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Oscars Retrospective 2017: La La Land

La La Land's nomination for Best Achievement in Costume Design was a weird choice for the Academy, but not for the reason everyone seemed to agree on (mainly that it had no merit because it was contemporary costuming and it consists solely of just shirts and dresses). It was an uncommon choice because, had it won, it would have been the first contemporary film to win Best Costume Design in 22 years (the last one to do so was Priscilla, Queen of the Desert in 1994).

But, truth be told, this is a more than well deserved nomination. La La Land is a felt tribute to Hollywood's Golden Musicals and, as such, works at a purely emotional level; through the music, the acting, the cinematography, the sets and, of course, the costume design, it creates an emotional roller-coaster for the audience.

And it makes sense; La La Land is a love story. It exudes love: for L.A, for music, for cinema... for being in love. True, it's not the most complex and nuanced story out there, but it doesn't have to be. It has to be a beating heart for the audience. And it certainly accomplishes that.

It's that emotional core that makes the movie stand out. Every single technical aspect is directed at creating an emotional response. The cinematography through its sweeping long, interrupted shots creates a sense of uninterrupted emotion and direct contact with the music and the dancing. The set design, through the use of colors and reminiscent props, such as the lamp lights, manages to create a sense of heightened or magical realism that helps the viewer understand the story on an emotional level, instead of rationality. In such a creative technical environment, it's hardly believable that the Costume Designer would settle for "just putting clothes on the actors", which is something I've heard too many times in regards to questioning this Costume Design nomination.

For that very reason, we decided to start this year's Oscar Retrospective by applauding the merits of this particular Costume Design.


The costume design for the movie was created by Mary Zophres who, despite not being new in the business, hasn't come into the Academy radar too much. She is the mind behind the designs for Fargo (1996), The Big Lebowski (1998), There's Something About Mary (1998), O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), Catch Me If You Can (2002), No Country for Old Men (2007), Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), Burn After Reading (2008), A Serious Man (2008), True Grit (2010), Gangster Squad (2013), and the hilariously amazing Hail, Caesar! (2016).

The main idea behind the look of La La Land is to create an alternative version of our world where every sense is heightened by beauty and style. It strives to create an alternate reality of our world; a better, more emotional; an expressionistic version of our reality.

That translates into Zophres work on the costumes through the use of color, textures and the constant blending of retro fashion trends with contemporary sensibilities in order to create a timeless feeling around the characters and the story.


Mia, beautifully played by Emma Stone, is an actress striving to achieve her dreams, and functions as the beating heart of the story. Her emotional arc serves as the connecting tissue of the movie. And, her costumes and their evolution, function both as a visual reflection and support of her arc and the movie's overall emotional arc as well.

And that is achieved, mainly, through the use of color as an expressionistic element that serves as a vehicle for emotion. Both the colors present on the sets and the colors on the costumes are precisely placed in the scene to bolster the emotional reaction of the audience.
They’d all come to find their dreams, and their dreams were Technicolor.                        --- Reynolds-Wasco, set decorator ---
Mia, when she is first introduced to the audience, is a wide-eyed dreamer. An actress-wannabe that works in a coffee shop whilst looking with starry-eyes at a future just beyond her reach. There's a very tender quality around her, a certain girlish-feel to her and her dreams. So, to reflect that, Zophres created a vibrant, vivacious and colorful wardrobe for her.

The use of basic, saturated and vibrant colors for Mia helps underline her positive disposition (despite the precariousness of her situation), whilst simultaneously paying homage to Technicolor and the Golden Age of the Hollywood Musicals. 

We are first introduced to Mia in her work clothes: a rather simple white blouse and black skirt. So, the first time that we really see her, as herself, is during the party that her friends drag her to. And, consequently, the first costume that really speaks to her personality is the royal blue dress shown above.

It's classy, vibrant, daring... it encapsulates Mia as she is at the beginning of a movie. It also has this old-Hollywood vibe that makes it fit perfectly within the movie itself.

The vivid primary color-infuse palette also denotes a youthful self-assertion in a world that threatens to run over these characters (Mia and her friends) and their dreams.

