The 27th Annual Oscar Costume Design Exhibition at FIDM

Photos by Susan JAMES
27th Art of Motion Picture Costume Design Exhibition

By Susan JAMES

Running through April 12 with free admission to the public, the 27th annual exhibition of Oscar-nominated costumes is now open at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in Los Angeles. On display are over 100 costumes from more than 25 movies released in 2018, including the five films whose costumes were nominated in this year’s Oscar race.

The range of imagination and creativity is incredible. As usual, fantasy reigns with other worlds and other times presented with impressive flair.

The exhibition begins with the explosion of Afrofuturistic design that is Ruth Carter’s costuming for “Black Panther.” Appearing at the exhibition opening, Carter explained how both her fabrics and their detailed ornamentation – shells, beads, carved bone – were sourced from all over Africa. Each tribe in the film had its own unique look taken from the traditions of the Turkana people, the Masaai, the Dogon and the people of the Congo among others. Blankets came from the Basotho of South Africa. 

Ruth Walker and her costumes for “Black Panther.”

Side-by-side with the traditional, the futuristic aspect of Carter’s work incorporates cutting edge technology like 3D printing used for fabric and for the spectacular outfit worn by Angela Bassett in the film. Her headdress, which appears to reference Nefertiti’s crown but has Zulu origins and the flaring lace-like collar of her full-length, drop-waisted ivory gown, were also created using 3D printing.

“I tried to make certain,” Carter said, “that all of the costumes came from pre-Colonial African traditions.”

That meant using mud cloth from Mali rather than waxed cloth that had been introduced into Africa by the Dutch. Like the groundbreaking film, the level of detail on Carter’s costumes raises design to a whole new level.


Veteran costume designer Sandy Powell has two tickets to ride in the Oscar sweepstakes: “Mary Poppins Returns” and “The Favourite.” Powell’s look for Emily Blunt as Poppins features graphic rather than floral flourishes.  She sees the character as a buttoned-down, no-nonsense person whose innate fashion sense presents itself in a modernistic spread of stripes and polka dots, a rather binary magical computer nanny. But the trompe l’oeil costumes in the exhibition created for the animation sequence reflect the flat, two-dimensional look of those scenes. It’s impossible to believe that the 3D detailing is painted on a two-dimensional canvas. The result is costume magic.

Powell’s looks for “The Favourite” are dramatically different. Director Yorgos Lanthimos didn’t want a precise recreation of period costuming so Powell subtracted ostentatious ornamentation from the designs for Olivia Colman’s Queen Anne and her ladies and reduced her color palette to monotonic shades.

According to Nick Verreos, fashion designer and co-producer for the upcoming season of Bravo’s “Project Runway,” Powell has used what is new this season: denim. 

“Mary Poppins”

“It’s such an inventive fabric,” Verreos explained. “Dyed, painted, distressed, aged – you can do so much with it and you can buy it in all lengths and widths.” And, important to producers, it’s cheap. 

All of the servants’ costumes in “The Favourite” began with lengths of denim. Levi Strauss would be so proud.

Queens are a theme in the exhibition and another nominee for Oscar glory is Alexandra Byrne and her costumes for “Mary Queen of Scots” with its dueling monarchs, Scottish Mary and English Elizabeth. Again, the look is not period but reimagined early 18th century and that versatile denim has been widely used in the gowns. The plain lines of Mary’s and Elizabeth’s dresses dyed golden yellow and cobalt blue would no doubt have shocked the real life rulers who were accustomed to rich brocades and cloth of gold.

Across the exhibition hall, Mary Zophres’ Oscar-nominated costumes for “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” are on display. Zophres recalled how much research she had to do to get the Western looks just right.

“I had new challenges,” she said. “For instance, one of the characters had no arms and no legs and the directors [the Coen brothers] didn’t want to use CGI. So I had to come up with a way to create a believable costume. We ended up using a shirt with four armholes.”

“Mary, Queen of Scots”

The leatherwork for “Scruggs” was handcrafted with boots, tooled leather belts and other accessories personalized for the characters and the actors who played them. Actor-singer Tom Waits was so taken with his boots that he kept them at the end of the film.

But it’s not just the Oscar nominees that make this exhibition so fascinating. There are the elaborate 18th century costumes from Jenny Beavan for “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms,” the muscle-magnifying magnificence of “Aquaman,” the “wands at the ready” looks for “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald,” the lavish couture by Sarah Edwards for “Oceans Eight” and the “first step for mankind,” out-of-this-world costumes by Mary Zophres for “First Man.” And, design aficionados, that’s just the tip of this year’s costume iceberg.

The 91st Academy Awards is on Sunday, Feb. 24 beginning at 5 p.m.

Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising (FIDM) is located at 919 S. Grand Ave., at the corner of 9th and Grand, in Los Angeles.

‘Avengers: Infinity War’
Zuri’s costume (Forest Whitaker), ‘Black Panther’
‘Black Panther’
3D Detailing on Angela Bassett’s costume, ‘Black Panther’
‘Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald’
‘Oceans Eight’
‘The Nutcracker and the Four Realms’
‘The Favourite’
‘First Man’
‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’
Detailed leather, ‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’
Zuri’s costume (detail)