The logic has always been sound: By dividing their awards categories into contemporary and period/fantasy, art directors and costume designers would avoid comparing apples and oranges in honoring the work of their peers. It was also a way of countering the perception that period/fantasy denoted a higher aesthetic achievement, since Oscar voters invariably chose period opulence over contemporary subtlety.
But following other such organizations as the Producers Guild of America and the American Society of Cinematographers, the Costume Designers Guild has gone mainstream, leaning toward big studio fare or popular, broadstroke entertainment.
This is especially surprising in its contemporary nominations, which skew toward comedy and parody over character-driven drama.
"We know that period costume design gets the most attention," says guild president Deborah Nadoolman Landis. "But really, the most neglected area that's least taken seriously by critics and audiences alike are comedy costumes. What we're doing -- and it's certainly not rigged -- is we're honoring an area of costume design that is usually overlooked."
Rather than such gritty, critically acclaimed fare as "Mystic River," "21 Grams," and "House of Sand and Fog," the costume designers recognized a mockumentary, "The Mighty Wind"; an over-the-top action sequel, "Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle"; a garishly cute sequel, "Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde"; and an ultraviolent B-movie mishmash, "Kill Bill Vol. 1."
One theory for this anomalous turn of events is that the rules dictating the craft have seemingly been rewritten. "In (serious contemporary dramas), the best thing you can say is that you don't notice the costumes; if you notice them, everybody's dead," explains Landis. "But certainly in 'Charlie's Angels' and 'Legally Blonde,' you are required to notice the costumes, because it's not only important to the narrative, it's important to the comedy. In both those films, before the dialogue even happens, the audience is chuckling. The wit of what (the characters) are wearing is appealing, even without the clever dialogue."
There is also a heightened sense of iconography in these genres, such as the Bride's bloodstained motorcycle suit in "Kill Bill" or Elle Woods' pink pillbox hat in "Legally Blonde 2." "Sophie Carbonell took the script and that kind of Jackie O. Chanel suit for that character and she helped create that icon," says Landis. "Those 'Legally Blonde' Barbies are Sophie's costumes."
"Contemporary dramas do tend to be less aesthetically stylized," concedes Carbonell.
Sheer exposure also doesn't hurt in determining what stands out. Look at what happened with B.O. behemoth "Titanic," which raked in 11 Oscars and several guild awards.
"I think that the films that are seen the most tend to get the most nominations," theorizes "Mighty Wind" designer Durinda Wood. "When the economy's not doing very well, people turn to action or comedy. The next generation (of moviegoers) is not particularly serious and comedy is very important to them. I think it really is an era of comedy."
Certainly, Johnny Depp and Diane Keaton contending for Oscars might back up Wood's claim. But this year's shift away from costume realism is not to say that the divide between contemporary and fantasy has been completely erased. Joseph Aulisi says his "Charlie's Angels" creations aren't quite as fantastical as we might think. "The clothes are very contemporary, but I always like to have fun with clothes and give them a fashion spin. For example, Cameron Diaz wears a short, funny fur coat I modeled after a Lapland coat, but you really are seeing stuff like that on runways, like an Ugg boot with shearling trim. A lot of it does carry over between fantasy and reality and you see it in stores today."
Carbonell and Aulisi are being honored for their work on sequels. "I think the membership felt it's time to honor Joe Aulisi and Sophie Carbonell for their work in both these films,' " says Landis. "It's cumulative."
Aulisi's edge also might come from the hundreds of costumes he did for "Full Throttle." "We did about 40 changes apiece for the three Angels and about 15 for Demi Moore. In most films, you have one leading lady. We had four," he says.
Carbonell adds, "I think the guild appreciates lots of costume changes and how hard that is to put together."
"Frankly, 90% what we do is contemporary costume design," says Landis. "Just a very small proportion of the guild at any time has the privilege of working on a big period picture. Contemporary movies are tricky and much more challenging, because everyone on the movie is an expert on what they look good in. There's a tremendous amount of research that goes into contemporary costume design. Costume research doesn't start and stop with period films."
Wood expresses a preference for comedy, saying, "Usually in dramas, you have to toe the line to reality and comedy you can be outside reality, so I think that's one reason that the comedies can be more imaginative and show off more.
"I don't like to work on violent movies."
But other guild members aren't so niched. "Generally speaking, costume designers have no idea what their next job will be, so they have to be strong in every genre," says Landis. "Joe Aulisi and Sophie Carbonell are two costume designers who move easily from contemporary comedy to contemporary drama to period costume design. And that's really emblematic of the work of all of the members of the costume designers guild."
"Generally, I think designers are very good at picking out the subtleties and don't necessarily go for the eye-poppers," says Wood, downplaying this year's trend.
Published in Daily Variety, February 12, 2004