2009 Academy Awards costume nominations

(Originally blogged February 28, 2010)

Before we get into who might win the Oscar for costuming it is important to know what the role of the costume designer is in a film.

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

The wardrobe department includes everyone involved with caring for, creating or procuring (borrowing from studio stock, renting from outside companies, buying at stores) the costumes used in a film. The wardrobe or costume supervisor is responsible for the management of the staff and stock of this department — if something goes missing it’s their problem.

The costume designer styles and creates garments, usually just for the principal actors but they also work with assistants who style the walk-ons and background extras. While the costume designer’s job is the most creative it is also the most responsible as they have to work with the art director, film director, and principal actors to create the right look that will contribute to the success or failure of the production. Lastly, the costumers (aka wardrobe assistants/dressers) are responsible for handling the costumes worn by all the actors, from stars to extras. It is here that future costume designers learn their trade, working their way up the food chain to becoming a costume designer.

Coco Avant Chanel

Last year the Oscar award was clearly a race between two relatively new costume designers, Catherine Martin for Australia and Michael O’Connor for The Duchess (O’Connor won.) This year there is another race between two costume designers, but this time it is between two who have a track record of award winning costume designs. The nominees for 2009 costume design are: Janet Patterson for Bright Star; Catherine Leterrier for Coco Avant Chanel; Monique Prudholme for The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus; Colleen Atwood for Nine; and Sandy Powell for The Young Victoria.

Although Monique Prudholme, costume designer for The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, has been in the business for twenty-five years, her usual fare has been wardrobe for ‘B’ movies and horror flicks (by wardrobe I mean buying off-the-rack contemporary clothes and styling the actors rather than creating original garments.) It’s also difficult to compare the costumes of a fantasy or science fiction film with an historical drama because the imagination of the costumer and the size of the budget are the only real limitations. Prudholme has no previous awards from other films and is clearly this year’s longshot for the Oscar.


Catherine Leterrier, designer for Coco Avant Chanel, has received accolades for other films, most notably the Cesar (French film award) for costumes for the entertaining World War II comedy thriller Bon Voyage, as well as The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc. The problem is that Karl Lagerfeld did the historical Chanel clothes for the film. Similarly, Edith Head won a costume award for Sabrina in 1955, but the most glamorous clothes were designed by Hubert de Givenchy for Audrey Hepburn, a similar gamine beauty to Audrey Tatou who plays the young Chanel. Leterrier’s costumes are well done but unlike Sabrina in 1955, the connection between costume designer and couturier have been well publicized and should take her out of the running.

Colleen Atwood, costumer of Nine, has been a costume designer for twenty-five years. She has been fortunate to find films where she can show off her ability. Although she has won various awards, including Oscars, for several of her films, most notably Memoirs of a Geisha and Chicago, Atwood tends to change history to suit her aesthetics. In the case of Chicago this wasn’t an issue because the film is a musical fantasy, but in Memoirs of a Geisha I found the Japanese dress distracting because it was not authentically styled. Many will argue that a costume designer has the right to be creative rather than just reproduce history, but I argue that it depends on the type of film; the more liberties taken with history, the less authentic and compelling the story. For me, historically set films that receive high accolades but have egregious costuming errors (such as Titanic and Atonement) have been difficult to sit through.

The Young Victoria

I think the race will be between Janet Patterson, designer for Bright Star, and Sandy Powell, designer for The Young Victoria. Both have been in the business for about twenty-five years and both often receive nominations for their work. Janet Patterson’s most notable films include Oscar & Lucinda, and The Piano. Her costuming is always exceptionally authentic, to the point that watching her films is an education in period style and movement. Sandy Powell’s most notable films include The Aviator, and Shakespeare in Love. She is a master of finding the right balance between authenticity and aesthetics.

Bright Star

I would be thrilled to see either Powell or Patterson take home the Oscar this year as both are exceptional costume designers who know how to recreate and use historical styles in film. Patterson has not been as prolific as Powell and although she is frequently nominated for her work by Hollywood she has only won awards in her native Australia. Whereas the English born Powell has received English and American awards in the past and is probably more familiar with Hollywood. Its a tough call, and who knows, I may be wrong!

Added March 9 – but I wasn’t, Sandy Powell won for The Young Victoria.


1. Great post Jonathan! I’m a costume designer by trade so this is one of the highlights of my year. I agree with your points and that it will come down to Patterson or Powell. Personally I’d like to see Janet win it, and not just because she’s a fellow Australian. Her work on Bright Star is central to the film due to the nature of the heroine and the authenticity is a joy to see. It doesn’t hurt that it’s one of my favourite eras for menswear – although the gowns aren’t too bad either. I hope she wins! For some reason, costume design is the only Oscar that Bright Star has been nominated for; I think that’s a pity so I’d like to see it win the only award it can. Comment by Nicole Jenkins — February 28, 2010 @ 9:25 pm

2. I’m rooting for Bright Star as well. I just loved the costumes, both men’s and women’s. But the clothes for Fanny were especially interesting, and those of the little sister were as well. I loved the costumes in both Nine (that was about ALL I loved!) and The Young Victoria, but the clothing in Bright Star added a lot to the story. Go Janet! Comment by Lizzie — March 5, 2010 @ 10:01 pm

About Jonathan

Jonathan Walford is a fashion historian and co-founder of the Fashion History Museum in Cambridge, Ontario. The FHM maintains a collection of nearly 12,000 artifacts dating from the mid 17th century to the present. Jonathan has authored various books and museum catalogues, including The Seductive Shoe, Shoes A-Z, Forties Fashion, 1950s American Fashion, and Sixties Fashion.
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