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20 Great Hollywood Costume Designers You Should Know About

02 June 2014 | Features, People Lists | by Agreysiren

greatest costume designers

Arguably one of the more under-appreciated roles in cinema is that of the costume designer. Costume designers’ stylistic contributions to the world of film and by extension to our own worlds is undeniable. Their work contributes to constructing the characters we love, enhancing the film’s setting via colour and texture, and in some instances transcends the screen and informs our perception of style in our own lives.

Just as one hears the work of a composer and is transported to the memory of a scene, so too can the work of a costume designer bring a particular film or character to mind. One has only to remember the white halter dress Marilyn Monroe wore in The Seven Year Itch (1955), the black-on-black leather ensemble worn by Keanu Reeves in The Matrix (1999), or Hannibal Lecter’s orange jumpsuit and facemask from The Silence of the Lambs (1991) to revisit the visuals and emotions of their respective films.

The following list of 20 Costume Designers aims to highlight the importance of the craft and its influence on cinematic style and occasionally beyond.

Note: The artists on this list are ranked in no particular order.

 

1. Edith Head

edith-head-rear-window-green-suit-worn-by-grace-kelly

Contribution: The Sting, Rear Window, Vertigo, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Ten Commandments, Funny Face, Roman Holiday, Samson and Delilah, Sunset Boulevard

Edith Head was a towering figure known as the “dress doctor” whose recognition came in the form of 35 Oscar nominations and 8 awards – still a record to this day.

The main testament to her talent is probably the list of films and actors she has designed for, most notably her 11 films with the master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock; 7 films dressing Natalie Wood; and 3 films each with Barbara Stanwyck and Audrey Hepburn, two icons of style to this day.

 

2. Irene Sharaff

the-king-and-i

Contribution: West Side Story, The King and I, Cleopatra (in collaboration with Renie), Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Second only to Edith Head in terms of honours from the Academy, Irene Sharaff proved her versatility by mastering the look of multiple periods and genres, and was highly influential on the style of her time. Her design choices had an effect not only on the fashion world but went as far as to influence interior design.

 

3. Deborah Nadoolman

raiders-of-the-lost-ark-5

Contribution: Coming to America, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Trading Places, Thriller, The Blues Brothers

Iconic is the word that comes to mind when describing Deborah Nadoolman’s work. Her designs moulded seamlessly into the setting of the films she designed for and many of her costumes have etched themselves onto our minds. She is responsible for the red jacket worn by Michael Jackson in the short film Thriller; the suits of The Blues Brothers; and – perhaps one of the most iconic costumes in cinema history – Harrison Ford’s famous Fedora hat and jacket in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

It could be argued that this designer’s work was so significant that the worlds in which these films were set were greatly expanded through her designs.

 

4. Eiko Ishioka

dracula 1992

Contribution: Dracula, The Cell, The Fall, Mirror Mirror

Eiko Ishiokas’ spectacular, mystical designs almost steal the limelight from the productions they inhabit – but not quite. They are, in fact, masterfully embedded into the setting, serving to complement films such as Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Tarsem Singh’s visually stunning films too owe a great deal to Ishioka’s work, in particularly their other-worldly dream like quality.

 

5. Irene Lentz

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)

Contribution: Week-End at the Waldorf, Easter Parade, Ziegfeld Follies, Girl Crazy, Shall We Dance (Gowns), The Postman Always Rings Twice, Best Foot Forward, Kismet, Midnight Lace, B.F.’s Daughter

Irene was a true talent whose work still impacts on film today. Costume designer Colleen Atwood dressed Angelina Jolie in ‘The Tourist’ in a dress inspired by an Irene creation. This talented woman’s designs in films of the past continue to influence contemporary tastes.

 

6. Sandy Powell

Wolf-of-Wall-Street-fashion

Contribution: Interview with the Vampire : The Vampire Chronicles, Rob Roy, Shakespeare In Love, Gangs of New York, The Aviator, The Wolf of Wall Street, Shutter Island

Sandy Powell seems to be one of those rare talents that is always at the cutting edge of their field. Her designs, like her work on Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, are at first glance comfortable and suited to the period. However, multiple viewings prove that the costumes are not only relevant to the period but are original enough to feel contemporary to the viewe. In this way they r complement one of the film’s major themes by transporting the viewer from the past to the present.

 

7. Michael Kaplan

BLADE RUNNER HARRISON FORD

Contribution: Blade Runner, Flashdance, Se7en, Fight Club, Pearl Harbour, Star Trek into Darkness

A cast announcement for Star Wars Episode VII clouded by the debates over actors not cast is the costume designer Michael Kaplan. Equally comfortable in Sci-Fi as he is in psychological thrillers, Kaplan’s designs are pivotal in setting up the atmosphere required. Much has been said of the cinematography of Blade Runner and the mood of Fincher’s contemporary noir detective story Se7en. Not mentioned as often is the debt both films owe to the talent of Michael Kaplan.

