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Just How Biased Is the Oscar for Best Costume Design?

By Alberto Cox Délano | Film | March 20, 2023 |

By Alberto Cox Délano | Film | March 20, 2023 |


One of the many satisfying wins of last Sunday’s Academy Awards was Ruth Carter winning her second Oscar for Best Costume Design, becoming the first Black Women to win two Oscars in any category. Even more commendable is that she now holds half of the Costume Design awards ever given to Sci-Fi movies, the only other ones being Mad Max: Fury Road and the very first Star Wars. With 10 Sci-Fi movies ever-nominated in the history of the category, they have a relatively good ratio of wins to nominations. Still, I think if you ask the average film buff about this category, they’ll probably assume that it’s basically just a shoo-in category for period pieces, leaning heavily towards corsets, pantaloons, and crinolines. They would be somewhat right.

The Oscar for Best Costume Design has been awarded, without interruptions, since the 21st ceremony in March 1949, resulting in a total of 444 nominations and 92 wins. From its inception year and into 1967, for the 39th ceremony, and with the exception of 1958 and 1959, the category was subdivided into Black & White and Color films, as was common back then. With this many nominees and winners, you would expect to see, if not a reasonable distribution of genres and time periods, at least a variety of styles being represented. That’s what I wanted to figure out. Because I am that much of a solitary dork. Of course, I did it all on an Excel spreadsheet, and now I am making you feel sad about me.

How do you solve a problem like the categories?

By purely arbitrary decision. I needed to create categories at the same time wide and relatively unambiguous, which throws the idea of categorizing them by genre out of the window. Gladiator is an epic, sure, but is Schindler’s List one too?

The actual question I wanted to answer is just how biased is this category towards Period Films, that is, films that are set in time periods in which design was distinctive, particularly including clothes. So, categorizing these films according to a timeline is the only thing that made sense, but what about Sci-Fi films, whether they are set in our timeline’s future or in an undefined one. What about Fantasy, if set in another universe? Also, if I’m dividing things according to time periods, would that be universal, including designs from different cultures? Or will I subdivide those time periods according to cultural clusters?

More importantly, when should I make the cut for the time period in each category? By decade, century?

Arbitrarily it is. More specifically, I decided to put myself in the shoes of the average Academy Awards voter. So, I am a white, sixty-something US man in Los Angeles. I’ve made a relatively good career for myself, I consider myself a liberal, I consider these young woke people annoying, I’m always worried about whether that TV actress from that sitcom will ever write a tell-all biography and, most importantly, I like movies (I miss the 60s!) but I don’t know a goddamn thing about the history of fashion. There’s a whole department that’s supposed to take care of that, I’m just here to make sure they stay on budget. How would I categorize these films?

I came to realize that I also don’t know much about the history of fashion, but I am not a complete dunce. What we tend to do with anything historical is to create broader and broader categories the further back in time we go. We talk about early, mid or late 2000s, but we shove a thousand years of European and Middle Eastern history into one big era. So, in the name of simplicity, both for the sake of my mental health and according to how that average voter would understand thing, I did the same thing. The categories are:

Sci-Fi: This genre is the most salient framework of the film, so it includes Black Panther’s garments inspired by actual African cultures or the contemporary-set EEAAO.

Fantasy: Excluded from this category are fantasy stories set in explicitly identified places and times, such 18th Century France in Beauty and the Beast (2017).

Contemporary: Refers to movies set within 25 years of the time they were nominated.

Late 20th Century (1980s-1990s): The problems with making very specific cuts, as there is only one film nominated in this category, Joker.

Mid-Century/Third-Quarter (1950s-1970s): What, do you think it’s preposterous that I crammed together three distinctive decades of design into one single category? Well, let me ask you something: Do you think you can tell apart clothes from the first and second half of the 19th Century? The sad truth is that, in the near future, people will probably cram these decades together for functional purposes.

Individual categories for the 1940s, 1930s, 1920s and 1910s: Pretty straightforward.

Belle Époque/Fin de Siècle: In strict terms, I put here all the movies set between the 1890s and 1909. As an era with such a loaded cultural significance, I think it made sense to set it apart.

Categories for the first half (1800s-1840s) and second half (1850s-1880s) of the 19th Century: I reckon most of you assume that the nominations and wins are heavily concentrated in these two categories. We’ll see.

Individual categories for the 18th, 17th and 16th Centuries.

Middle Ages, European and MENA (15th Century to 6th or 7th Century CE): Taking place before the origin of the Nation-State and while there was still a thriving Roman Empire (the Eastern one).

Antiquity, European and MENA (7th Century CE until the dawn of humanity): Same as above.

As we are about to see, the only reason the latter two categories are so vast in temporal and geographical scope is that … there are very few nominees, mostly circumscribed to very specific areas and periods. But it gets worse.

Because when it comes to “Eastern” set films, there have only been 11, set anywhere from the 1930s (The Grandmaster), the late 19th Century (both versions of The King and I) and at various periods of Japanese history. The nominations for Asian films are limited to movies set in Japan or China, plus Siam/Thailand for both versions of The King and I.

