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Thursday
Jun242021

The Best Costumes of 1946

by Cláudio Alves

Before we head into the nitty-gritty of the Best Supporting Actress Smackdown of 1946 tomorrow, it's time to look at some pretty clothes and lose our minds in a hurricane of 'what ifs.' By the end of that decade, the Academy had implemented two Best Costume Design categories – black-and-white and color – but those awards were only introduced in 1948 for the 21st Academy Awards. Before that, costume designers had no way of winning Oscars. If you're an awards obsessive who loves the art of costuming, it's easy to wonder what would have happened if the category were introduced at the beginning. What would have been nominated in 1946? Who would have won? Here are my tentative answers to these complicated questions…

First things, first – one must clarify the parameters of choice and selection. While it's true that the costume design categories oscillated between two or three nominees per race during its first three years, I've decided to expand the field to five. As research for this piece, I watched around 60 eligible movies for the 19th Academy Awards and now intend to spread the wealth. Still, to keep things in the realm of plausible conjecture, I tried to focus primarily on films that AMPAS embraced in other categories with only a couple of wild cards thrown in for good measure. The first of these imaginary Oscar races is for black-and-white pictures. The nominees may have been: 

ANNA AND THE KING OF SIAM
Costumes designed by Bonnie Cashin

Considering its two Oscar wins, for Cinematography and Art Direction, it's difficult to imagine this colonial fantasy on historical themes missing a Costume Design nod. While many Hollywood dreams of Siamese fashion parade through the screen, one can also find plenty of unsubstantial crinolines to ruin the mood. For a narrative skewed in favor of British Imperialism, Irene Dunne's Victorian styles are rather lackluster and poorly executed compared to the finery that adorns the actors in yellowface. Our first nominee is a likely, if unworthy, contender.

 

KITTY Costumes designed by Raoul Pene Du Bois

When Hollywood was allergic to the faintest hint of historical accuracy in design, Mitchell Leisen's period films were an odd duck. Rather than repudiating the silliness of Georgian fashion in favor of 40s glamour, his Kitty embraces archaic beauty, immersing the spectator and allowing for a satiric reading of the narrative. It's a film where costume defines tone. Only Paulette Goddard's outfits break that immersion. Even then, the star's costumes are beautiful, somewhat reminiscent of the garments featured in eighteen-century allegorical paintings. 

 


THE BRIDE WORE BOOTS
Costumes designed by Edith Head

My first wildcard is an attempt at including a nominee that recalls the first pictures to get only the Best Costume Design nod – 1948's B.F.'s Daughter and 1949's Mother is a Freshman. The Bride Wore Boots is an unfunny comedy where matters of class and upbringing take center stage. Clothes as signifiers of the personal background become crucial elements of visual storytelling. Furthermore, Barbara Stanwyck and Diana Lyn get to model some surprisingly revealing frocks in satin intercut with sheer panels. Unlike anything else in the movie, the costumes are shockingly memorable.

 

THE RAZOR'S EDGE
Costumes designed by Oleg Cassini 

Like Anna and the King of Siam, this wardrobe isn't one I'm too fond of. A big part of The Razor's Edge is a diagnosis of changing times, a portrait of a decade in the aftermath of World War I. You wouldn't get that from the costumes which half-heartedly nudge at démodé aesthetics without ever committing to them. Still, there's something to love about Gene Tierney's cold glamour, as well as Anne Baxter's stylistic and spiritual downfall. The Academy fell hard for the movie, showering it with four nominations, including for Best Picture.

 


TO EACH HIS OWN
Costumes designed by Edith Head

To Each His Own also presents a story intrinsically connected to recent history and the erstwhile peace between world wars. In Mitchell Leisen's movie, there's great importance in how costume can telegraph a text's chronology. Olivia de Havilland's 1910s and 20s outfits aren't spot-on recreations, but they reveal much about her Oscar-winning character's shifting fortunes, her place in time, and society. This is costume design as a narrative device rather than as an empty ornament. Furthermore, Edith Head was often nominated twice in the same year, so this turn of events wouldn't be too abnormal in the annals of Oscar history.

