When Ruth E. Carter received her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame last month, she became the first costume designer in more than 60 years to be awarded the honor. To anyone who has spent the last year glued to their screen, it seemed about time.
Not just because Ms. Carter became the first Black costume designer to win an Oscar in 2019, when she took home the statuette for “Black Panther.” Or because, for the sequel “Coming 2 America,” she masterminded about 800 different looks, creating a universe of exhilarating pan-border style and using her platform not only to showcase her own designs but to elevate the work of about 30 other designers.
But because, as we have stewed indoors, consuming streaming services like water, living vicariously through story lines, the characters onscreen have taken on more and more importance. They have become companions, distraction, entertainment.
And role models for what to wear.
As the normal cues for dressing have faded into the distance — street life and office life; peer groups and parties — what we have seen onscreen has stepped into the void.
“You can’t go to the store to shop,” said Salvador Pérez, the president of the Costume Designers Guild and the man behind the clothes on “The Mindy Show” and “Never Have I Ever.” “So you shop the screen.”
Why else were we so obsessed with the 1960s silhouettes of Beth Harmon in “The Queen’s Gambit”? The 1980s pie-crust collars and power suiting of Princess Diana in “The Crown”? Nicole Kidman’s wardrobe of coats in “The Undoing”? The Ankara textiles and royalty-meets- Puma dresses of “Coming 2 America”?
They became public conversation points in the way that street style and the red carpet once were. As we began to identify with the characters, their jobs and family situations, we wanted to dress like them, too.
It makes sense. Clothes, after all, are simply the costumes we don to play ourselves in everyday life.
And that meant the costume designers behind them were suddenly recognized as being as influential as … well, any influencer. Or fashion designer. This may have been true to varying extents in the past, but rarely has it been quite so obvious.
“When everyone was stuck at home, they really began noticing what was happening onscreen for the first time,” said Nancy Steiner, the costume designer behind “Promising Young Woman,” a film about sexual assault and revenge in which Carey Mulligan swings from fresh-faced young woman in pastels to (pretend) drunken siren in pinstripe suits and skintight dresses.
Certainly, Ms. Steiner said, she had never in her 34-year career gotten the kind of attention she did this year, despite working on such popular films as “The Virgin Suicides” and “Lost in Translation.”
So the question is: As the pandemic ends and we begin to emerge into the light, are costume designers finally going to get the respect they deserve? Not just as the creative minds behind the characters in our favorite films, but as the triggers for so many of the trends we actually wear?
The Slow Fade of the Costume Designer
The problem, said Arianne Phillips, the costume designer behind “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” and, thanks to her work with Madonna, a rare name known beyond the studio lot, is that costume designers rarely become brands. As a result, she said, “they haven’t been acknowledged for the impact they’ve had on the culture.”
Once upon a time, this was not the case. Once upon a time, back in the late 1920s, Gilbert Adrian was considered a great American fashion designer, responsible for dressing Hollywood stars like Rita Hayworth, both onscreen and off.
Later, Edith Head, costumer to Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly and Barbara Stanwyck among many other, took the role even further, touring the country with “Hollywood Fashion Shows,” writing books (including “Dress for Success”), even designing a teen fashion line. She also made guest appearances on TV, “delivering dress advice to the eight million women who watched ‘House Party,’ Art Linkletter’s CBS afternoon show,” Bronwyn Cosgrave wrote in “Made for Each Other,” a book about fashion and the Oscars.
So what happened?
It began when Hubert de Givenchy usurped Ms. Head’s relationship with Audrey Hepburn, and the official fashion world began to sense opportunity in Hollywood. As the spotlight began to shift accordingly, Giorgio Armani established his own Los Angeles outpost, making the red carpet an extension of his runway, and things got only more branded from there. By the time Calvin Klein teamed up with Gwyneth Paltrow for “Great Expectations,” product placement deals and the wooing of celebrity “ambassadors” had cast the costume designer, a freelance work-for-hire under the shadow of the studios, into the background.
There were exceptions, of course, often connected to period pieces, when the obviously artistry of the clothing — which didn’t look like anything in store — broke through. Names like Sandy Powell (“Shakespeare in Love,” “The Aviator”) and Janie Bryant (“Mad Men”), for example. And Ms. Carter.
Yet for the most part, the costume designer exists in the shadow of the cinema they serve. And even as the worlds of fashion and film became evermore intertwined, and movies provided the raw material that inspired collection after collection, designers would name-check, say, “Blade Runner 2049” as a muse, rather than Renée April, the costume designer who helped craft the dystopian fashions of that release. The public, in turn, became trained to overlook the person behind the clothes.
It got to the point that when a costume designer occasionally worked with a runway designer, as Paolo Nieddu did with Prada on “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” Prada ended up with the lion’s share of the attention, even though the fashion house made only nine of the many looks in the film, and each one of those nine was actually chosen and cocreated by Mr. Nieddu.
The Cerulean Blue Monologue
It doesn’t help that the Academy Awards remain myopically stuck in period mode. Even this year, almost none of the movies that shaped (literally) the fashion conversation were nominated for best costume design. Instead, the five nominees included “Mulan” (set in Imperial China), “Mank” (1930s and ’40s) and “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” (1927). There’s no question that the clothes in those films were dazzling, but they didn’t change what the public wanted to wear to get the milk, or to wear on the weekend. (This has given rise to renewed debate about whether a “contemporary” category should be created at the Oscars, to right the balance.)
The studios themselves, basking in the related glow, have little incentive to share the spotlight. They own the work of the costume designer. So even when films are so influential that they spark retail collaborations (see the Banana Republic “Mad Men” collection), studios often cut out the costume designer — even if the result doesn’t work particularly well.
“They want all the glory,” Ms. Carter said.
And yet, at a time when appropriation is itself a hot button topic, the appropriation of the work of costume designers is largely overlooked. (Where’s Diet Prada when you need it?)
To that end, Mr. Pérez of the Costume Designer’s Guild has been pushing his members to speak up about their work on social media, claiming the credit they deserve and creating a power base and profile that can extend beyond their specific projects. He also has a marketing committee to help.
“The public wants what we are doing,” said Mr. Pérez, who recently dressed an entire “fantasy prom” for “Never Have I Ever” that he expects will set off new trends as we emerge from isolation with a desire to celebrate. “They just don’t entirely know it.”
It’s not that the costume design community wants to become fashion designers. (“I personally am not interested in going down the fashion road,” said Ms. Carter, who has dabbled in collaborations with fast fashion brands but said she found them limiting.) But they want to be recognized as fully what they are: tastemakers.
That famous monologue from “The Devil Wears Prada” about how cerulean blue became a trend could easily have come from the mouth of a costume designer. They arguably have more power now than any magazine editor.
They are, after all, creators of work that, as Ms. Carter said, “always filters down.”