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Panel to showcase Oscar-nominated costume designers and their fashions of the past

(Bridgette Baron/Daily Bruin)

"10th Annual Sketch to Screen"

Feb. 8

Freud Playhouse


By Vivian Xu

Feb. 6, 2020 10:51 p.m.

Fashion of the past fills the movie screens of the present.

On Saturday, the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television’s David C. Copley Center for the Study of Costume Design will host its 10th annual Sketch to Screen Costume Design Panel and Celebration, inviting Oscar-nominated costume designers to showcase their work. Among this year’s panelists are Sandy Powell and Christopher Peterson, the costume designers for “The Irishman,” and Jacqueline Durran, the costume designer for “Little Women.” Even though both Oscar-nominated films are set in different decades, Peterson said each followed a similar path – from research to sketches and then production – as a period piece.

“‘The Irishman’ is about real people (and) a lot of them made it their business not to be photographed,” Peterson said. “But a lot of the photographs that we did find, we used as a jumping-off point to create characters with our actors.”

On the other hand, because “Little Women” is not directly based on real sisters, Durran could not rely on photographs of the film’s subjects. Rather, she said she used references like 1800s fashion magazines and paintings that spoke to the styles of the time. After categorizing images based on which ones fit the characters or a specific scene in the film, Durran communicated with the actors to understand their interpretations of their roles.

“Once you’re in the kind of world of what you’re aiming for, then you start putting clothes on (the actors),” Durran said. “You start looking to see what works and what doesn’t work from the reference. And then you start making the clothes based on that investigation.”

[Related: Movie review: There’s nothing small about Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of ‘Little Women’]

Once Powell and Peterson finished their research process for “The Irishman,” the pair devoted a significant amount of time to primarily designing period-accurate suits for the three main characters. The duo also took into consideration the five decades that the film spans, noting the subtle evolution in fashions. Specifically, she said the ’50s were characterized by wide lapels that became narrower in the ’60s, reaching their narrowest in the mid-’60s and cycling back to wide in the ’70s.

As the style of the suits evolved, so did the color palettes for each decade, Powell said. In her eyes, the ’50s favored gray and blue hues, the ’60s were filled with olive greens and mustards and the ’70s contained burgundies and browns. Robert De Niro’s character, Frank Sheeran, appears in court hearings in the beginning and end of the film, and the evolution of his suits’ styles and intricacies mirrors the respective evolution of fashion.

“Menswear, maybe on the face of it, is a little more limited,” Peterson said. “But that’s where the width of the lapel, the cut of the suit, whether it has a vent, the ties that we choose, the tie bars, the cuff links (come in).”

However, while Powell and Peterson could devote their focus toward a recent time in history, Durran had to jump nearly 200 years back to the Victorian era. Durran remained accurate to the time period but was a bit flexible with how certain pieces of clothes were worn. She said she allowed the actors to take a few liberties with their costumes, and based on how they interpreted the characters, modified the costumes accordingly.

[Related: Costumes add depth to the diverse range of characters, settings this Oscar season]

Durran said Saoirse Ronan, who portrays Jo March, understood her character as someone who wouldn’t conform to the styles of the time. In Ronan’s view, corsets or hoop skirts were clothing items that Jo would never wear, so Durran scrapped the idea.

“When (Ronan) came to see (the hoop skirt), she just decided that it didn’t feel like Jo to her,” Durran said. “(Jo) also should have more petticoats in her younger version, but (Ronan) also felt that was too fussy for Jo, so we didn’t do those either.”

All three costume designers cited the sheer scale of their films – in terms of the labor required to create the costumes as well as the quantity of costumes designed – as a challenge. Nevertheless, Powell said there was no part of the process that she would have characterized as a struggle.

“I think (people) want to know that we’ve had a really, really, terrible, hard time and came out victorious at the end,” Powell said. “We did have a hard time, but it wasn’t a horrible hard time.”

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Vivian Xu | Arts editor
Xu is the 2021-2022 Arts editor. She previously served as the music | fine arts editor from 2020-2021 and was an Arts reporter from 2019-2020. She is a third-year neuroscience student from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Xu is the 2021-2022 Arts editor. She previously served as the music | fine arts editor from 2020-2021 and was an Arts reporter from 2019-2020. She is a third-year neuroscience student from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
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