From Emma Stone’s divine punk rock-influenced frocks in Cruella to Timothée Chalamet’s futuristic steel suits in Dune to Cate Blanchett’s femme fatale looks in Nightmare Alley to the vibrant skirts and shirts in Steven Speilberg’s West Side Story and the sumptuous period pieces in Cyrano –  it was an exceptional year for costuming in film, and it provided eye-catching facets, both obvious and subtle, to enhance the stories and characters on screen. These Academy Award-nominated movies and many more are showcased at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising (FIDM) Art of Costume Design in Film exhibit, now in its 30th year at the Downtown Los Angeles institution, which isn’t just a fashion school but a true incubator for creative ideas and innovation in clothing, costume, wardrobe and design.

Though Los Angeles still has yet to sustain a Fashion Week on par with New York or Paris, FIDM’s presence here, as well as the entertainment industry and countless stylists based here, make our city undeniably influential. Moreover, our red carpet events – especially the Oscars – provide the biggest runways of all. In terms of costume design, many FIDM students have gone on to work in the industry and the school’s popular exhibit, which is open to the public and free, serves as both inspiration and celebration of accomplishments in this field, no matter who actually wins the golden statue this week. Though only five films were nominated in the costume design category, over 20 films are featured in the exhibit (the only of its kind in the world), which just opened last week with a party attended by many of the designers.

FIDM Fashion Design Co-Chairs Nick Verreos and David Paul with Oscar-nominated costume designer Paul Tazewell at the opening of the “Art of Costume Design in Film”  at the FIDM Museum.
(Photo by Alex J. Berliner/ABImages)

“We want to show a variety because a lot of people still think of costume as period, but we also want to show that contemporary is costume,” says Nick Verreos, co-chairman of Fashion Design at the school alongside his husband Dave Paul, during a recent walk-thru. “This year there’s period and also Sci-Fi. But there’s more. And we want to teach the public that just because it’s a pair of jeans and a sweatshirt, it’s still a costume, because it’s part of creating who that character on screen is.”

Verreos, who many might recognize as a former contestant on one of the first seasons of Project Runway and as a mentor on later seasons, says that the thread running through this year’s popular films and their designer visions concerns “the old” and “the new.”

“For example, in West Side Story, the designer was inspired by the current fashion of the time, off-the-shoulder dresses were having a moment, so he blended them into the ‘50s,” he explains. In the Tragedy of Macbeth, which is based in the medieval times, the fabric for the clothes was from Valentino. So it’s current couture fabric mixed with period costume.”

Oscar-nominated costume designer Jacqueline West at the opening of the “Art of Costume Design in Film” exhibition, at the FIDM Museum. (Photo by Alex J. Berliner/ABImages)

The fashion world in general is more prevalent on screen this year, to the extent that it’s part of the narrative. Cruella and House of Gucci (the latter nominated for hair and makeup) both concern designers. But Verreos notes, in general, “fashion” and “costume” have traditionally been two very different things.

“A lot of times it’s very separated,” he says. “A lot of costume designers state with aplomb that, ‘I don’t look at Vogue.” Basically as a costume designer, you’re helping mold the character with clothing, so it’s not necessarily about fashion, per se. But a movie like Cruella is an exception.”

Even the obvious period film of the bunch, Cyrano with outfits by Italian designer Massimo Cantini Parrini, took a bold, somewhat avante garde fashion approach, purposely avoiding complete historical accuracy on looks for Peter Dinklage and the rest of the cast. ”He always likes to put a modern take on the period, because who’s watching the movie? A modern public,” Verreos explains, as we examine the two pieces from the film, which is set in 1600s France and was filmed in Italy. “It looks authentic, but there are little subtle things that make it more pleasant and easier for our modern eye to look at.”

A view of the “Art of Costume Design in Film” exhibition at the FIDM Museum. (Photo by Alex J. Berliner/ABImages)

Other important looks in the exhibit that didn’t get the costume nod but were nominated in other Oscar categories include Licorice Pizza (one of our favorites for its ‘70s vintage styling that was so spot-on, we discussed it extensively with P.T. Anderson for LA Weekly’s December 2021 cover story), King Richard, The Eyes of Tammy Faye, Spencer, No Time To Die and Coming 2 America. The latter has a stunning display in the center of the museum, as its designer Ruth E. Carter has a long running relationship with the school since her work has been nominated and showcased multiple times. She won for her work on Marvel’s Black Panther in 2018, making her the first African-American designer to win an Academy Award in that category.

Taken as a whole, FIDM’s Art of Costume exhibit functions not just as a complement to the Academy Awards each year, but also as homage to creatives behind the scenes who contribute to the cinematic experience in nuanced ways we often take for granted. Nothing you see on screen is ever by accident, especially when it comes to what people are wearing, and costuming has just as much value and impact on the way a film makes us think and feel.

“Cyrano” costumes by Massimo Cantini Parrini and Jacqueline Durran seen in the “Art of Costume Design in Film” exhibition at the FIDM Museum. (L to R) Costumes worn by actors: Haley Bennett, Peter Dinklage (Photo by Alex J. Berliner/ABImages)

FIDM has one of the only Film & TV Costume academic departments in the nation and graduates such as Mandy Line (Pretty Little Liars, Shameless) and Trish Summerville (The Hunger Games) highlight its successful approach to preparing students for the business, which entails more than simply making clothes for retail. It’s about storytelling.

“Costuming plays an integral role in film,” Verreos asserts. “If you think of a film like an opera, or symphony, costumes are one of the first instruments. Every actor that I’ve talked to has said, ‘I’ve never fully gone into who I am supposed to play until that costume goes on.’ A lot of times it’s almost necessary for the costumes to be like another character in the film and be noticeable for that. It’s important to recognize, and this exhibit is our gift to the public so that they can.”

The Art of Costume Design in Film runs til Sat., June 4, 2022; Open Tues.-Sat., 10:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. FIDM Museum, 919 S. Grand Ave.; free.

Read our Q&A’s with Cruella designer Jenny Beavan and West Side Story designer Paul Tazewell here.


This week’s LA Weekly print edition cover story. (Photo by Alex J. Berliner/ABImages)


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