Why the Oscars’ Costume Design Nominees Should Stop Fetishizing the Past

There’s a saying among Oscars Kremlinologists that the Academy doesn’t reward the best acting—it rewards the most acting. It’s a sentiment that, at least part of the time, appears to apply to the costume design category too: for voters, when it comes to style on screen, bigger is usually better. (Bigger skirts, bolder colors, brasher patterns; if it makes your eyes pop, chances are the Academy will love it.)

When it comes to costumes, though, the Academy’s favor is also guided by another factor: history. Looking at the past decade of nominees as a sample, 48 out of the 50 movies up for the golden statuette were either fantasy or period films—the exceptions being La La Land in 2016 and Everything Everywhere All at Once last year, in case you were wondering—and all of the period films that took the prize home were set at least 50 years in the past.

This year’s crop of best-costume nominees isn’t doing much to buck that trend. Four out of the five films nominated feature historical settings, the most recent of those being Oppenheimer’s conclusion in the early 1960s, when the physicist is granted a medal by President Lyndon B. Johnson. And it’s difficult to believe that Barbie’s nomination came about for its scenes in present-day California, as opposed to the fabulously kitschy Barbieland confections dreamed up by costume designer Jacqueline Durran (who actually won her second best-costume Oscar in 2020 for Greta Gerwig’s previous film, Little Women—set in the late 19th century).

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