Also, Zophres did an amazing job coordinating her color palette with the set design. Note how the dress is made to contrast and pop up against the red palette of the club where she first meets Sebastian. This dress is expressly designed to work against that set and with that specific lighting.

It's in this expressionistic use of color in costume, sets and lightening that really show the influence that musicals like Jacques Demy's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Les Parapluies de Cherbourg, 1964) had both on the director and the movie itself.

For her next outfit, the instantly iconic yellow dress, Zophres uses a very similar approach; a bright, bold color, a retro feel and on point color coordination with the set.

This dress amazes us in so many ways... because canary yellow is a hard color to pull off in clothing (let's say that it's not very flattering to most people), and there are just so many ways that this look could have backfired. And yet it manages to capture her spirit and the tone and mood of the scene perfectly without feeling artificial.

In great part it is because the dress and the location enhance each other visually in a way that manages to create the illusion that this first spark between the characters is almost a magical moment. The combination of colors creates an emotional state in the audience. And that's not easy to do.

Just notice how the yellow hue pops up perfectly against the purple sky of the scene and creates this sense of wonder and youth to her character.

It also manages to create this old-Hollywood vibe that matches perfectly the nostalgic feeling of the movie as a whole. It particularly reminds me of the "girl-next-door" look that was so prevalent in most of Debbie Reynolds characters back when she was doing musicals with MGM.

That simplicity and elegance is even more present in her next dress: the green dress she wears during her first date with Sebastian.

It was really a combination of many things, but the most important thing was to find a balance between what is classic, beautiful and romantic.                                       --- Mary Zophres, Costume Designer ---
It's also particularly noteworthy the fact that all of her costumes are designed specifically so that Emma would be able to dance in them. The clean line, flowing skirts and sleeveless dresses, are there because they facilitate the movement during shooting. Because, a good designer will also take into account what will the costume be used for when it comes to designing it.

As the movie progresses, and Mia's and Sebastian relationship intensifies, Mia starts to become more self-assured of her own talents and her own place in the world. She starts to focus more on her work. That causes a slow shift in the costumes: color starts to become less bold, more de-saturated, and the dresses start to be less dramatic, less Hollywood-like.

There is still color, don't get me wrong, but it's more toned down. And it's mainly focused on soft pinks and soft blues and greys. It's actually a great way to show how she starts to gain confidence in herself as an actress. She doesn't need to wear bright colors to define herself anymore.

Still, these designs transpire her positivity and energy just as well. Her happiness and self-realization shine through the pastel pinks and whites and the simplicity of the designs cements her new found self-confidence in herself.

But, as Mia and Sebastian start to drift apart after he joins John Legend's band (can't remember his character's name...), the color truly starts to fade away from her clothes, becoming almost monochromatic to the point where, during her one-woman show, Mia is literally in black and white.

This is a very visually clear way of reflecting her insecurities as the big date approaches and as her relationship starts to crumble under the weight of their own dreams.

And it's also a very clever way to visually mark her lowest point in the story: the failed play. As the light goes up and she sees the theater almost empty, something inside of her breaks. She can't take this anymore. She can't dream anymore. The color has completely gone away.

Consequently, she leaves L.A and goes back home. It's during this segment of the film that the costumes are closer to real contemporary clothing. She's in jeans and sweaters and very tame and de-saturated colors.

She's lost her dreams and she's lost her spirit, something that the costumes manage to perfectly capture by striping away the color and the retro style.

After she finally gets her big break and she and Sebastian decide to part ways, the movie cuts to an epilogue that happens five years later, where we see them meet each other again and wonder, for a brief moment, what could have been if they had stayed together.

Costume wise, this segment is mainly defined by the contrast created between her little black dress (their reality) and the dream-white dress (the dream).

One the one hand, we have the elegant black dress that she wears when she accidentally walks in Sebastian's Jazz Club, that tap into her sophistication and newfound financial stability and fame. And, on the other hand, there's Mia's dress for the dream sequence: a white, flowing white dress that captures the magic and dreamlike feel of the movie and the character's relationship. The idea is to contrast reality with dreams, and it certainly achieves it.

