We’ve talked quite a bit about the amount of thought that goes into Costume Design. We’ve talked about how costumes instantly convey information about the story’s setting, and about who the characters are. The Academy Award for Best Costume Design winners add their own flavor and style to the film, in some cases even a style that audiences wanted to emulate. In this post, we’re going to take a look at the 21st century Best Costume Design winners and see “who wore it best.” One thing you’ll notice immediately is that the films on this list are mostly period pieces, but there are a few standouts from other genres as well. Side note: to date, only three designers have ever won for contemporary stories. But all of these Best Costume Design winners know their way around a book of swatches no matter when the story happens.
The Best Costume Design Oscar nominees are chosen by other Costume Designer and Art Director members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. With so many period drama winners, it can be difficult to understand what the actual criteria are for choosing a Best Costume Design nominee.
One is that the designer must have “conceived” all the costumes in the show. But in ranking these winners, I’m going to consider the following:
- How well do the costumes inform us about the character(s) — 25%
- How well do the costumes serve the overall story — 20%
- Has the designer been innovative in some way — 30%
- Overall aesthetic — 25%
Don’t forget to let us know your thoughts in the comment section.
best costume design academy award
All best costume design Oscar Winners
- 2020 - Ann Roth, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
- 2019 - Jacqueline Durran, Little Women
- 2018 - Ruth E. Carter, Black Panther
- 2017 - Mark Bridges, Phantom Thread
- 2016 - Colleen Atwood, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
- 2015 - Jenny Beavan, Mad Max: Fury Road
- 2014 - Milena Canonero, The Grand Budapest Hotel
- 2013 - Catherine Martin, The Great Gatsby
- 2012 - Jacqueline Durran, Anna Karenina
- 2011 - Mark Bridges, The Artist
- 2010 - Colleen Atwood, Alice in Wonderland
- 2009 - Sandy Powell, The Young Victoria
- 2008 - Michael O'Connor, The Duchess
- 2007 - Alexandra Byrne, Elizabeth: The Golden Age
- 2006 - Milena Canonero, Marie Antoinette
- 2005 - Colleen Atwood, Memoirs of a Geisha
- 2004 - Sandy Powell, The Aviator
- 2003 - Ngila Dickson & Richard Taylor, LOTR: The Return of the King
- 2002 - Colleen Atwood, Chicago
- 2001 - Catherine Martin and Angus Strathie, Moulin Rouge!
- 2000 - Janty Yates, Gladiator
- 1999 - Lindy Hemming, Topsy-Turvy
- 1998 - Sandy Powell, Shakespeare in Love
- 1997 - Deborah Lynn Scott, Titanic
- 1996 - Ann Roth, The English Patient
- 1995 - James Acheson, Restoration
- 1994 - Tim Chappel & Lizzy Gardiner, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert
- 1993 - Gabriella Pescucci, The Age of Innocence
- 1992 - Eiko Ishioka, Bram Stoker's Dracula
- 1991 - Albert Wolsky, Bugsy
- 1990 - Franca Squarciapino, Cyrano de Bergerac
- 1989 - Phyllis Dalton, Henry V
- 1988 - James Acheson, Dangerous Liaisons
- 1987 - James Acheson, The Last Emperor
- 1986 - Jenny Beavan and John Bright, A Room with a View
- 1985 - Emi Wada, Ran
- 1984 - Theodor Pištěk, Amadeus
- 1983 - Marik Vos-Lundh, Fanny and Alexander
- 1982 - Bhanu Athaiya and John Mollo, Gandhi
- 1981 - Milena Canonero, Chariots of Fire
- 1980 - Anthony Powell, Tess
- 1979 - Albert Wolsky, All That Jazz
- 1978 - Anthony Powell, Death on the Nile
- 1977 - John Mollo, Star Wars
- 1976 - Danilo Donati, Fellini's Casanova
- 1975 - Milena Canonero and Ulla-Britt Söderlund, Barry Lyndon
- 1974 - Theoni V. Aldredge, The Great Gatsby
- 1973 - Edith Head, The Sting
- 1972 - Anthony Powell, Travels with My Aunt
- 1971 - Yvonne Blake and Antonio Castillo, Nicholas and Alexandra
