Another year has come and gone and I am, once again, facing the difficult task of choosing the best of this past year. Fortunately, 2017 has been, overall, a pretty good year for costume design, which makes my job easier.
A brief reminder needed: here I will not be looking at the quality of the movies themselves but at the quality of their costume design.
Also, the list order is rather random. All of the designs mentioned below stand on their own and I don't think they can really be properly listed.
And so, with that out of the way, I begin.
I. MONSTROUS LOVE: Lady Macbeth. Designs by Holly Waddington
Director William Oldroyd set himself to fail when he chose to adapt for his directorial debut the extremely harsh and complex novel Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk by Nikolai Leskov's. And that would be all I would be saying about it except for the fact that he did not fail at all in this endeavor. Quite the contrary. Oldroyd delivered a bold and uncompromising movie that presented audiences with a riveting, magnetic and incredibly tense tale about power, oppression and the creation of monsters.
While the performance of the extremely young Florence Pugh is certainly a highlight, the production design and the costume design stand out as magnificent, particularly considering the low-budget this movie had at its disposal.
The marvelously subtle yet expressive costumes created by Holly Waddington (also a newcomer to the industry) stand out to me as the biggest surprise in Costume Design this year.
The movie, set in the mid-19th century, proves, above all, that a costume design can be period-appropriate and yet be designed to underline the character's arc and evolution as well as its personality.
And so, the movie boasts of a small yet incredibly detailed and accurate 1860's gowns that manage to capture Catherine's descend into cruelty and madness in magnificent detail.
Also to note; it is incredibly clever how the costume design integrates real period oppressive female underwear into the narrative of the story. Thus highlighting how oppression, both literal (in the form of restrictive clothing) and psychological (in the form of his father's in-law abuse), drives Catherine to murder.
As a whole, this was a huge surprise for me. This is a design that does a lot with a really constrained budget (particularly considering its a period piece) and that manages to combine real period clothing with expressive storytelling decisions, thus helping to set the mood and help underline the character's journey.
I could hardly cover all that's great in this design in just this brief mention, so a full review is certainly due to this masterpiece.
II. BELIEVING IN HEROISM: Wonder Woman. Designs by Lindy Hemmnig
It is telltale of the society we live in that, despite being one of the most recognizable superheroes in existence, 2017's Wonder Woman was the first incarnation of the character for the big screen (her brief cameo in 2016's Batman v Superman barely counts). More surprising than that, was the fact that a woman had been allowed to take the directorial reigns for this bombastic blockbuster.
And bombastic it was. Patty Jenkins certainly delivered, creating an entertaining and heartwarming tale of heroism and hope. And such a tale needed a visual design to match it. For that, Jenkins enrolled the talent of Costume Designer Lindy Hemming, who had previously worked creating cinematic looks for iconic characters (Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises, Paddington).
The level of detail and texture that Hemmings incorporated into the costumes is, perhaps, the most essential part of the whole design. She managed to create iconic looks that stayed faithful to the comic book spirit, but that also felt real and rooted in the reality of this cinematic universe.
But, even more importantly, and much more surprisingly, Hemmings created a visual design for the Amazons that actively avoided objectifying them and instead focused on the warrior side of things.
In much the same way, she created an interpretation of the iconic Wonder Woman suit that managed to feel like it belongs to the same culture as the Amazons and to look a little bit like a fighting outfit (unlike the more traditional swimsuit-like Wonder Woman suit).
Last but not least, it is necessary to applaud the effort put into creating clothes for undercover Diana that actually look like 1918's period-appropriate clothes. Because, if you are as pretty as Gal Gadot, you do not need modernized clothes to look amazingly beautiful.
As a whole, Wonder Woman's design triumph is the same triumph that the movie itself conquers; not to tell a feminist story in itself, no. After all, Wonder Woman is a basic superhero movie that only happens to have women at its center. But to tell that story without objectifying the women it portrays.
And for that, I am thankful.
After all, we need no more proof that this is really hard than to look at the designs and directorial approach of the same character in the widely panned Justice League, where the Amazon's costumes were suddenly much more skimpy and way less useful as armor and where there were several upskirt shots every time Wonder Woman fought on screen. And so, I rest my case.
