After weeks of arguing, we managed to whittle down our list of favorite film costumes of 2021 to an efficient, fair-minded fifteen. Not a countdown or an award, just a collection of fifteen looks that range from jaw-dropping to nearly generic; from unforgettable to a subtlety that barely registers. Our first post in this series highlighted some of the showiest looks of the year, but as the list progresses, we’re working in some choices that might surprise you.
Clare Kendra (Ruth Negga) in Passing
Costume Designer: Marci Rodgers
We’ve written a good half a million or so words on costume design for film and television, but we figure no more than a thousand were ever spent discussing a costume for a black-and-white film or show. It’s not that we have anything against them. The fact that TCM is playing on at least one of our TVs for at least 8 waking hours a day should put the lie to any suggestion that we only like our movies bursting with color. Even so, when you remove color from a discussion of aesthetic choices, it tends to narrow the conversation. It’s a rare trick when a costume designer is able to punch through the lack of color and make a point about a character using light, textiles and shapes. What color is the dress Clare is wearing when her old friend Rene runs into her in a tony hotel tea room? It could be pale pink or pale yellow or pale blue in real life, but in this film, it’s simply white. As a light-skinned Black woman married to a racist white man, Clare is simply awash in whiteness, from her hair to her pearl earrings to her light-as-a-feather white dress and white shoes. She is literally wearing her whiteness and it’s no coincidence that it’s light, breezy and sparkly. Note the brilliance of using a backlit sheer to subtly highlight the dark silhouette underneath. This dress is a secret posing as a flower.
Guy (Ryan Reynolds) in Free Guy
Costume Designer: Marlene Stewart
There’s a point we want to make here. Ryan Reynolds’ Guy was probably removed from this list more than any other entry in all the negotiating to get down to a final fifteen, but he kept creeping back in for one simple reason. Good cinematic costume design isn’t necessarily about producing jaw-dropping, totally unique looks to dazzle the eyes. It’s about telling you who the character is. The vast majority of costume design is about making actors look like everyday people in outfits that photograph well but don’t call too much attention to themselves. The ballgowns and superhero costumes tend to win all the attention and awards, but most of the cinematic costume design you see (and don’t register) comprises people on subways or cars and in supermarkets or offices.
Having said that, that’s actually not what you’re looking at here. Guy is a non-player character in a video game. While his everyman ensemble is on point for someone who was designed to not have a life, what makes it stand out to us is the subtle cleverness of the design and choices; the almost imperceptibly weird level of perfection. No bank teller wears outfits fitted that impeccably to his (decidedly UN-everyman) form. No one goes through their work-a-day life that free of wrinkles or stretching. Light blue and tan is probably the quintessential male casual office color combo, but no one matches their outfits so aggressively. This deliberately bland officewear ensemble is as custom-fitted and hand-steamed as any haute couture ensemble walking a Paris runway, as meticulously styled as any ensemble walking a Met Gala red carpet. This costume is great because it checks off all of our assumptions about being a bland worker drone but it very subtly takes us to an uncanny valley version where everything is just a bit too neat and perfect to be real. He’s a nametag shaped like a person.
Cruella de Vil (Emma Stone) in Cruella
Costume Designer: Jenny Beavan
On the other hand, sometimes it really is all about the jaw-dropping gowns.
When we were putting this list together, Tom noted that something from Cruella was likely to be a given, and that the red gown that she sets on fire would seem to be the most obvious choice. “Oh no,” Lorenzo replied. “It’s the garbage truck gown, definitely.” To explain why, we must take you back to what Lorenzo said the first time we saw this gown, while watching a pre-release screener of the film: “Now THAT is fucking fashion.” The world of high fashion is so rarely depicted accurately in most movies or TV shows and we tend to find so many costume design attempts to emulate haute couture to be a little too tongue-in-cheek to take seriously. Unless a film is specifically about celebrating fashion design, costume designers will too often default to a mocking sort of Derelicte take. When punk upstart designer Cruella staged a series of public humiliations for her rival the Baroness, this moment, where she literally tumbled out of a garbage truck and then hung onto the back as it drove away, her massive garbage skirt trailing a block behind her, was not only dramatic and jaw-dropping, it also really felt like the kind of stunts London designers coming out of the punk era would have staged thirty to forty years ago. We could easily have seen Westwood, Galliano, or McQueen pulling something like this in their respective youths.
Cassie Thomas (Carey Mulligan) in Promising Young Woman
Costume Designer: Nancy Steiner
We’ll admit up front that this entry is something of a cheat, since the film went into limited release on Christmas day, 2020. But given how weird the release schedules and movie-going experience have been in the last 18 months, it seems equally as wrong to treat this as a 2020 film since 99% of its audience didn’t see it until after its digital release in January and it subsequently became one of the most discussed films of the first half of 2021.
We try not to spoil the films we’re spotlighting on this list, so we’ll just say… if you know, you know. From the literal broken heart to the mockery of her failed med school career to the parodying of straight male sexual fetishes that cast women as juvenile, submissive authority figures, this costume is a massive pile of symbols and something of an autobiography she’s carrying on her back. It almost doesn’t register how bizarre that pierced heart applique actually is, but it says something about how performative and symbolic this all is for her. It’s like she has to do all this as theatrically and ritualistically as possible. Cassie made her stand and sought her vengeance in a costume that could reasonably be summed up as a bitter, knowing wink at an audience she couldn’t see.
Patrizia Gucci (Lady Gaga) in House of Gucci
Costume Designer: Janty Yates
Because sometimes a costume is just funny to look at. And because that effect is almost always the intended outcome of a good costume designer’s work. We don’t think Ridley Scott’s House of Gucci quite reached the levels of camp we’d hoped for when we first caught glimpse of this alta moda ski bunny look in the film’s trailer. Still, that doesn’t diminish the fine, subtly funny work being done here to shape Patrizia as a figure of some silliness underneath the grasping menace. There’s just something about the richness of that red, the incongruous combination of ski boots, diamonds and an espresso cup, the tightness of the suit, and the proportions of that mink turban framing her face that turn this whole look comic while not losing sight of the menace underneath. It straddles that line of being almost chic while just barely avoiding tipping over into Absolutely Fabulous territory. The ski goggles worn on top of her mink turban is just chef’s-kiss perfect character work.
Coming up next: Part THREE.
[Photo Credit: Netflix, 20th Century Studios, Walt Disney Studios, Focus Features, MGM]