 

As for the color category, these are the five movies I think AMPAS would have chosen...

CAESAR AND CLEOPATRA
Costumes designed by Matilda Etches & Oliver Messel

AMPAS liked prestige play adaptations and ancient world epics in their costume design categories. More importantly, Oscar voters are partial to Cleopatra's legendary iconography, as one can attest by the 1963 behemoth's victory in the Best Costume Design race. The Korda-produced Caesar and Cleopatra isn't nearly as opulent as that later flick, but its costumes offer an array of colorful takes on Roman and Egyptian styles. I'm especially fond of the ornate headpieces Vivien Leigh wears throughout.

 


HENRY V
Costumes designed by Roger Furse

Speaking of play adaptations, Laurence Olivier's take on Shakespeare's Henry V as meta-theatrical cinema and war propaganda was a hit with AMPAS in 1946. It's only natural to assume that the movie would have shown up there if the Costume Design category existed. In this case, it would have been a wholly deserved honor- Furse's creations evoke a sort of painterly pageantry that's purposefully artificial, a Medieval world interpreted through a lens of Elizabethan staginess and the wartime's need for inspiring escapist spectacle.

 


THE HARVEY GIRLS
Costumes designed by Helen Rose & Valles

There are few things I love more than good costume design as a tool of visual comedy. The Harvey Girls is a textbook example of this dynamic, using extreme contrasts to establish character dichotomies so stark they elicit involuntary laughter. We have the nun-like waitress/maid uniforms of the titular Harvey Girls, 1890s ballgowns that look like frosted cupcakes, and, of course, Angela Lansbury as a saloon diva cum drag queen.

 


THE JOLSON STORY
Costumes designed by Jean Louis

As much as it hurts me to say so, I'm pretty sure The Jolson Story would have been a nominee. It's a showbiz biopic with plenty of musical numbers and a wardrobe conceived by Jean Louis, who would be nominated 14 times in the future. The costumes are fine, but nothing special. The same can be said of the entire movie. And yet, it scored six Oscar nominations and two victories. 

 

ZIEGFELD FOLLIES
Costumes designed by Helen Rose, Tony Duquette & Irene

Maybe I'm blinded by love for this film's unhinged luxury, but I think MGM's Ziegfeld Follies could have been our first sole nominee in the Best Costume Design – Color category. The fractured, revue-like structure of the piece gives the designers plenty of opportunities to experiment with crazy creations like a chorus line of bedazzled devils, insectoid ballgowns, specters of chiffon, and lamé in a storm of soapsuds. 

 

THE IMAGINED RESULTS AND MY OWN BALLOT
I believe Anna and the King of Siam and Henry V would come out as winners from these imaginary lineups. As for my preference, an ideal five-wide ballot with no color differentiation would include Kitty, Henry V, and three other movies. They are:

 


GILDA
Costumes designed by Jean Louis

That slinky black dress is rightfully legendary, but Rita Hayworth's wardrobe as Gilda goes way beyond that iconic look. Jean Louis uses silver screen couture to delineate the title character's intrinsic contradictions, ending up with what's possibly the sublimate essence of the film noir femme fatale. She's both powerful and vulnerable, beautifully distant and charmingly close, up in the clouds and down to earth. In this film, the costume design is central to the construction of desiring images, magnetic temptations that pull and kill with a kiss. Gilda would be my winner.

 


NOTORIOUS
Costumes designed by Edith Head 

While Notorious did get some Oscar nominations, I find its costumes way too severe and restrained to attract accolades. Notably, Edith Head received only one nomination for her long collaboration with Alfred Hitchcock. That was for a film (1955's To Catch a Thief) so sartorially showy that not even AMPAS could look the other way. Which is not to say her more subdued work was unworthy of recognition. Quite the contrary, as Ingrid Bergman's sublime wardrobe in Notorious so deftly exemplifies. Negotiating approachable sensuality with statuesque tension, Head's designs are pure perfection.