III. THE SEARCH FOR THE IDEAL: The Lost City of Z. Designs by Sonia Grande
This is, probably, the most underrated movie to come out this year. James Gray' auteur epic follows in the tradition of 70's cinema and delivers an incredibly poetic movie that heavily reminds us of Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate. It is hardly a surprise then, that it flopped at the box office and was immediately written off as a failure.
Quite an unfair fate for a movie that it's so beautiful in its conception. That beauty extends not only to the story but to every technical aspect, including the Costume Design.
This was created by Sonia Grande, a Spanish Costume Designer who made a name for herself working with Pedro Almodovar and who made the leap to international productions with Woody Allen's Vicky Christina Barcelona.
And the result is stunning. This is a design deeply rooted in realism. It's mud-stained and sweat-stained and you can almost smell the dirt coming off the screen. It's precisely that eye for detail that becomes this design's greatest strength.
Also of note, the whole costume design during the jungle sections of the film is made to perfectly blend in with the landscape, thus revealing the reverence this character has for this place. He doesn't want to disrupt the jungle, he wants to be a part of it.
This creates a heavy contrast with the look and palette of the England sections of the film, where a darker and less natural palette is found. This, coupled with the uptight Edwardian fashion of the day helps create the feeling of being more at home in the jungle than in his real home.
All of this is done in a very subtle and pictorial way, often creating frames that look more like paintings than a movie, creating a sense of poetic realism that extends to every aspect of the film's look.
In the end, it is such a shame that the movie didn't catch on with the public, as it is a real gem and totally worth checking out.
IV. CLASSICISM ON WHEELS: Murder on the Orient Express. Designs by Alexandra Byrne
Kenneth Branagh returned this year to the director's seat with a modern adaptation of Agatha Christie's iconic Murder on the Orient Express. Unfortunately, the movie is a bit of a mixed bag. Whilst Branagh manages to infuse charm into a usual uptight and know-it-all character and creates some really gorgeous set pieces, the movie as a whole fails to surprise and culminates in a rather absurd third act.
Still, the movie can boast of an incredible Production and Costume Design, which probably are it's two biggest strengths.
And behind these stunning 1930s designs stands Alexandra Byrne, a heavyweight of Costume Design and the creative mind behind Hamlet, Elisabeth, Finding Neverland, Elizabeth the Golden Age, Thor, Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy and many more.
Here, she created every costume to perfectly suit the character's particular personality, from the extravagant Russian Princess to the ultra-catholic nanny.
On top of that, the designs are made to pop and create colorful images, steering away from the more traditional adaptations of Christie's work, mirroring the way the camera work emphasizes the modern approach of this film.
Last but not least, it is worth highlighting the character design for Poirot himself. Particularly his noteworthy mustache, that might have looked ridiculous if not because the costume for him was so well suited for that particular look.
All in all, it is a shame that the movie failed to live up to the potential of the design, but, at least, we'll have a gorgeous movie to look at.
V. FIGHTING THE MAN: Hidden Figures. Designs by Renee Ehrlich Kalfus
Here I'm sort of cheating, I know. Hidden Figures is, technically, a 2016 movie. But it got a 2017 release in my home country, so long story short, it got included in the list.
With that out of the way, let's focus on the movie. Hidden Figures is a movie based on the real story of three women of color working at NASA during the 60's and the racism they had to overcome. And, as a movie featuring scientific women, I really wanted to like it. Unfortunately, it is very cliched and very predictable and, whilst it can be enjoyable, it is not as good as I would like it to be.
But if there is one aspect of the movie that is truly fantastic, it is the Costume Design created by Renee Ehrlich Kalfus (known for What's Eating Gilbert Grape, The Cider House Rules, Chocolat, The Shipping News,...).
And what really catches the eye, literally, it's the incredibly clever use of color as a metaphor. All the white characters in the story are dressed in white, gray and black. Completely monochromatic. And amidst them, all the colored characters are dressed in vivid and popping colors.
Not only does this help to visualize how they are made to feel out of place, but by breaking the color palette it also reinforces this idea that racial integration brings literal color in an ocean of white.
It might seem really simple and obvious, but it truly is a really great visual metaphor.
Not only that, but it also manages to give these incredible women a distinct visual personality that sets them apart from the norm and reinforces their strong determination to not be set aside by society.
Last but not least, the Costume Design also uses both color and style to visually differentiate each individual and distinct personality of our three protagonists.
