Let’s take a hot minute to talk about the most important category at the Academy Awards—Best Costume Design. Historical costume dramas a la Anna Karenina, The Great Gatsby, or The Duchess (basically any Keira Knightley movie) typically dominate this category, and that’s probably one of the reasons why it’s the award I most look forward to each year. I could rhapsodize for days about how subtle differences in fabric, colors, and cuts reflect Jane Eyre’s emotional growth and confidence in Cary Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre. On the other hand, I walked out of The Crimes of Grindelwald annoyed by the fact that all the characters were dressed in styles from 1939, not 1925.
Despite the category’s history, I don’t think any of the period dramas will take home the award this year. Instead, I think that Ruth Carter will emerge victorious because of her incredible Afro-Futurist costumes for Black Panther. Black Panther struck that sweet spot between statement and detail, and I think the Academy will reward Carter for that. The costumes also went a long way towards building the world of Wakanda. Along with director Ryan Coogler and production designer Hannah Beachler, Ruth Carter built a nation with its own history, materials, and traditions. Though she drew heavily from traditional dress across the African continent, she laced it with modern details—like a 3D printed headdress for Angela Basset’s Queen Ramonda, or recycled mesh for Letitia Wright’s Shuri—that reflected Wakanda’s technological advancement and resistance to colonization. Carter had a story behind every costume, and you can tell that she sat down and asked herself how the clothes characters wear reflect their personalities, positions, and choices. As I watched this incredible film, I imagined the characters dressing themselves, rather than a costumer dressing mannequins.
Ruth Carter and Black Panther definitely deserve to win, but if this film had come out six years ago, I doubt it would have won. For one thing, the Academy’s obvious bias towards costume dramas with overwhelmingly white casts would be hard to overcome. Black Panther is up against the structured, dramatic early 1700s gowns of The Favourite, the Depression era-chic of Mary Poppins Returns, the old American West of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, and the faux-Renaissance costuming of Mary Queen of Scots. Still, in the past five years, the Academy has shown signs of a shift. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them won the category in 2016, and it blended fantastical wizard wear with 20s fashion (don’t get me started on how much the Academy loves 20s costumes); and in 2015 the winner was Mad Max: Fury Road. To say that nothing quite like Mad Max had ever won Best Costuming would be an understatement, and it signals to me that the Academy is learning to look beyond hoop skirts and pretty white flappers.
Beyond these two recent winners, there are two other fantasy/sci fi films that won the category, and each of them were paradigm shifting. The first is the first Star Wars movie, which I don’t need to tell you was groundbreaking. Almost all of its looks continue to be iconic. The second is The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, which not only won Best Costume Design, but Best Picture, and made a clean sweep of all 11 Oscars for which it was nominated.
Black Panther is paradigm-shifting in its own right, so I think it definitely has a chance to win not only best costume design, but best picture. If it does win for costuming, it will not only overcome the Academy’s love affair with period costume dramas, but its bias against films featuring non-Western costumes. Memoirs of a Geisha is the only recent winner that featured mostly non-Western costumes, and even then most of the men wear Western-style suits throughout the movie. Black Panther definitely takes some cues from Western couture, but its main influences, not to mention its materials, are overwhelmingly African.
Black Panther has a lot of hurdles to overcome if it wants to win this category (and I didn’t even get in to how it’s a superhero film), but it’s the clear winner. Let’s just hope the Academy figures that out.