 

 
THE MAN IN GREY
Costumes designed by Elizabeth Haffenden

There's something about psychosexual period dramas of the mid-40s that's just so much fun to watch. That's something I've learned while binging 1946 releases. The Man in Grey, a prime example of the Gainsborough melodrama, features gorgeous Regency-adjacent costumes with a significant focus on contrasting textures. A cloud of frothy lace is counterbalanced by the architectural lines of pitch-black velvet and moiré frock coats with structured collars. Other delightful 1946 movies that vaguely fit into this aesthetic are Dragonwyck, The Strange Woman, and A Scandal in Paris

 

What would your 1946 Best Costume Design ballot look like?

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Reader Comments (16)

Oh... Gilda!!!!

June 24, 2021 | Unregistered Commenterthevoid99

I think two black and white films were overlooked here that seem to me to be shoo ins for Best Costume Design.

The first is Best Picture nominee Great Expectations. The bedraggled wedding dress worn by Miss Havershim, the scorned bride who devotes her life to pining away in the reception hall. Once decorated for celebration, the shadowy room is now festooned with cobwebs and small rodents that nibble on the remnants of a wedding cake. Seated in a wheelchair, actress Martita Hunt is draped by costume designer Sophie Devine in once white lace, now yellowed with aged and stiff with accumulated filth. It is a marvelous creation that establishes a tone and sustains it.

The other costume highlight is worn by the convict Magwitch. When the man startles young Pip in the desolate churchyard, the boy’s too close proximity to the man creates a moment where we believe we can smell the stench of desperation in the sweat stained garb and intimidating black, oversized eye patch.

The other film deserving of recognition is the classic film noir The Postman Always Rings Twice. Director Tay Garnett said the decision to dress Lana Turner in white was to make her adulterous behavior a little less sensual and elude the censors. Costume designer Irene Lentz Gibbons was the head of costume design for MGM. The white wardrobe of Cora played off the rich tan of the actress. Costumes featured the keyhole dress and a white bikini, both of which became popular outfits in the day. One look at the arresting white on the toned body of Turner generates an immediate recall of the 1946 film.

June 24, 2021 | Unregistered CommenterJames

I also wear white in Basic Instinct!

June 24, 2021 | Unregistered CommenterSharon Stone

James - Great Expectations was a 1947 nominee.

June 24, 2021 | Unregistered CommenterAmy Camus

Amy, you’re right. The film was released in 1946 but didn’t qualify for Oscar till the following year. The

June 24, 2021 | Unregistered CommenterJames

Marvelous make believe!

I'd forgotten about the fashions (and almost everything else) in The Bride Wore Boots but that picture of Barbara Stanwyck is very fashion forward for 46. There is often an out of left field pick in Costume so perhaps it would have gotten in.

I agree that the clothes in Anna and the King of Siam aren't terribly exciting but it was one of the big prestige pictures of the year almost guaranteeing it a spot.

The Academy loves elaborate so Kitty would have been a shoo-in and that would have been okay. But unfortunately I don't think Gilda no matter how worthy would have made it. The clothes are sleek and stylish but not extraordinary enough to make the grade.

As far as films in color. Caesar and Cleopatra is a thundering bore despite Claude Rains and Vivien but its look is one place it does excel. But even with that your point about Henry V is well taken.

I laughed out loud at your comment about Angela Lansbury in The Harvey Girls. So true but she looks sensational and the rest of the wardrobes are great.

Ziegfeld Follies is such an oddly laid out film. The musical sequences are almost ridiculously lush and overblown while the skits are flat, muddy and drab. The first might have gotten it in but the second just as well could have kept it out.

I'd say in a blended field of five the lineup might have been:

Henry V
Anna and the King of Siam
Kitty
The Harvey Girls
Caesar and Cleopatra

They went crazy for Henry V so it would have probably taken this prize as well, especially since it won production design.

