Numlock Awards: All the threads in this year's Best Costume Design category

The races you haven't been following.

Numlock Awards is your one-stop awards season newsletter, and it’s back! Every week, join Walt Hickey and Michael Domanico as they break down the math behind the Oscars and the best narratives going into film’s biggest night. Today’s edition comes from Michael.

This is my favorite part of Oscar season — the nominations are out, and we can dig into the craft awards. This week, we’re going to start with Best Costume Design. The nominees are: 

  • Ann Roth, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom 

  • Alexandra Byrne, Emma

  • Trish Summerville, Mank 

  • Bina Daigeler, Mulan

  • Massimo Cantini Parrini, Pinocchio 

Ann Roth and Alexandra Byrne both have Oscars, but Summerville, Daigeler, and Cantini Parrini are all first-time nominees. 

Ann Roth, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom 

This is Ann Roth’s fifth nomination — she won the Oscar for 1996’s The English Patient. That year, she was competing against Alexandra Byrne for Hamlet and a different film adaptation of Emma, so you know, the more things change. 

Roth, 89, has over 130 film credits and, according to her own estimates, has worked on about 140 Broadway shows. She’s done costumes for everything from Midnight Cowboy and 9 to 5 to The Book of Mormon and the original production of The Odd Couple

She also has the best answer of any of the nominees as to why she became a costume designer: “I decided early on that I wanted to be a designer. I wanted a cigarette holder and a big hat.” 

But it hasn’t always been fun.

“It’s not yucks. It isn’t fun. When people say, ‘What do you do for a living?’ and I say, ‘I’m a costume designer,’ and they say … ‘Oh, what fun.’ I actually have only ever had fun once and it was on Mamma Mia and I don’t remember any of it.”

Despite all that, it sounds like Roth had at least a little fun on Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, working with stars Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman to come up with back stories as to where their characters would have gotten their eclectic wardrobes. 

“[Boseman] enjoyed the process of [determining the origin of] the clothes: ‘Where did they come from? Who paid for them? How much did they cost? Where did he pick them up? Tennessee? Alabama? Arkansas? How did the pants fit?’ All that. [His character] wanted to look good. And [Boseman] was very responsive; a very, very good actor to play with.” 

As for Davis’ wardrobe in the film? “She's not a woman from the North, she's a Southern girl — and a traveling girl — and I pretended that her clothes were made by a woman in Mississippi. I just made that up, and that's what I decided.” 

Alexandra Byrne, Emma 

Alexandra Byrne got her sixth nomination this year for the latest adaptation of Emma, which you may know as the Jane Austen book you read when Pride & Prejudice is already checked out at the library. While lately she’s been designing costumes for Marvel movies like The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy, she won an Oscar for the 2007 period drama Elizabeth: The Golden Age

She got her start as a set and costume designer in theater, before migrating over to do costume design for the movies in the ’90s. This is her second Jane Austen adaptation, having previously designed the costumes for 1995’s Persuasion

“It was very interesting to come back to Jane Austen a few years down the line, and to understand how everything has grown. You know, that was pre-internet, when I did Persuasion, and I can remember how hard it was to find research,” she told Deadline

For Emma, because the film takes place over the course of a year, she went for a “seasonal palette.” 

“We worked up a big book of textiles and swatches and patterns for each season, so there was a seasonal tone, as set by Emma. So, color became very important, both for character and storytelling. And indeed, Kave Quinn worked in the same way with the production design and we worked very closely together, because the moment you start to use color, you have to immediately consider ‘does somebody belong in that room? or are they at odds with that room?’ So we really worked closely to make the colors add up and have subliminal messaging.”

Trish Summerville, Mank 

Trish Summerville has done everything from movies to music videos. She even styled Pink, Mýa, and Christina Aguilera for the Grammy performance of “Lady Marmalade,” and did the costumes for The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.

“There are times doing music videos where you’re up in the middle of the night hand-rhinestoning because you can’t find anyone to do it or there’s no time,” she said in 2013. “You do all the arts and crafts and sewing and dyeing and aging yourself. I like doing. I want to be a part of my crew; I want to know what’s going on all the time, and where the problems are.” 

