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Breaking Down the Emmy Nominations for Outstanding Costume Design

From Westeros to the Catskills, a look at this year's nominees for best TV threads.
  • Kit Harrington in Game of Thrones (HBO), Michelle Williams in Fosse/Verdon (FX) and Rachel Brosnahan in The Marvelous Mrs Maisel (Amazon)
    Kit Harrington in Game of Thrones (HBO), Michelle Williams in Fosse/Verdon (FX) and Rachel Brosnahan in The Marvelous Mrs Maisel (Amazon)

    As expected, Game of Thrones dominated the 71st Emmy nominations earlier this week, racking up a total of 32 nods -- the most any show has ever received. For all the grumbling about its conclusion, one thing we can say is that the Winterfell cold-weather attire, battle-ready armor, and on-point dragon accessories have never disappointed, so kudos to Michele Clapton, who earned a repeat nomination in Outstanding Costume Design in a Fantasy/Sci-Fi for Game of Thrones, an award she won last year.

    As with the comedy/drama classifications, the costume design Emmys have undergone some significant changes over the last few years, acknowledging the ever-expanding material and shifts in television production. Not to play the "Emmys are better than the Oscars" game, but in this particular case, they are. Costume design can be as varied as the performance and the storytelling it enhances, but the Oscars often ignore contemporary designs in favor of garments from the past. At the Emmys, separate categories honoring contemporary, period (defined as a setting that is at least  25 years prior to the current awards window), fantasy/sci-fi, and variety, non-fiction, and reality ensure a range of work is acknowledged.

    Picking one episode to represent an entire season's work is a challenge, but happily for us the nominated costume designers made those hard choices as part of the initial application process. Below is a look at not only the nominees but also some of the standout pieces from the episodes submitted.

    Outstanding Contemporary Costumes

    black-ish: "Purple Rain" - Michelle R. Cole

    Reaching the 100-episode milestone with a tribute to Prince gave costume designer (and repeat nominee) Michelle R. Cole a chance to recreate a number of legendary looks, which are both age-appropriate for the younger cast and lean into the show's comedic elements. Seeing Tracee Ellis Ross in full "When Doves Cry" drag is fun, but Diane (Marsai Martin) in the instantly-recognizable "Purple Rain" suit complete with ruffled cuffs takes the Prince cosplay crown. A celebration of the Johnson family, black-ish, and passing down an important cultural icon through clothes and song.

    Escape at Dannemora: "Episode 6" - David Robinson

    Contemporary costume isn’t all designer labels and glamorous attire as Escape at Dannemora proves. Episode 6 was a tough watch, flashing back to when David Sweat (Paul Dano) and Richard Matt (Benicio del Toro) committed the separate crimes that landed them in jail. Three different time periods are covered (1993,1997, and 2002), giving David Robinson a unique chance to break out of the show's usual prison attire. Patricia Arquette is already unrecognizable as Tilly, but Robinson transformed the Oscar-winner even further in unflattering denim and florals,  providing motivation for her role in the present-day prison break plan.

    Grace and Frankie: "The Wedding" - Allyson B. Fanger

    This is Allyson B. Fanger’s fourth consecutive nomination for Grace and Frankie and it isn’t surprising that voters are drawn to the distinct bold personal style of the show's titular characters. A wedding is prime sitcom material so this submission is complete with a gown edging toward a Victorian bride aesthetic — "it’s more like what a dead child was buried in, in the 1800s" as per Brianna (June Diane Raphael) — crisp blue suits for the perfect beach setting, formal caftans, and cashmere shawls. Not to mention the usual blend of patterned jumpsuits, bold jewelry, and graphic print button-downs.

    Russian Doll: "Superiority Complex" - Jenn Rogien

    In a world where we see the same costumes over and over again, Jenn Rogien makes sure the audience never tires of Nadia’s (Natasha Lyonne) look, which is inspired by both Marisa Tomei and Joe Pesci from My Cousin Vinny. The red ruffled shirt, ribbon tie, oversized coat, and glasses are all part of Nadia’s armor, she never deviates from the same two looks until the finale. In response to the disruption to his time-loop routine, Alan (Charlie Barnett) changes into his yellow plaid party shirt as he attempts to step out of his comfort zone. He still looks awkward as hell, but this costume change shows his walls are breaking down.

