Let me quote something my parents said to me many times while I was an angsty middle-school Goth: “What do you want people to think of you, dressed like that?”
The Hadadis did not fuck around! They totally did not understand why my knockoff JNCOs REPRESENTED MY FEELINGS! But they were very right about what you wear being an extention of yourself, and their words rang through my ears many times this year as I gasped in delight or nodded my head in recognition or physically recoiled from certain outfits, costumes, or LEWKS onscreen.
I’m not saying these are the best, most well-made, most technically difficult to pull off looks; I’m not educated or skilled enough in costume design or construction, despite years of watching Project Runway, to necessarily comment on that. But these are looks that I think quite poignantly and insightfully reflect their respective characters or that help set a certain mood and tone for these particular films, and they’re quite often what I visualize first when I think about the movie.
[SOME SPOILERS FOR THESE MOVIES FOLLOW]
Kayla’s bathing suit in Eighth Grade
Costume design by: Mitchell Travers
What do you wear to a pool party that you desperately don’t want to attend? A one-piece seems about right, a choice of clothing that someone like Kayla would rationalize as helping her fade into the background, but in reality, she just stands out. (I can speak from experience as the kid who always wore a one-piece and was always mocked for wearing a one-piece.) Every other girl at the pool party is wearing a two-piece, some are wearing makeup, and Kayla’s otherness is magnified in this scene — no wonder she ducks under the water, no wonder she’s hesitant to talk to Gabe at first. When her classmate’s mother asks her to move to the front of the picture so she doesn’t get lost — when that’s all Kayla seems to want to do — yeah, I felt that acutely.
John Cena’s Dad Plaid shirts in Blockers
Costume design by: Sarah Mae Burton
This one’s a Dustin suggestion, and a great one! Where do we think John Cena’s Mitchell buys his shirts? Kohl’s? Costco? Throughout Blockers, his characters wears an array of plaid shirts and khaki shorts that really transform this onetime wrestler into a goddamn perfect suburban dad. Don’t you see this man at Home Depot or at Sam’s Club? Or at school pickups or dropoffs? Are you married to this man? ARE YOU THIS MAN? So much character recognition, all from a few plaid shirts.
The blue suit in The Old Man & the Gun
Costume design by: Annell Brodeur
I remain a little surprised by how much The Old Man & the Gun seems to have been ignored this year, given that it was hyped so heavily as Robert Redford’s final acting role. I enjoyed the film quite a bit, and I think the blue suit and hat combo that Redford’s career criminal wears is pitch-perfect — a little old-fashioned, a little classy, a little gentlemanly, and yet also a costume. The person who would wear a suit like that isn’t also the same person who has broken out of prison more than a few times and who has spent nearly his entire life eschewing adult responsibility. And yet that suit is the constant throughout an array of trench coats and fake mustaches, a variety of disguises that help him rob numerous banks over the course of a few months. That suit is like a security blanket for the character, a representation of the person he could have been.
Astrid’s introduction outfit in Crazy Rich Asians
Costume design by:
Sandy Powell Mary E. Vogt
I mean, the whole point of Crazy Rich Asians is intense, almost unimaginable opulence, and that comes through quite clearly in this first film based on Kevin Kwan’s best-selling books. And while some may come away from the film thinking that the diaphanous baby blue Cinderella gown that Rachel Chu wears is the most memorable look of the film, for me it’s Astrid’s introduction outfit, the sleeveless pink Dior gown that projects an image of timeless chicness and unparalleled elegance. This is Astrid’s Audrey Hepburn moment, and you understand immediately who this woman is: a trend setter, a kind heart, an incomparable figure. As the movie progresses, the way her identity crumbles bit by bit because of her unhappy marriage is increasingly upsetting, but by the end, you remember — Astrid is the woman who looks like that in that damn dress. She’s going to be OK. She has all she needs to be OK.
Rachel Weisz’s shooting outfit in The Favourite
Costume design by:
Mary E. Vogt Sandy Powell
The Favourite is a triple-hander that relies on the trio of Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, and Emma Stone to tell its story about power grabs and political backstabbing, but the rivalry between Weisz’s and Stone’s characters is paramount, and that comes into sharp focus when the former asks the latter if she wants to shoot something. This could be a light-hearted activity, but Weisz’s Sarah Churchill doesn’t treat it like that. She changes her outfit, arriving in knee-high leather boots, a tunic, and a jacket — an outfit meant to symbolize her power, her almost masculine presence, by Queen Anne’s side. She’s aggressive and domineering and she will not be intimidated by Stone’s Abigail, but what she doesn’t know quite yet is that Abigail is capable of her own trickery, too, of playing the young ingenue that can giggle and flatter her way to Anne’s side. This moment, with their contrasting outfits as they battle for dominance over Anne, says so much about their varying approaches.