- 1970 - Vittorio Nino Novarese, Cromwell
- 1969 - Margaret Furse, Anne of the Thousand Days
- 1968 - Danilo Donati, Romeo and Juliet
- 1967 - John Truscott, Camelot
- 1966 - (Color) Elizabeth Haffenden & Joan Bridge, A Man for All Seasons
- 1966 - (B&W) Irene Sharaff, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
- 1965 - (Color) Phyllis Dalton, Doctor Zhivago
- 1965 - (B&W) Julie Harris, Darling
- 1964 - (Color) Cecil Beaton, My Fair Lady
- 1964 - (B&W) Dorothy Jeakins, The Night of the Iguana
- 1963 - (Color) Renié, Vittorio Nino Novarese & Irene Sharaff, Cleopatra
- 1963 - (B&W) Piero Gherardi, 8½
- 1962 - (Color) Mary Wills, The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm
- 1962 - (B&W) Norma Koch, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
- 1961 - (Color) Irene Sharaff, West Side Story
- 1961 - (B&W) Piero Gherardi, La Dolce Vita
- 1960 - (Color) Valles and Bill Thomas, Spartacus
- 1960 - (B&W) Edith Head and Edward Stevenson, The Facts of Life
- 1959 - (Color) Elizabeth Haffenden, Ben-Hur
- 1959 - (B&W) Orry-Kelly, Some Like It Hot
- 1958 - Cecil Beaton, Gigi
- 1957 - Orry-Kelly, Les Girls
- 1956 - (Color) Irene Sharaff, The King and I
- 1956 - (B&W) Jean Louis, The Solid Gold Cadillac
- 1955 - (Color) Charles LeMaire, Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing
- 1955 - (B&W) Helen Rose, I'll Cry Tomorrow
- 1954 - (Color) Sanzo Wada, Gate of Hell
- 1954 - (B&W) Edith Head, Sabrina
- 1953 - (Color) Charles LeMaire and Emile Santiago, The Robe
- 1953 - (B&W) Edith Head, Roman Holiday
- 1952 - (Color) Marcel Vertès, Moulin Rouge
- 1952 - (B&W) Helen Rose, The Bad and the Beautiful
- 1951 - (Color) Orry-Kelly, Walter Plunkett and Irene Sharaff, An American in Paris
- 1951 - (B&W) Edith Head, A Place in the Sun
- 1950 - (Color) Edith Head, Dorothy Jeakins, Elois Jenssen, Gile Steele and Gwen Wakeling, Samson and Delilah
- 1950 - (B&W) Edith Head and Charles LeMaire, All About Eve
- 1949 - (Color) Leah Rhodes, Travilla & Marjorie Best, Adventures of Don Juan
- 1949 - (B&W) Edith Head and Gile Steele, The Heiress
- 1948 - (Color) Dorothy Jeakins and Karinska, Joan of Arc
- 1948 - (B&W) Roger K. Furse, Hamlet
High Collars and High Drama
20. Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007)
It’s a time of intrigue and deception at the royal court of Elizabeth I (Cate Blanchett). The Spanish Armada is about to attack, and Liz’s own sister is plotting to assassinate her and take over the throne. But through it all, Elizabeth manages her emotions and remains strong and fearless.
It’s a brief that Costume Designer Alexandra Byrne sticks to. Liz’s dresses are always stunning and she really does look like she could sink the entire Armada with a swoop of her fabulous gowns. But while they’re lovely, I don’t see much innovation in the costumes for this follow-up to Shekhar Kapur’s 1998 Elizabeth.
19. The Duchess (2008)
This biopic about Georgina Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire stars Keira Knightly, with Ralph Fiennes as the Duke. The Duchess marries the Duke of Devonshire at just 18, essentially under contract to provide him a male heir. But Georgina was so much more than a Duke’s wife. She was a person in her own right who championed political causes and was an accomplished novelist and playwright.
She was basically “Princess Diana” generations before Diana was born. In fact, The Duchess was Diana’s great-x4 aunt. Like her famous ancestor, Lady/Princess Diana was constantly scrutinized by both the public and the royal family, not the least of which for her wardrobe.
This meant Costume Designer Michael O’Connor had to make a point of making Georgina the object of everyone’s, if not affection, certainly their attention. He does a good job on that task, but overall this is just another Georgian drama, with lots of wigs and ruffles and lace.