    Schitt’s Creek: "The Dress" - Debra Hanson

    When the Rose family lost all their money at the very beginning of Schitt’s Creek, the only vestiges of their extravagant former life hung in their motel room closet. Everything they wear is opulent, but several seasons out of date. In "The Dress," Moira (Catherine O’Hara) splurges on off-the-rack couture in preparation for her big movie premiere as a sign that things are looking up. She can’t afford the nearly $4000 ostrich feather Pamella Rolland dress, but for a brief moment, the glamour is back. Not that it has ever gone away as Moira dresses like every single day is a movie premiere. However, Debra Hanson’s choice of blush sequin gown is notably different from Moira’s predominantly monochrome palette. The rest of the Rose family are dazzled by this unveiling of a dress she knows she'll have to send back to England. Hopefully, Harrods does free returns.

    Sharp Objects: "Closer" - Alix Friedberg

    It’s Calhoun Day in Wind Gap, which means the entire town is playing dress-up, and Camille (Amy Adams) has to endure shopping torture with her mother. Up to this point, Camille’s wardrobe has consisted of mostly baggy dark color tops pulled over her hands. Now she has to dress up in period-ish attire to play her part in this troubling celebration. Alix Friedberg delivers passive-aggressive hat props and enough sweat on Richard's (Chris Messina) shirt to show just how hot things are both temperature and emotions wise.

    Outstanding Period Costumes

    Chernobyl: "Please Remain Calm" - Odile Dicks-Mireaux

    Three of the five nominees in this category are set in the ‘80s, but they couldn’t be more different. The first episode of Chernobyl exemplifies the meticulous detail of this entire docudrama. In this opening episode, Dicks-Mireaux sets the ‘80s Soviet tone with uniforms aplenty that will not protect anyone from the high levels of radiation including power plant workers, the military, and firefighters. Not to mention the local residents dancing in the poisonous dust and the party members pretending everything is fine. It very much feels like we are getting a peek behind the Iron Curtain.

    Fosse/Verdon: "Life is a Cabaret" - Melissa Toth and Joseph La Corte

    A very different "based on true events" mini-series, Fosse/Verdon had the tall order of recreating iconic moments from musical cinema including the legendary Sally Bowles costume worn by Liza Minnelli in Cabaret. Costumes are part of the plot in "Life is a Cabaret," when Gwen (Michelle Williams) returns from New York early with the perfect gorilla costume and catches her husband in a compromising position. Melissa Toth also had the difficult task of making costumes for the Sweet Charity sequence, originally designed by the one and only Edith Head. Talk about pressure, but Toth pulls off the sequined and tasseled garments with aplomb.

    GLOW: "Every Potato Has a Receipt" - Beth Morgan

    From one lavish line-up of performers to another. Physicality is vital to the GLOW costumes, as is showmanship. In the Season 2 finale, a big wedding-themed wrestling match (that is also a real wedding) takes center stage. Ever wondered what ‘80s wrestling bridesmaids look like? Spandex, hot pink, and ruffled sleeves are the key ingredients in these appropriately over-the-top looks delivered by Beth Morgan. Rhonda’s (Kate Nash) wedding gown is another gloriously layered and ruffled explosion of lace and tulle.

    Pose: "Pilot" - Lou Eyrich and Analucia McGorty

    The first of Lou Eyrich’s two 2019 Emmy nominations — she won in the contemporary category for The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story last year. Tens across the board for how Eyrich and McGorty use clothes as an immediate entry point into the world of Pose. The House of Abundance steals their royal-themed garments from a museum in order to secure their place at the top, setting the tone and levels of sartorial expectation for the rest of the season. The Crown won in this category last year and maybe another royal will reign in 2019.

    The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel: "We’re Going to the Catskills!" - Donna Zakowska

    The Paris episodes of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel would’ve been an excellent choice, but then we wouldn’t have a romper-wearing Tony Shalhoub doing early morning calisthenics as costume submission in this category. The summer at the Catskills is essentially an entire wardrobe worth of clothes that Midge (Rachel Brosnahan) has to pack, showcasing her seemingly endless Vogue-ready attire. On stage she only wears black, but with her family, she is performing a different role. One that requires multiple costume changes and the very latest garments.