June 24, 2021 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

"Henry V" "Ziegfeld Follies" and "The Harvey Girls" are ravishing on all levels, including their exquisite costumes.. I'd have had no problem including them in my personal five. I agree that "Great Expectations" would certainly be nomination worthy but it didn't hit American theaters till '47 and wouldn't have been eligible for the '46 race. That would also hold for Cocteau's "Beauty and the Beast". it was a '46 release in Europe, but America had to wait another year to fall under its spell - the costumes being among its most swoon-worthy elements..
My other two nominees probably would have been "The Razor's Edge" and the Gainsborough highwayman romance "The Wicked Lady". Like "The Man in Grey", it starred Margaret Lockwood and James Mason, two actors who always looked comfortably splendid in period costumes. British audiences went gaga over the film in 1945 but its American debut didn't come till '46.

June 24, 2021 | Unregistered CommenterKen

My top 5:
1.Children of paradise
2.Henry V
3.Caesar an Cleopatra
4.Anna and the king of Siam
5.Centennial Summer

*My favorite is Beauty and the beast, but I think it wasn't elegible.

June 25, 2021 | Unregistered CommenterCafg

Caesar and Cleopatra is actually not a Shakespeare adaptation haha that would be Antony and Cleopatra

June 25, 2021 | Unregistered Commenterjack

jack -- You're right and that was a dumb mistake I did, especially considering I had to study Shakespeare's play at some point. The movie's based on a play by George Bernard Shaw.

June 25, 2021 | Unregistered CommenterCláudio Alves

Looking at images of Old Hollywood movies gives a insight into their strong inspiration in drag queens. What kid would like to become a drag watching Spielberg or Scorcese movies?

June 25, 2021 | Unregistered CommenterAngel Alvarez Ortiz

costume color:

DUEL IN THE SUN” (USA)
„DIE FLEDERMAUS“ (Germany)
„ZIEGFELD FOLLIES“ (USA)
„I'VE ALWAYS LOVED YOU“ (USA)
„A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH“ (Great Britain)

costume b/w:
„LA BELLE ET LA BÊTE“ (France)
„GREAT EXPECTATIONS“ (Great Britain)
„GILDA“ (USA)
„IVAN GROZNYY. SKAZ VTOROY: BOYARSKIY ZAGOVOR“ (Russia)
„THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE“ (USA)

„L'IDIOT“ (France)
„NOTORIOUS“ (USA)
„EUGENIA GRANDET“ (Italy)
„DRAGONWYCK“ (USA)
„THE DIARY OF A CHAMBERMAID“ (USA)

June 25, 2021 | Unregistered CommenterThomas

When they started the Costumes category in 1948 they divided it into Color and Black-and-White and had only 2 nominees in each category, so based on that I think they would have nominated Henry V and The Jolson Story for Color, & Anna and the King, and Kitty for B&W.

June 25, 2021 | Unregistered CommenterAmy Camus

My top 5: LES ENFANT DU PARADIS - HENRY V - KITTY - GILDA - ANNA AND THE KING

June 25, 2021 | Unregistered CommenterMirko

@Thomas: A Matter of Life and Death poses an interesting conundrum. Since it is partly in colour and partly in B&W, would it have been eligible for both costume categories, had they existed back in the day? And on a related note: in which category was Jack Cardiff's cinematography entered, I wonder?

June 25, 2021 | Unregistered CommenterDieter

Film noir did offer great costumes for women in 1946:

Irene for Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice
Jean Louis for Rita Hayworth in Gilda
Vera West for Ava Gardner in The Killers
Edith Head for Barbara Stanwyck and Lizabeth Scott in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers
Leah Rhodes for Lauren Bacall and Martha Vickers in The Big Sleep
Adrian for Joan Crawford in Humoresque
All iconic looks.

Also I think Leah Rhodes would have been in consideration for her work in Saratoga Trunk

June 25, 2021 | Unregistered CommenterPat
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