The film awards season, which culminated in the Oscars last Sunday, often seems to be a red-carpet stroll for fashion designers in search of mass-marketing breaks. But within the films themselves, clothes have a more serious role that is rarely given the attention it deserves. Consider the winner of this year’s Oscar for best costume design, Ruth E Carter.
This was the second time Ms Carter has taken the award for her punctilious reimagination of the world of the Black Panther, who was originally introduced as a Marvel comic strip superhero in the 1960s. For once a repeat award – this time, for Wakanda Forever – seems justified, as the success of the two Black Panther films stands or falls on the representation of the people who inhabit the Afrofuturist kingdom of Wakanda.
Afrofuturism is a vision of a future formed by the fusion of African cultures. Giving a “look” to it is a political act, which presented Ms Carter with the challenge of finding an aesthetic capacious enough to represent a continent. She scoured Africa to find different idioms for each of Wakanda’s peoples, from the Tuareg robes of the Merchant tribe to the stately Zulu ornamentation of the Wakanda royalty.
That Ms Carter should be the first black woman to win two Oscars gives pause for thought; less surprising is that the precedent has been set by a costume designer, since this is a specialism dominated by women. Of the 11 designers shortlisted for Oscars and Baftas this year, only one was a man. A woman, Sandy Powell, simultaneously became the first costume designer to receive a Bafta fellowship. Just as significantly, in an industry where youth is at such a premium, nearly all of these women are in their 50s or 60s.
The British designer Jenny Beavan, who – at 72 – was nominated for both an Oscar and a Bafta for Mrs Harris Goes to Paris, about a 1950s charlady on a mission to buy a Dior dress, has made a virtue of being a devil-may-care older woman. She turned up at this year’s Bafta ceremony with a feather duster, a reference both to the film and to a media storm she unleashed in 2016 by collecting both a Bafta and an Oscar in a faux leather Marks & Spencer jacket and comfy shoes.
“I couldn’t be less interested in fashion,” said Ms Beavan, who pointed out that her 2016 outfit was in fact a costume, in homage to the biker look she had created for Mad Max. But there is a fine line between fashion as frippery and as costume, a cultural artefact that defines who we are and where we’re going. As the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm wrote: “Why brilliant fashion designers, a notoriously non-analytic breed, sometimes succeed in anticipating the shape of things to come better than professional predictors, remains one of the most obscure questions in history.”
Film and fashion are anyway so closely interlinked that designers such as Ms Carter and Ms Beavan will be influencing what real people wear, and how they see the world, long after the fantasy frocks of the Oscars red carpet are returned to sender.