 

8. Milena Canonero

Barry Lyndon

Contribution: A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon, The Shinning, Chariots of Fire, The Cotton Club, Dick Tracy, Marie Antoinette, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Ocean’s Twelve, The Grand Budapest Hotel

Grand designs for the grand stage need not be obvious, they simply need to serve their purpose. Functionality communicates to the viewer the reasoning of eccentricity. This type of design is what you need to build a vision, folks! When lit by candle light in Barry Lyndon, they glow and when devoid of colour in A Clockwork Orange, they shine.

 

9. Colleen Atwood

Memoirs-of-a-Geisha

Contribution: Married to the Mob, Edward Scissorhands, Silence of the Lambs, Little Women, Ed Wood, Gattaca, Sleepy Hollow, Chicago, Memoirs of a Geisha, Public Enemies, Alice in Wonderland

It would be hard to come across a fan of cinema that is not familiar with the visual style of director Tim Burton. The look of his films is recognisable at a glance and this owes a lot to the work of costume designer Colleen Attwood, who has collaborated with the director on no less than nine projects.

Not only is she skilled at creating the unreal settings within a film but she is equally successful at contributing to contemporary realist works. She has thus cemented her reputation as one of the leading costume designers working today – perhaps even the most influential since Edith Head.

 

10. Orry-Kelly

casablanca-1942

Contribution: Gypsy, Some Like it Hot, Cole Porter’s Les Girls, Oklahoma!, Harvey, An American in Paris (collaborated), Arsenic and Old Lace, Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, The Sea Hawk, 42nd Street

One of the early practitioners of character-centric costume designs for films, Orry-Kelly’s attention to detail was second to none. It was not unlike him to incorporate design features that played with light and shadow or to add a playful touch to an outfit.

In addition to his ability to produce authentic period pieces, the gangster flicks, musicals and dramas of Warner Bros were in skilled hands with him.

 

 

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  • What about Patricia Norris for her work on Days of Heaven, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and more recently, The Immigrant?

    • agreysiren

      Agreed. Deserves a mention.

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  • vjp81955

    No Travis Banton?

    • agreysiren

      Honorable mention only. Unfortunately, I have not seen enough of the films that he has contributed to and would not have been able to make an honest analysis.

  • Mikael Sharafyan

    Joanna Johnston!!!!

    • agreysiren

      Agreed. It is criminal that I left her off the list. Her work on Lincoln was superb.

  • Linda

    And what do you think of the great Jean Louis – nominated for 14 Academy Awards, dressed Rita Hayworth in “Gilda”, Marilyn Monroe, Marlene Dietrich, Kim Novak and Elizabeth Taylor, Loretta Young and Liz Taylor among others!

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  • lifeisglorious

    Travis Barton should be number 1 on any list of Hollywood fashion designers.

    • agreysiren

      My lists are not ranked in any order.

  • Richard Harper

    And you’ve overlooked the incomparable JEAN-PIERRE DORLEAC whose work is legend for its originality, accuracy and scope. The diverse work in Somewhere in Time, The Blue Lagoon, Battlestar Galactica, Quantum Leap, Heart and Souls … not to mention the lunacy of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century … and the period details in Tales of the Gold Monkey, and Emmy winner, The Lot for AMC, is AMAZING!

    Plus, his book, THE NAKED TRUTH is a fascinating, highly candid, and often uproarious account of the never-before-told, TRUE story of a costumes designer’s life. It should be mandatory reading for anyone considering a career in show business.

    • agreysiren

      The aim of the article was to bring attention to costume designers overall.JEAN-PIERRE DORLEAC is not a designer that I am familiar with. Thank you for the suggestion.

      • Richard Harper

        How wonderful to be able to call your attention to the BEST COSTUME DESIGNER ever. At least Edith Head thought so when she began mentoring him in 1974 and continued to do so, even during one of her last TV interviews, just before her death. Private conversations with her are revealed in THE NAKED TRUTH. It’s hobnobbing with the stars, autobiography, show business history, and politics in a chronicle about Hollywood’s insanity. Go to http://www.jean-pierredorleac.com

        • agreysiren

          Can’t wait to check it out.

  • Linda

    To all designers, I am selling a beautiful fur dark brown vintage 1940 coat. It was my grandmother’s that’s way I have to sell it. IT is full length dark brown, two deep pockets , instead of buttons it has hooks. It’s in real good condition. I Hope. Some move could use it? Thank you all! Please reply.