Take a moment to think about the pieces of clothing you are wearing. When did you get them? Why did you buy them? Did you borrow them from someone and forget to give them back?
These were the questions UCLA professor Deborah Nadoolman Landis posed to the audience toward the beginning of the eighth annual Sketch to Screen Costume Design Oscar Panel on March 3.
“I could deconstruct all of [your outfits] and you all would have different stories to tell that would be uniquely your own,” said Landis, who defined the criteria of ”great costume design” that unifies films as different as “Beauty and the Beast,” “Get Out,” “Phantom Thread,” “The Shape of Water,” “Darkest Hour” and “I, Tonya.” “The criteria is, has that designer served that story and is that movie great and was I swept away?”
Landis, who is the founding director and chair of the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television’s David C. Copley Center for Costume Design, gave the audience insight into what a costume designer thinks before introducing the panelists for the event, which is presented annually by Swarovski. The event celebrating costumes is held every year right before the Academy Awards and features costume designers from many of the year’s highly acclaimed films, including the Oscar-nominated designers.
Teri Schwartz, dean of the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, kicked off the event and welcomed the well-dressed audience of costume design students, professionals and fans who filled the James Bridges Theater and an overflow screening room across the hall.
“Through the outstanding work of the center, we are constantly reminded of the powerful impact that costume design has had on the history of movies and the way we experience and tell stories visually,” Schwartz said.
Following Schwartz’s introduction, Nadja Swarovski, head of corporate communications and design services for Swarovski, presented the 2018 Swarovski Shooting Star Award to UCLA costume design graduate student Maddison Carroll.
Then the audience was treated to a montage of clips showcasing the designers’ work in this year’s films and Landis welcomed the panelists:
- April Napier, costume designer for the Oscar-nominated film “Lady Bird,” which featured the early-2000s fashion choices of high school students growing up in Sacramento, California.
- Mark Bridges, who ended up winning the Academy Award for his costume design in “Phantom Thread,” which featured original garments that Bridges and the filmmakers imagined in the style of an obsessive 1950’s English costume designer.
- Nadine Haders, costume designer for the Oscar-nominated “Get Out,” for which she said she worked with writer-director Jordan Peele to send subliminal messages to the audience through the colors of the characters’ clothing, for example, wearing red conveyed membership in a secret society.
- Luis Sequeira, nominated for the film “The Shape of Water,” designed clothes with poignant uses of color and materials that reflected the aquatic theme and setting of a unique love story set in Cold War America.
- Jennifer Johnson, costume designer for the film “I, Tonya,” which featured exact replicas of the skating uniforms and clothing choices of the media target, Tonya Harding.
- Jacqueline Durran, who was nominated for both “Beauty and the Beast,” featuring costumes of the animated classic reimagined to exist in the live-action film, and “Darkest Hour,” which portrayed Winston Churchill in replicas of the suits and clothing he wore during his time as the prime minister of England.
The two-hour discussion touched on some of the unique challenges presented by the films they worked on, the hardest part of being a costume designer, the importance of having talented people around you and having to explain the importance of costume design to various people in the film community.
“It’s getting people to understand what you do,” Haders said. “What do you do and how do you do it? And having the means necessary to get it done. … It is that sort of push and pull of trying to do your job to the best of your ability and do service to the project in the way that you see yourself doing service to it.”
Landis and the panelists spoke often of their role to serve their projects. Costumes, when executed correctly, set a theme, provide metaphorical insights and orient the audience to who a character is. None of this can be achieved without thorough research into the characters, which becomes even more important when the character is a real person.
Johnson told the audience about how she fought to win tabloid clippings of Tonya Harding on eBay because of the lack of available unbiased evidence of who Harding was and what she wore. By comparing multiple sources, Johnson worked to discover who Harding was underneath the criticism of tabloids.
“You wanted it to be your own. You didn’t want it to be somebody else’s impression of her,” Johnson said. “You wanted to make kind of a claim on this person and I didn’t want to make fun of her.”
In contrast, Durran had plenty of images of Winston Churchill to reference and even had two textiles spun for her so that she could perfectly recreate the print on his nightgown. The differing constraints the designers worked within highlight the need for adaptability and flexibility when occupying the highly demanding and sometimes unappreciated role of costume designer.
While all the designers sympathized with past experiences of unappreciative producers and underpaid crew, they all raved about the experience of working on their latest projects and the value of working with collaborative production teams.
“[The Shape of Water] came from love,” Sequeira said of the Best Picture winner. “Everybody poured their heart and soul into the picture. Between the production designer and hair and makeup and Guillermo [del Toro], of course.”
Despite the difficulties they face in designing costumes for a film, the panelists agreed on the best part of designing — watching a character come alive.
“We saw Gary for the first time in the prosthetic, which was amazing in itself. Then, when he put on the kind of first stage of the costume, and started walking like Churchill and being like Churchill it was just an amazing revelation,” Durran said about Gary Oldman’s Oscar-winning transformation into Churchill. “It was unbelievable. It’s a magical moment.”
Sequiera said he was blown away when Sally Hawkins cried the first time she put on the dress for the dream sequence in “The Shape of Water.” Napier told the audience about watching Saoirse Ronan jump into each costume with the energy and gumption of the young Lady Bird.
Bridges explained what about a costume makes an actor transform. “My theory is is that they look good but they feel like somebody else.”
Costume designers create one of the most integral parts of any story and do so while fighting for resources, scraping together costuming teams and working right alongside actors in all stages of filming. And they would choose no other job.
“The precious moment when you see a character come alive, and when you have that magical moment when someone hands you this extraordinary gift of an exceptional script, it’s all worth it,” Napier said.