Two of this year’s Oscar nominees for best costume design are firmly rooted in 20th-century fashion: Carol and The Danish Girl. Fashion and costume are not the same thing—the objective of the latter is to enhance a specific character—but the clothes seen in those films are, in some ways, a primer on the history of the last 100 years.
The Danish Girl is set in 1920s Copenhagen and Paris, and Carol in 1950s America. “You don’t have to be a fashion historian to immediately know the difference between a garment dating to the 1920s and to the 1950s,” says Patricia Mears, deputy director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. “In fact, they’re diametrically opposed to each other.”
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The quintessential ’20s look for women was the slender flapper dress—known in France as la garçconne, the boyish girl—whereas the ’50s were a time for corseted torsos, full breasts and a harkening back to a 19th-century shape. And, Mears says, each reflected its cultural and economic moment: the 1920s was a time of liberation for women in the workplace and politics, and growing wealth reflected in fine embroidery and beading. Bohemian Paris, where much of The Danish Girl is set, was the epicenter of art and fashion, where expats and artists brought a variety of other looks to go along with the flapper dress.
The 1950s, meanwhile, were backward-looking. In Europe, that recalled a historic time that could “erase the feelings of war and deprivation,” while in the booming suburban U.S., it was to a conformist idealization of the home as the woman’s sphere. In both cases, that meant full, classically feminine skirts.
And, though Mears says that the common idea that hemlines rise with stock markets is not really accurate, changes in fashion do reflect economic realities of their times—even when someone couldn’t afford to wear the latest fashions of the sort seen in Carol. The story of the relationship between two women from two very different social groups is a chance for audiences to see how wealthy women of the 1950s denoted their status with finely made clothes and jewelry, while women of lower status often tried to cobble together outfits that gestured at the fashions of the group to which they aspired. Detailed codes of dress could instantly tell a knowledgeable person the social status of a woman. The introduction of the “New Look” by Dior in 1947, and its trickling into mainstream fashion over the course of the next decade, helped make that line particularly clear: it would have been expensive to replace an entire wardrobe of WWII-era padded shoulders and shorter skirts.
A decade later, all that changed. Though countercultures—like beats and bikers—existed in the 1950s, the youth culture of the 1960s pushed American dress toward a more egalitarian, casual look. Photos of college campuses allow historians to pinpoint the moment of change, Mears says: in 1966, many men on campus wore jackets and ties; by 1970, almost none did. “Social codes were much more widely adhered to [in the 1950s],” she says. “Today the rules and codes for dressing are very, very relaxed, so it’s difficult to tell who is a person of means.”
Those lessons hold for other films nominated for best costume design. Cinderella references the idealized 18th-century French style that has come to be associated with fairy tales (which are coincidentally the subject of the current exhibit at the Museum at FIT); the dystopian garb of Mad Max: Fury Road speaks to the fantasies of the era in which it was created. Even The Revenant contains fashion, Mears says. “Survival is the most important thing, but remember that even people who live in the Arctic decorated their fur pieces,” she says. “There’s always a beauty element.”