What makes the white dress so special is that it manages to capture the whole feel and emotion of the movie and still manages to seem simple and effortless. The dress was made especially with that in mind and its a silk chiffon top and a very lightweight silk charmeuse underneath. The layers allow the dress to float when the actors swirl and dance, giving it this dreamlike feel and it makes it contrast even more with the stiff tube-like black dress.

The dress is also a subtle homage to Ginger Rogers and the white dress she wore in 1936's Swing Time, cementing, once more, the huge influence of classic musicals on this movie.

Now that we've seen Mia's full costume evolution, note how she goes from bright colors to black and white, much the same way that the character goes from having a dream to living the reality of that dream.
The idea for Mia is that she starts off in a lot of vibrant colours, so there’s a girlishness to her. Then as she becomes more mature and focused on her work, the colour starts to become a little bit more de-saturated, to the point where in her one-woman show she is literally in black and white. Then we see her five years later, and it’s the same girl – just far more sophisticated.                                                         --- Mary Zophres, Costume Designer ---


Sebastian, a jazz musician who dreams of opening his own club, functions as Mia's emotional counterweight. His character, therefore, has less of an arc, as it mainly serves to help enhance her character and her arc. Still, it's an extremely charming and likable character, mainly thanks to the spot-on casting choice.

All of this means that his costume design is simpler and calls less attention to itself. But this doesn't mean that it's not interesting in its own right.
Sebastian has this latch on the past, so he should never wear a T-shirt or jeans. There's a formality to him.                                                 --- Mary Zophres, Costume Designer ---

His character and, therefore, his look, is mostly defined by his passionate love of classic jazz. It was only logical, to base his look and his wardrobe around the jazz and movie icons of the past: Hoagy Carmichael, Fred Astaire, Bill Evans,... and the men of the Nouvelle Vague films.

Because of this, most of his wardrobe consists of white shirts, dress pants and dance shoes, which create a very classy and formal silhouette. A timeless look. He's not a flashy character. He's elegant yet approachable. He's a tad offbeat. That's where his charm comes from.
His look is not necessarily trendy, but it’s also not necessarily what other men you see walking down the street are wearing. It’s a look you feel he has developed and curated. He’s a guy you don’t see wearing a T-shirt.                                                                     --- Mary Zophres, Costume Designer ---

Without a doubt, the most important part of his look are his shoes; the two-toned shoes in black-and-white leather. They visually define Sebastian and his nostalgia for old jazz brilliantly. They are retro and whimsical and cool all at the same time.

Also, it's very relevant that, during Mia's and Sebastian's first dance together, the two of them are wearing matching dance, two-toned shoes.

It highlights the fact that there seems to be an instant connection between the two and it's also a cute nod to the classic Hollywood musicals.

That same connection between the characters is also shown through color-coordinating their outfits the first time they meet: she's wearing the royal blue dress and he's wearing a royal blue dress jacket. It's a simple tool that quickly helps to create the idea in the audience's mind that these two characters are meant for each other.

Last but not least, note how Sebastian wardrobe is mainly in a palette of browns, blacks and whites. This is no coincidence. Sebastian is in love with a bygone era; an era that we've mostly seen in black and white. And having him follow a similarly de-saturated palette is a nice nod to it.


La la land is an evocative and sentimental take on the classical Hollywood musical that uses expressionistic elements to tell a highly emotional story. It's a timeless story with a contemporary sensibility.

Thanks to the flawless coordination between costumes and production design, which compliment and enhance each other beautifully, it manages to evoke in the viewer an intoxicating feeling of nostalgia.

And the biggest achievement of it all is that this manages to feel completely effortless, just as any good dance number should.

It was definitely a well deserved nomination (in all categories, but as we are talking about costume, I'm focusing on the nomination for Best Costume Design) and it's really a shame it did not win. We did have our hopes that this would be THE contemporary movie to finally win again Costume Design, but it couldn't be...


This is the first of our Oscar Retrospective 2017! Join us next time when we'll be looking at Jackie! Meanwhile, check out last year Retrospective covering: The Revenant, Cinderella, The Danish Girl, Carol and Mad Max: Fury Road.


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