What is worse?, to group them into a “Japan, China or Siam, any Time Period” category, or subdivide them further, when the only time period with more than three nominees is 16th Century Japan? I decided to stick with the former, all-encompassing category, because it makes the bias visible. Disaggregated, they wouldn’t be visible on a pie chart.

There is one more question regarding films set across multiple time periods, a surefire way of showing the costume department’s talents. I simply divided the nomination or win across the time periods covered by the movie. Simple as that, not sure if the most effective, but it’s the only way I thought of solving that problem.

Overall Results.

And the overall numbers are:


Films with “Contemporary” costume design have a small majority of nominations and wins, but there is an interesting caveat about them, which we’ll get to in a minute. Nevertheless, this is clearly a category for period pieces, with roughly 70.0% of the nominees and winners. Here they are in nifty piece chart form.

Nominees Distribution.png

Winners Distribution.png

Neither of these tells us much other than the fact that the Academy’s Creative categories (this, plus Production Design, Makeup Hairstyling and Visual Effects) will tend to reward movies that require creating or recreating a particular context, the main requirement for any period piece. Under those expectations, that one-fifth of all winners and nominees are contemporary seems like an OK distribution. But what if we group movies according to even broader time periods, for example, all the winners and nominees for movies set in the 20th Century as period pieces, the 19th Century, and so on? Well, these are the results:

Nominees Broader Categories.png

Winners Broader Categories.png

Nearly a third of all nominees and a quarter of all winners are period pieces set in the 20th Century … in a category that began being handed in the late 1940s. If we add in the 19th Century and the Belle Époques/Inter-century periods, they total over half of all nominees and 40% of the winners. Movies set between the 1500s and the 1700s overperform as winners, because they make for such distinctive stylings. Meanwhile, the entirety of “Western” Antiquity and Middle Ages, a period covering at least 4,000 years of human history, barely rise above 5% of nominees and 10% of all winners. Not even the small resurgence of Epic films set in the Middle Ages or in Antiquity, after the success of Gladiator (which won in this category), received much attention, with only 2004’s Troy being nominated. Hollywood makes few movies set before the 1500s, but not even scarcity helps them gain visibility: The Last Duel should’ve been a shoo-in here.

Hollywood’s lack of interest in chasing new stories carries a lot of weight. For example, out of 19 movies set in the 16th Century, ten feature Queen Elizabeth I as a character, four of them as the lead character and twice as a co-lead with Mary Queen of Scots.

But the real bias here is towards movies set in the last 200 years, and mostly those set during the early 20th Century. This leads me to a very interesting phenomenon I’m pompously calling the Mid-Century Shift, involving Contemporary-set nominees.

The Mid-Century Shift.

The overwhelming majority of nominees and winners in the “Contemporary” category took place in the Award’s first 40 years of existence:

Mid-Century Shift Nominees.png

Mid-Century Shift Winners.png

There is a strange effect between this category and the Mid-Century one, in which the latter did not benefit from the nostalgic popularity of the former. More than four score films from the Mid-Century period were singled out for their costume design, and 19 won, making a significative cultural impact in the world of Fashion, but that peak of popularity has remained stuck in that glorious past. In terms of nominations, Mid-Century set films have performed well over the last 25 years, but the Academy continues to reward with wins the designs that were Nostalgic during the Mid-Century: The 40s, 30s, and 20s. Over the last 30 years, at least 10 films set in the first half of the 20th Century have won this award and roughly 40 have been nominated.

The situation is even direr among contemporary set films. I mean, we have long recovered from the nadir in fashion that were the Reagan years. Films like Do The Right Thing, Pulp Fiction, The Birdcage, every Brosnan and Craig Bond film, Parasite and Luca Guadagnino’s entire oeuvre should’ve been serious contenders, but the pull of the costumes that are, in all, “more” will always end up winning over the Academy, even with the nominees, selected by their respective guilds.

The last 25 years.

I don’t think I can make regression analyses, but the results look like this:

Nominees Last 25 years.png

Winners Last 25 years.png

The big winners are movies set in the 1920s (notice I included Fantastic Beasts… as a 1920s film over a Fantasy one), but the distribution is more even: Around 40% of the nominated and winning films are 20th Century period pieces, there’s a higher proportion of East Asian films, and Sci-Fi and Fantasy finally get their dues. But it’s still far from overcoming its obsession with 20th Century Nostalgia.

A solution could be what the Emmys did to split this category into Contemporary, Period, and Sci-Fi/Fantasy subcategories, but adding more categories is the second thing the Academy hates the most. Perhaps they could add more nominees and hand out two or three awards per ceremony, at the same time.

But the most practical solution to these kinds of biases would be to… “restrict” the general voting for the more specialized categories, namely, making sure that the winners are also chosen by people that have a knowledge of the field. Every freaking year we read those grumpy basic beeches that are the anonymous voters, and every freaking year the highly specialized artists and technicians have to read about a PR executive that doesn’t know what “cinematography” is voting on Best Sound and Best Sound Design according to what his friends told him. There is absolutely no reason why every category should be voted by the entire body of Academy voters, most of which don’t … let’s say many of them don’t have the makings of a Film Scholar. Limit the voting to those in the guilds and those who volunteer, proving their credentials. It will simplify the process for the old farts.

Join us next year when Alberto Cox does this same exact, tiring-ass job but with the Production Design category.