Bonus Nicholas Hoult wig action!
Mary’s and Elizabeth’s contrasting gowns in Mary Queen of Scots
Costume design by: Alexandra Byrne
You can fault Mary Queen of Scots for various anachronisms and inconsistencies (like Saoirse Ronan using a Scottish accent for her portrayal of Mary, although she actually grew up in French court), and I suppose the use of denim for some of Mary’s and her handmaiden’s dresses would be one of those. But what I think Alexandra Byrne does with the costumes in the film is further the divide between Mary and Margot Robbie’s Elizabeth — the former in these warrior-like outfits made of strong-looking materials, with high necks and lots of lacing, to evoke armor, and the latter in ornate gowns covered in embroidery and flowers, although she herself never had a child. Both women want to project images of different kinds of power, and I think Bryne makes that distinction clear.
Lando’s capes and cloaks in Solo
Costume design by: David Crossman and Glyn Dillon
I actually have nothing else to add, really. That’s all. Donald Glover looked great as Lando Calrissian in a movie that otherwise didn’t do much with the character. Sashay with that cape as much as you would like, sir!
Alice’s condom dress and cover-up coat in Widows
Costume design by: Jenny Eagan
I thought The Hate U Give would be my next Mudbound, a movie I complained about endlessly for not getting the recognition it deserved; I didn’t expect to add Widows to that category, too. And yet the award season marches forward and movies like Green Book keep getting nominated while Widows languishes. Sorry, but WHAT? Why does a movie this crystal clear in its examinations of current racism, classism, and sexism keep getting pushed aside for a movie that pretends one interracial friendship was enough to make the world a better place? UGH.
OK, I’m diverging. What I wanted to say was that the journey of the women in Widows is most clearly captured for me, clothing-wise, in Elizabeth Debicki’s Alice, who spends part of the film entertaining a sort of high-end escort relationship with wealthy developer Lukas Haas, showing up to their first date dressed in a shimmery gold bandage dress that accentuates her body and looks like a “condom,” as noted by Michelle Rodriguez’s character. But over time, as Alice realizes that her worth may be in more than just what she can offer sexually, she covers up, ending the film wrapped in a beautiful camel coat that demonstrates her new confidence and her new status. She no longer has to sell herself to make ends meet, and that is clear in that final outfit alone.
Dr. Donald Shirley’s white and gold dashiki in Green Book
Costume design by: Betsy Heimann
Yes, I just talked trash about Green Book, and that’s because I will never, ever understand why this movie wasn’t told from Dr. Donald Shirley’s point of view. Look at this opening outfit! He greets Tony for a job interview in his throne room over Carnegie Hall, dressed in a beautifully embroidered white and gold dashiki offset with countless necklaces and pendants! He looks regal as fuck! And that the film never revisits that image of Dr. Shirley as commanding and beautiful is a real indicator of the imbalanced way Green Book considers its characters.
Basically everything Mrs. Who, Mrs. Which, and Mrs. Whatsit wear in A Wrinkle in Time
Costume design by: Paco Delgado
What are Mrs. Who, Mrs. Which, and Mrs. Whatsit? Stars, angels, guardians — all three? There are endless possibilities in these women, in the knowledge they hold and the protection they can provide Meg Murry, her younger brother Charles, and her crush Calvin, and I think that potential is captured so beautifully in their outfits: bright, colorful, and reflective of their varied identities within this trio — Mrs. Which as the wise leader, Mrs. Who as the knowledge, and Mrs. Whatsit as the spiritual guide.
The layers of cultural influences here are complex and gorgeous, and if you ever wanted to see Oprah in metallic green lipstick, well, here we are.
Basically everything anyone wears Black Panther
Costume design by: Ruth E. Carter
Ruth E. Carter had to create a whole damn world within Wakanda, making unique looks for the five tribes that live within the never-colonized country, and her merging of a variety of African styles, traditions, and references pulled from 10 different ethnic groups translated into gorgeous outfits. Think of the strength and power of the Dora Milaje in their red and gold armor with intricate beading, or the specific colors given to the various five tribes, or the jawbone accessory that Shuri wears during the ritual combat ceremony — all fully realized, all distinct, all with different sigils and signifiers. My personal favorite look was that of the Border Tribe, with the knit cloaks and blankets inspired by, as Carter told SYFYWIRE, “Basotho blankets worn by the Lesotho people of South Africa,” and I would like one very much, thank you. (You can learn more about them here.)