In the end, despite all its flaws, this movie was definitely a step in the right direction in many ways, and it certainly helps that the Costume Design is absolutely flawless.
VI. LET THE PAST DIE: Star Wars: Episode VIII. The Last Jedi. Designs by Michael Kaplan
Star Wars is, at this point, a staple of good and creative Costume Design. Even the ill-fated prequels could boast of having really creative Costume ideas (if not always coherent or well-directed). So it is no surprise, that this new Episode VIII can, once again, show off a pretty amazing Costume Design.
The designs for this new entry in the saga are once again created by industry legend Michael Kaplan (Blade Runner, Flashdance, Armageddon, Pearl Harbor, Star Trek, Star Trek Into Darkness, Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens), and take from where the previous installment left to advance the visual look of our protagonist and make some interesting commentary on the default visual look for female command.
The design of Rey, for instance, is kept mostly the same, except for the darkening of her palette, which goes from whites and browns to grays and blues.
A change that cleverly reflects the loss of her naivité and her character growth.
A similar subtle change is made to Kylo Ren's costuming to adapt to his character arc. For The last Jedi, as he loses his mask, he also loses most of the visual callbacks to Vader (except the overuse of dramatic black), a great way to underline his constant self-doubt and emotional turmoil. He knows that he cannot be Vader at this point, so he loses the big billowy tunic aspect of his costume.
His doubt about what he is or where he stands is thus reflected in his changing style.
Last but not least, the designs also insist on highlighting the feminity of the female characters in command. Both Leia and Hold shy away from the more traditional military-inspired looks often given to female characters that are meant to be leaders.
This was a very conscious decision taken by both Kaplan and Johnson as a way to highlight that traditional femininity is not incompatible with female command. You can be a woman in a command position without having to turn yourself into a man.
Which is a very interesting choice and it is worth talking about it at length.
All in all, The Last Jedi bring us back all the designs we loved in The Force Awakens and much, much more. And that is enough reason for me to love this design.
VII. A HOUSE OF REPRESSION: The Beguiled. Designs by Stacey Battat
Sofia Coppola became the second-ever woman to win the Best Director Award at the Cannes Film Festival for The Beguiled, which feels really unfair. But this certainly helped boost the publicity for this amazing movie: a remake of a 70's movie turned into a dark tale of repression, poisonous relationships, and paranoia.
And, as with all of Coppola's movies, the look of the movie is stunningly beautiful, something that the Costume Design by Stacey Battat (Somewhere, Girls, The Bling Ring, Still Alice) heavily reinforces.
The design becomes particularly important when it comes to differentiating the personalities of each of the seven women in the story. A really hard task when considering that, due to the strict rules of Nicole Kidman's character, they are not allowed flashy clothes most of the time.
For most of the movie, these women are dressed exclusively in light colors (mostly whites, soft yellows, and cream colors) and wearing modest and simple frocks. So most of the differentiation between the characters comes from the smallest details: the incorporation of the black lines in Kidman's dresses to highlight her strength and iron command, the softer, less constricting shape of Dunst's gowns or the fact that Fanning's gowns are almost always worn with a couple of buttons unbuttoned.
Those differences become much more obvious during the party dinner scenes, where all the girls are allowed to use their party dresses, finally confirming the personalities we had already puzzled together.
All in all, this is a wonderfully detailed design that feels completely at ease in the lavish visual world of Coppola's latest addition to her rich filmography.
I. A STORY OF SURVIVAL: Dunkirk. Designs by Jeffrey Kurland
The anticipated new movie by Christopher Nolan was an unusual, yet very welcomed, Summer release. Dunkirk is a crude tale of survival and the nature of men. And it's a great movie.
As for its costume design, courtesy of Jeffrey Kurland (The Purple Rose of Cairo, Bullets Over Broadway, Ocean's Eleven, Inception, Tomorrowland, Ghostbusters 2017), it follows the same directorial line that the rest of the movie: gritty realism. And it certainly achieves it through the variety of period-accurate uniforms in varying levels of decay.
Still, it didn't make the list because, even if looking for all these uniforms is a harrowing and difficult task that merits to be credited, the overall design is not particularly interesting as a whole. This is not a criticism of the design because it isn't meant to be noticeable. Every aspect of this movie is meant to be invisible in order to bring the audience into experiencing the evacuation as realistically as possible. So, in this case, feeling invisible is the best these designs could aspire to.
