumes may be glamorous, but costume design isn’t all frills and frippery. The craft is a highly artistic but also technical job that changes with each production. There is an excitement captured by a swoosh of period petticoats and taffeta punctuated by a corseted wasp waist, or the fairy-tale fantasy mash-up of cunning cuts, style, and hyperbole. Clever, understated costumes capture notable characters, and garments evoke exotic worlds.

Costume designer Judianna Makovsky, who was honoured with the Costume Designers Guild (CDG) Career Achievement in Film Award at the 15th annual CDG Awards this past February, smiled as she accepted her award and began her speech with, “I completely forgot I put Tom Hanks in a pair of children’s underpants [in the movie Big].” Clips of her work highlighted her storied career, including Gardens of StoneThe Legend of Bagger VanceHarry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, and The Hunger Games. She closed by saying, “I never knew there were so many different kinds of buttons, and that each mattered.”

The CDG was founded in 1953 by 30 designers; it now counts 750, many of whom were in attendance at the awards. Unlike the Oscars, which lump costume design into one category, the CDG Awards divides film and television honours across genres. As Caroline McCall returned to her seat after accepting her award for her work in Downton Abbey in the category of Outstanding Period/Fantasy Television Series (beating out Boardwalk Empire and Game of Thrones), her hands shook as she reached to grab her water glass. “[Downton Abbey is] a great piece of social history because it covers both the aristocracy and the servants, and we see the day-to-day life of ordinary people as well,” she said afterwards. “They shouldn’t be seen as costumes—you ought to believe that they are the clothes for each character.”

Jany Temime, a costume designer and the winner of the award for Excellence in Contemporary Film for her work on Skyfall, commented, “It was challenging to interpret James Bond because he is an iconic thing. You have to be innovative and bring new things and change the look—but not really change the look because the public expects something of Bond, and you shouldn’t disappoint that.”

The guild’s gala was sponsored by lifestyle brand Lacoste, a longtime cinematic fixture. “We’ve been presenting sponsors for three years, but we’ve been involved for 10 years,” says Beryl Lacoste Hamilton, member of Board Lacoste, of the company’s collaboration with the Costume Designers Guild. “We don’t try to push product. We develop friendships and, as a result of a like for the product, get exposure.”

The day after the awards ceremony Lacoste hosted the Lacoste CDG Awards Symposium, an annual symposium wherein the nominated designers gather to discuss the issues of their craft and field questions, often from enthusiastic students interested in pursuing costume design as a career. Before the symposium, Mark Bridges commented how it’s important for a costume designer to not get “typecast” in a certain genre. “There was a while there where I was worried I was going to be the seventies guy because of Boogie Nights and then Blow. I love doing those movies, but then in Hollywood, people start calling you the seventies guy. So I wanted to mix that up and ended up doing something like 8 Mile.” Bridges has continued to keep his work varied with the monochrome palette of The Artist (resulting in an Oscar win for costume design) and the working-class world of Philadelphia for Silver Linings Playbook.

Academy Award nominee Joanna Johnston (who has worked on many of Steven Spielberg’s films) spoke to the challenges costume designers face: “Everybody gets dressed in the morning—it’s not too difficult. I think people just think, ‘Well, it’s just putting on clothes, this costumes for film—it’s really simple: get it off the rack, put it on the body.’ I think that’s why people think it’s very easy. [Costume design] is a misunderstood part of the process of filmmaking.”

Anne Hathaway was presented with the Lacoste Spotlight Award at the CDG Awards, and she remarked, “I treasure the moment on set when all the choices have been made, rehearsal is done, you’re about to start, and you look down and you believe in what you’re wearing. That way, when you look up, you are gone, and it is finally the character’s moment to come alive. It wouldn’t happen without the work you do, so thank you so much.”

Photo by Nick Briggs; provided by Carnival Films.