18. The Great Gatsby (2013)
Director Baz Luhrmann has a pretty distinct look to his work. Every story he tells is viewed with a slightly fantastical eye, and The Great Gatsby is no exception. Catherine Martin’s dream-like design infuses the Jazz Age period costumes with a little more sparkle than was probably accurate, a little more sophistication, and a lot more of them in general.
Only Toby McGuire’s Nick is given the working class treatment, in his standout earth tones and flat, natural fabrics. But it works, since the story about a group of rich socialites ruining each other’s lives is told from Nick’s point of view.
17. Anna Karenina (2012)
The eponymous Anna (Keira Knightly again) is happily married to the much older Alexei Karenin (Jude Law). But she falls in love with someone more age appropriate, Count Vronksy (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), which sets society’s tongues a-wagging. What makes Director Joe Wright’s version of Anna Karenina different is that the entire story takes place on a big stage.
As part of this aesthetic, Costume Designer Jaqueline Durran had to bring an element of the static, the “never been outdoors” to her work. She uses a sort of “matte finish” color palette and fabrics, making the scene look almost like a 19th century illustration or a distant memory. It’s an effective technique.
Young and Restless
16. The Young Victoria (2009)
If Queen Victoria weren’t such a fascinating woman, there probably wouldn’t be so many versions of her story. But she was fascinating, not the least for being madly in love with her husband, Prince Albert (Rupert Friend), whom she met through an arranged marriage.
Costume Designer Sandy Powell was fortunate to have access to the royal archives and even Queen Victoria’s (Emily Blunt) wedding dress and coronation robes. She does a beautiful job of re-creating the queen’s wardrobe no matter what the occasion. But that also lowers her innovation score.
Flight or Fight
15. The Aviator (2004)
A biopic of the crazed genius who founded TWA Airlines, Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio again) that takes place at the height of the Hollywood studio system (Hughes was also a film producer), from the last gasp of the Jazz Age all the way to Post WWII.
This film is an earlier gig by Costume Designer Sandy Powell, in which she takes on recreating some of the most iconic looks of the Studio era. She was also tasked with having to come up with a color palette to match the imitation two-strip color processing that Director Martin Scorsese uses for certain scenes.
14. Marie Antoinette (2008)
Writer/Director Sofia Coppola really wanted to humanize the larger than life figure who came to be known as Marie Antoinette (Kirsten Dunst). Who is best known for her utter disregard for the regular French folks as they starved and suffered and launched the French Revolution. To that end, Best Costume Design winner Milena Canonero uses colors that pop — pastels and frills emphasizing the queen’s youth and naïveté and youthful indiscretion.
It matches the modern era soundtrack to give the queen a real personality, as well as more dimension than we normally see on this subject matter.
13. Phantom Thread (2017)
I don’t really care for abusive characters, so Paul Thomas Anderson’s venture into the world of 1950s haute couture is not my personal cup of tea. But the costumes are, naturally, stunning.
Here, Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a tortured genius who can’t separate his past traumas from his current reality. Best Costume Design winner Mark Bridges succeeds in the daunting task of creating couture looks that infuse this sense of loss into each bespoke gown.
12. Little Women (2019)
Writer/Director Greta Gerwig made this version of the famous novel quite personal. The title characters all have life goals, especially the rebellious Jo (Saoirse Ronan). But no matter how talented or skilled at their respective passions, these young women must ultimately marry well if they are to have any chance at happiness in life.
Jaqueline Durran conveys these societal restrictions well by physically confining the March sisters in corsets and tight jackets. But at the same time, the girls are their most liberated, both literally and figuratively, when they are together performing and just being a family.
11. Gladiator (2000)
The gladiator’s job was to fight to the death with a variety of weapons. Janty Yates had to create costumes that would allow the actors and stunt performers to move freely, while at times still appearing as if they were restricted by their garments.
Yates also did a good job distinguishing between the rulers, the slaves, and everyone in between. But I feel like it isn’t anything we haven’t already seen.
10. Memoirs of a Geisha (2005)
The great Colleen Atwood wins again with this historical drama set in the rigid and competitive world of pre-war geisha culture. Zhang Ziyi plays the eponymous geisha who begins life in abject poverty and is sold into the world she will inhabit for the rest of her life.
Atwood’s costumes reflect the structure of the geisha ranking system through the colors and accessories of each kimono; its ritual and pageantry with elaborate robes used solely in performing; and the necessity to succeed in that world or else end up back on the street.