II. SPACE GLADIATORS: Thor Ragnarok. Designs by Mayes C. Rubeo
Taika Waititi's incursion into the Marvel Cinematic Universe brought us a fun and unique action-adventure space opera that brought real fun into the Thor world for the first time. And that fun is achieved, in great part, thanks to the amazing Production and Costume Design, that coupled with a hilarious script allows us to give a new spin to familiar characters.
And so, Mayes C. Rubeo's Costume Design (also known for Apocalypto and Avatar) take the pre-established look of these characters and infuses them with bright neon colors and comic book kitsch elements in a clear call back to the 80's aesthetic.
This is a fun costume design for a fun movie that allows you to look at these characters in a whole new light.
So why is it an honorable mention? Well, I had two comic-book movies competing to make the list and, in the end, I do think that Wonder Woman's design had the harder task and therefore deserves more credit. Still, this is a design worth talking about.
III. DARK FAIRYTALES: Okja. Designs by Se-Yeon Choi and Catherine George
Acclaimed director Bong Joon-ho joined forces with Netflix to bring to the screen this incredibly tender yet dark fairy tale about a girl and her pet. And, as per usual with Bong Joon-ho's movies, the movie also functions as a critique of the modern capitalist world we live in.
And both these essential aspects of the story are heavily underlined by the Costume Design created by Se-yeon Choi and Catherine George (We need to talk about Kevin, Snowpiercer, Jane got a gun, Paterson, The night of).
They create a colorful world, a highly plastic one at that, which serves to underline the dark underbelly beneath their feet.
It is a beautiful Costume Design, yes, but, unfortunately, this year there were too many great and complex Costume Designs for this one to make the list.
FOOTNOTEI need to point out that I have not been able to see, for geographical reasons (mainly that they have not been released in Spain), neither Paul Thomas Anderson's Phantom Thread nor Guillermo del Toro's The Shape of Water, two of the biggest movies this awards' season.
These both seem to have very detailed and beautiful Costume Designs, but, unfortunately, I cannot include them in this list, because I have not seen them.
TV DESERVES BETTER
Up until now, I had only focused on film when it came to our Best of the Year list. But, it has become impossible for me to ignore certain TV shows that have been proving, over and over, that there is just as much talent in TV as in Film when it comes to Costume Design.
So here are the designs that I felt obligated, at this point, to mention. Because they are great.
I. OF ICE AND FIRE: Game of Thrones. Designs for Season 7 by Michele Clapton
Despite the obvious lowering standards in storytelling that have been going on in the show since the story left the books behind, it is unquestionable that the level of quality in Costume Design has remained constant and unwavering since the first season of the show.
Such is the high-level quality of Clapton's work, that it has allowed me to write several lengthy analysis of her work throughout the years (read here). Her incredible eye for detail has allowed the show to feel as if, at some point in history, somewhere on earth, this could have happened.
Her incredibly consistent good work has made this extremely alien world feel real. And that is no small feat.
II. LONG LIVE THE QUEEN: The Crown. Designs for Season 2 by Michele Clapton
Netflix is proving itself to be quite the contender when it comes to creating high-quality TV fiction. And The Crown, a show that uses the life of Elizabeth II as a shorthand to explore the responsibilities of the monarchy, is a good example of why.
Here, once again, Michele Clapton shows her talent when it comes to creating enticing costumes that reflect a world with which many viewers aren't familiar and also highlights every character's individuality and their respective arcs.
And, once again, her eye for detailed costuming gives the whole show a feel of reality that cheaper costumes (as is often associated with TV) would totally shatter.
III. GORGEOUS AND LETHAL: Glow. Designs for Season 1 by Beth Morgan
Netflix hits it out of the park again this year with Glow, an 80's nostalgia-centric story about a group of women finding their own self-worth in the male-dominated world of wrestling.
Here, the fun and glittery costumes created by Beth Morgan help cement the nostalgic feeling of the piece but also help accompany these women's individual journeys and highlight the fun element of the show.
So, if this proves anything (and if anything needed to be proved), is that I am totally on board with this new golden age of television and that I cannot wait to see more great costume designs from more amazing TV shows.
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