[Ed note: Walter had to delete three highly-detailed analysis paragraphs of Summerville’s work on the music video for Xtina’s “Dirrty.”]

She’s done all of David Fincher’s three most recent films: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Gone Girl, and now Mank, which is in black and white. While the Oscars used to separate costume design based on whether the films were in color or black and white, the Academy merged the two categories into one in 1967. 

Because Mank was in black and white, Summerville had to figure out how different colors would appear on screen. 

“Realizing colors that look fantastic on black and white film are really horrible colors together in real life. It was chartreuse and salmon and lavender. So different scenes had light pinks and periwinkles and light lavender, with dark jewel tones of that same color. We kept as few colors in a room as possible, then put in lights and darks of that same color. And oddly, things you imagine are, say, navy on film, are in fact probably red. The whole thing is tricky, as a lot of colors soak up light or become extra saturated or go totally flat. Everything had to go through a photography process: ties, even buttons — because with the naked eye some things look good, but in black and white it doesn’t work at all.” 

For the circus-themed party scene, Summerville was able to find actual photographs taken of a circus party Davies and Hearst once hosted, so she used those to help style the cast. But Summerville and her team couldn’t unearth what movie mogul Louis B. Mayer wore to the party, so they went with a lion tamer outfit to play off of the MGM logo. 

Bina Daigeler, Mulan

This is Bina Daigeler’s first Oscar nomination, though she’s designed costumes for decades for projects like Volver and the television series Mrs. America

There’s some interesting stuff Daigeler had to do to make the costumes work in such an action-heavy film. For one, Daigeler designed stunt versions of Mulan’s boots that were actually just Stella McCartney sneakers with leather wrapped around them. She also made different versions of the leather armor depending on the stunt work required, like horse riding or going underwater. 

However, this is an Oscar campaign, and Mulan has had its share of campaign problems, from the credit thanking government departments in Xinjiang, where Muslims are held in concentration camps, to the film’s star siding against the pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong, and — most pertinent to this category — the criticism of how some of the non-Asian creative staff described their preparation for the film. 

A year ago, Daigeler was on the red carpet for the premiere and described the costume preparation for Mulan as going to different museums in Europe with a Chinese department and then going to China for three weeks to learn more. Some folks were upset that Mulan’s costume designer went to European museums to learn about Chinese fashion (wonder how those museums acquired their goods!) and then spent a mere three weeks studying up in China. 

That all said, Vox has a great rundown where they spoke to both Daigeler and a Chinese fashion expert to go over the authenticity of the movie, so I’d recommend that if you’re interested in learning more. 

Massimo Cantini Parrini, Pinocchio 

For whatever reason, they have remade Pinocchio, and this one also stars Roberto Benigni. Since that ill-fated 2002 Pinocchio where Benigni played the titular role, he’s only appeared in four other movies. This is his fifth since then, and now he’s back as Geppetto. 

I’m not going to lie, this movie looks absolutely terrifying. But Massimo is a really interesting figure, and he’s won four David di Donatello awards — the Italian equivalent of the Oscars — for his costumes, including for Pinocchio

As a teenager, Massimo began growing a collection of vintage clothes

“My archive spans a range of fashions from the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries [and] I have about 4,000 dresses in my collection, and as many accessories of every age. The pieces [have been] found everywhere, but lots [are] from private collections and antique markets. I’ve also got wardrobes of noblewomen, which were given to me as gifts. When I began building my archive, there were clothes by Dior, Schiaparelli, Fortuny, Lanvin, Poiret, Worth, etc. that I bought for little money; there was less focus on vintage clothes then, few people paid attention. I still remember my excitement when I was 17 at a flea market in Florence and I found a Chanel suit from the ’50s! Today it’s impossible to buy [one] for less than $4,000, but I paid the seller $30. Many clothes in the archive have belonged to famous personalities.”

There was actually a museum exhibition of his Pinocchio costumes in Italy, and you can check out a lot of photos and sketches here.

I’d love to know what other categories people want deep dives on, so feel free to email us with suggestions!