Have some bonus Michael B. Jordan!
Cate Blanchett’s whole thing in Ocean’s 8
Costume design by: Sarah Edwards
I have already written an ode to Cate Blanchett’s outfits in Ocean’s 8, and yes, I am going to link to myself. But first, an excerpt:
“But Roxana,” you may ask. “Does Blanchett’s Lou also wear velvet?” HELL YEAH SHE DOES. LOOK AT THIS FOREST GREEN VELVET SUIT.
“Does she also wear satin?” HELL YEAH SHE DOES. LOOK AT THIS LUXE SATIN BOMBER SHE WEARS DURING A RARE TIFF WITH DEBBIE.
“Does she lean rakishly on stuff?” HELL YEAH SHE DOES. LOOK AT THOSE METALLIC RED BOOTS.
I go on like this. You can read it!
The recurring use of green in If Beale Street Could Talk
Costume design by: Caroline Eselin
In her review of If Beale Street Could Talk, Joelle called Barry Jenkins’s film “a stiff drink of truth,” but one that is “shot and edited almost like a dream”; you can, and should, read her entire review. And what I would add to Joelle’s analysis is the use of color throughout the film, in particular green: lush, verdant, life. Caroline Eselin garbs nearly every character in green, but most predominantly KiKi Layne’s Tish Rivers (wearing a green blouse when she tells her family that she is pregnant), Stephan James’s Fonny Hunt (wearing green when he reconnects with friend Daniel, played by Brian Tyree Henry, and when Fonny’s future with Tish seems wide open), and Regina King’s Sharon Rivers (when she travels to Puerto Rico to try and track down the woman who accused Fonny of rape, the green representing a sliver of opportunity in a situation that seems impossible to navigate). The shades of green act as a visual reminder throughout the film that there can be love and joy even in the worst of times, and in no way does Beale Street shy away from either feeling — hope or hopelessness.
Buster Scruggs’s creamy silk outfit in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
Costume design by: Mary Zophres
The Coen brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs opens with that same-named segment, in which Tim Blake Nelson plays a troubadour and a sharp-shooter who can kill an entire bar full of men in a few seconds and who never gets a splatter of blood on his luscious silk outfit. His all-white look is in stark contrast to his increasingly deranged behavior, and it’s some kind of poetic justice when a younger man, in an all-black outfit, is the one to finally shoot Buster through his cowboy hat. The Coen brothers set the tone of the movie with that first segment, and that outfit — unmarked by violence until a shocking end — is central to our understanding of who Buster Scruggs is and what the film is going to be.
Mr. ___, Steve Lift, and Detroit in Sorry to Bother You
Costume design by: Deirdra Elizabeth Govan
I’m not sure I’ve seen a directorial debut as fully realized as Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You (yes, I liked A Star is Born a good amount, but come on, Bradley, you’re working off a template), and the costumes for all the characters felt like extensions of Riley’s own personal fusion of hip-hop and vintage styles. (I interviewed Riley at an afternoon event for the film, and then later on attended an evening Q+A, for which he had changed outfits; each look featured a different excellent bomber jacket.)
But I’ll single out the outfits of Mr. ___, Steve Lift, and Detroit for our purposes here: Omari Hardwick’s Mr. ___ is immediately attention-grabbing in his luxe three-piece suits, cane, and bowler hat, and he oozes the confidence of a man who has made it; it’s jarring later in the film, then, to see him without his jacket, without his hat, coming to speak to Lakeith Stanfield’s Cassius about the cost of doing business for Armie Hammer’s Steve Lift. Lift is, as you can guess from his outfit, a sort of uber-capitalist tech bro, a man who will wear a robe that looks fit for meditation and then throw a sports jacket over it to signify that he’s ready for business. It’s a combo that accentuates Hammer’s stature and also mocks how so many well-paid CEOs end up appropriating Eastern and South Asian traditions and religions once they start feeling guilty about making their billions. And finally there’s Tessa Thompson’s Detroit, a character who is trying to figure out how to fully live her activism while still surviving as an artist, and every outfit she wears is a declaration of who she is — bold, unapologetic, and with the best earrings around.
What about your favorites from this year? Are you pulling for Lara’s minis-and-tights looks in To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before? All of those Blake Lively suits in A Simple Favor? Meet me in the comments!
Image sources (in order of posting): Warner Bros. Pictures Publicity, YouTube, Epk.tv, Focus Features, Widows Twitter, Universal Pictures, Walt Disney Media File, Netflix Media Center