Run of the Mill
9. Moulin Rouge! (2001)
An earlier Baz Luhrmann/Catherine Martin collaboration, this one even more fantastical and romantic. This is a jukebox musical, but it’s also a fairy tale. The costumes are reminiscent of a music video, but also the period of the story. They fit seamlessly (no pun intended) into the overall look of the film.
8. The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
Milena Canonero’s costumes for The Grand Budapest Hotel are an intricate part of Director Wes Anderson’s overall design concept. The colors are both muted — representing that we are looking at someone’s memory — but also manage to pop out from the background when needed.
Hell Hath No Fury
7. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
What do people wear in a world where there are no longer the resources for such luxuries as clothing? Costumer Jenny Beavan gives us a pretty good idea. Her work here in George Miller’s most recent installment of his Mad Max franchise represents the total loss of humanity in this vast wasteland.
Beavan creates the perfect visual representation for the backstory of a world where human beings have been reduced to commodities to be used or traded. And pre-menopausal women are the most valuable commodity of all.
6. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)
Fantastic Beasts should be a Costume Designer’s dream. It takes place in a universe where two distinct worlds co-exist, side by side, without ever really colliding. One a flashy, period drama; the other a world of both fantasies and nightmares.
For this film, Atwood relied a lot on the period — the 1920s. But she was still able to give a magical twist that made it easy to distinguish between Wizards and Muggles, Witches and No Mag’s.
This is also the first installment of a Harry Potter franchise where we get to see America and her magical population. Needless to say, expectations were rather high, but Atwood did not disappoint.
All That jazz
5. Chicago (2002)
An earlier Colleen Atwood endeavor is the big-budget adaptation of the renowned stage production by the great Bob Fosse and Fred Ebb. With former choreographer Rob Marshall at the helm, Chicago swept the Oscars that year, in no small part due to Atwood’s costuming.
Here we have a story — a musical — that takes place in the 1920s. Every character is a dancer, a showman/woman, a con. The costumes brilliantly reflect that these people live in the real world, but occasionally exposit details through song and dance.
4. The Artist (2011)
It’s a skill all of its own to choose fabrics and silhouettes that come through on Black and White film, and Costumer Mark Bridges has this in spades. Without dialogue to reveal character, costume design takes over. Bridges perfectly understands this and lets the clothes do all the talking.
What’s more, from the cloche hats and sequined sparkles, to the silk ties and wool suits, we can see the details in the fabric of these garments so clearly, we sometimes forget we’re looking at them “sans colour.”
Down the Rabbit Hole
3. Alice in Wonderland (2010)
Here’s our friend Colleen Atwood again. We only need to see the human-sized playing card army to know why she was awarded her fourth Oscar on our list for Best Costumes.
The period is essentially Victorian. But as this is also pure fantasy, Atwood draws on a variety of eras, with their signature silhouettes and fabrics, to make us believe that this topsy turvy world could actually exist if we were to allow ourselves to fall down the rabbit hole.
No design is too over-the-top. Every detail is significant and calls our attention to it. This work is just about as bold as it comes and Atwood’s win was well-deserved.
2. Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (2003)
Arguably the biggest challenge for Costume Design in this epic saga is that there is almost too much story to tell. There is the richly detailed backstory of both the universe of each character and of each realm. There is also the story at hand from the perspective of each participant in it.
In this final installment of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Oscar-winning work of Ngila Dickson and Richard Taylor is impossible to take as commonplace. Here we see our heroes in the midst of “the battle for Middle Earth,” while also getting a long look at each of the worlds, bursting with history, of both the Elves and the Rohirrim.
The costuming reflects all of this, from the full battle armor worn by all of our heroes and their enemies, to the diaphanous gowns worn by the Elf queens, Arwyn and Galadriel, to the formal best worn by everyone honoring the king’s coronation.
1. Black Panther (2018)
Wakanda is a world so far in advance of our own that even the clothing they wear is like magic. Costume Designer Ruth Carter combined the ancient with the future, the mundane with the magical, to give us a unique wardrobe for all the royalty and splendor of Wakanda.
Best Hair and Makeup Oscar Winners
Now that we've done a comprehensive review of the Academy Award for Best Costume Design, let's continue our Oscar series with hair and makeup. Naturally, a fantastic costume isn't actually complete without equally stunning hair and makeup to complete the look. Up next, we run through the Best Hair and Makeup winners and rank our favorites.