Friday, February 21, 2014

FYC: Best Costume Design, 12 Years a Slave

*With Oscar voting in full swing and the ceremony less than two weeks away, I'm taking this week to spotlight a handful of nominees in the technical categories. These are not frontrunners in their category, but they are worthy of our consideration. Welcome to FYC Week.*

More often than not, the Academy prefers flashy, ornate costume work - often from a period piece, usually involving royalty - in this category over more subdued work. This year probably won't be an exception: Catherine Martin seems like a very strong contender for The Great Gatsby, while Michael Wilkinson is likely her closest competition for the plunging necklines of American Hustle. Michael O'Connor (The Invisible Woman) is his film's only nomination, which hurts his chances, and William Chang Suk Ping (The Grandmaster) is nominated for a foreign language film that was not nominated in the corresponding category, meaning his nomination will probably be considered reward enough.

In any other year, Patricia Norris' work in 12 Years a Slave - her first nomination since 1988, and sixth overall - would be considered a much more serious contender, coming from a likely Best Picture winner. But more importantly, the work itself is impressive in how it never calls attention to itself yet is essential to the film's characterization, all while maintaining historical appropriateness. Compare the two main plantation owners to whom Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) falls into the possession of. Mr. Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), who is a more benevolent slave owner, keeps his clothes clean and crisp, a man who keeps the operations of his estate as distant from himself as possible. Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), on the other hand, can clean up when necessary, but his clothes are often faded or soiled; he's a man who's not afraid to get his hands dirty, particularly when it comes to the way he treats his slaves.

Norris' costumes also place the characters in relative social strata: consider, if you will, how Northrup, as a free man in New York, dresses in fine suits, but when he is forced into slavery, he's given rags, clothes that are indistinguishable from those of the other slaves at any plantation he ends up at. Similarly, we understand that Mistress Shaw (Alfre Woodard), a former slave who is now married to the plantation owner, occupies a different societal position from Northrup because she now wears the more elaborate dresses of the planter (predominantly white) class. Norris' work is far from "costume porn": these costumes code the social standing of every character in the film, positioning them against one another and helping the audience visibly understand the institutionalized oppression of this society in a subtle way.

There's no denying that the costumes of The Great Gatsby and American Hustle are eye-catching and fun, with the former even influencing modern fashion (disclosure: I have seen neither The Grandmaster nor The Invisible Woman). But what makes Norris' work so worthy of the Oscar is that her's is a quiet but essential contribution to the overall message of 12 Years a Slave: that the slave-owning American South was a heavily systematic society, where physical and mental degradation of the oppressed were the foundation it was built upon.

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