    Outstanding Fantasy/Sci-Fi Costumes

    A Series of Unfortunate Events: "Penultimate Peril: Part 2" - Cynthia Ann Summers

    Balancing whimsy with attempted child murder isn’t always the easiest line to walk but in A Series of Unfortunate Events, Cynthia Ann Summers has created some very stylish monsters. Lucy Punch as Esmé Squalor is concerned with getting rich and dressing fabulously. Matching pink pinstripe suits with evil-genius-in-the-making Carmelita Spats (Kitana Turnball) is the height of exaggerated fashion as the Baudelaire children appear in court against Count Olaf (Neil Patrick Harris). This episode also features a flashback to a decadent (and deadly) night at the opera.

    American Horror Story: Apocalypse: "Forbidden Fruit" - Lou Eyrich

    Coven is probably the most stylish of the American Horror Story seasons, so the return of these particular ‘70s style-inspired witches sets this season alight in more ways than one. The caped entrance is one thing, but then Sarah Paulson comes face-to-face with Cody Fern as Michael Langdon (aka the Antichrist) and all bets are off as to who is the best dressed. Velvet, leather, and chains are veering into cliché territory but this stylized aspect is perfect for this show and character.

    Game of Thrones: "The Bells" - Michele Clapton

    Michele Clapton has won three Emmys for her work on Game of Thrones (and a fourth for The Crown) and it seems likely she'll win yet another. This is a battle-heavy episode, showcasing the intricate detail of the Lannister, Golden Company, and Winterfell armor as well as Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) turning full dark side, and Cersei’s gold-tipped collar. The only thing this episode submission is missing is Sansa’s (Sophie Turner) Queen of the North coronation gown.

    Good Omens: "Hard Times" - Claire Anderson

    Showcasing 6,000 years of friendship is not an easy undertaking, but in the third episode of Good Omens, Crowley (David Tennant) and Aziraphale’s (Michael Sheen) relationship and style evolution are portrayed in detail. Crowley has always had this rock star aesthetic even in the Dark Ages, and Aziraphale finds his dream look in Victorian England. The color palette is how you might expect a demon and an angel to dress, but the devil is in the details, and Anderson delivers in every century.

    The Handmaid’s Tale: "The Word" - Ane Crabtree

    In a quirk of the Emmy calendar, this is the second time Ane Crabtree has been nominated for Season 2 of The Handmaid’s Tale thanks to the "hanging episodes" rule (3 episodes aired in the 2019 Emmy window). Crabtree’s work stretches far beyond the world of Gilead as the handmaid uniform has now become a symbol of protesting against reproductive rights restrictions. In the Season 2 finale, this signature look features heavily, but it is the attire of the Commander’s wives that is worth highlighting as they get more than one particular silhouette and have a big moment in this episode. Not to mention, Bradley Whitford as the eccentric Commander Lawrence who sartorially is a mix of Thomas Jefferson, the Mad Hatter, and a Saville Row dandy.

    Outstanding Variety, Non-Fiction or Reality Costumes

    Dancing with the Stars: "The Premiere" - Daniela Gschwendtner and Steven Lee

    Providing the costumes for the celebrities and the dancers on Dancing with the Stars means finding looks that are not only practical but dazzle on camera. The first episode of the season features the whole cast dancing to "I Won’t Dance" in unsurprisingly glitzy attire. This is Gschwendtner and Lee’s fourth consecutive nomination.

    Homecoming: A Film by Beyoncé - Marni Senofonte and Olivier Rousteing

    Everything about Homecoming is meticulous, which of course includes the costume design. It isn’t just about picking great clothes that will stand the test of time, as each Beyoncé outfit is dripping in meaning from Nefertiti-inspired ensemble to the celebration of the black college experience with two different HBCU sweatshirts in hot pink and yellow. Pairing Balmain creative director Olivier Rousteing with stylist Marni Senofonte is a match made in custom-clothing heaven.

    Ru Paul’s Drag Race: "Trump: The Rusical" - Zaldy Goco (Ru Paul) and Art Conn (Michelle Visage)

    Last year’s winners return!  A pink paisley suit with a pattern clashing shirt is a stunner and on the runway, Ru looks set for summer cocktails in a floaty pastel gown. Meanwhile, Michelle Visage’s off-the-shoulder plunging crimson dress is very much her bold signature style (and serving major cleavage). It is worth noting that, of course, the contestants pick their own attire.

    Saturday Night Live: "Sandra Oh" - Tom Broecker and Eric Justian

    From the masculine-meets-feminine blue suit exuding cool during host Sandra Oh’s monologue to the broken arm baggy pants wearing Tishy (also, Sandra Oh), the SNL costume designers show quite a range. Not only that, but the prep time is clearly limited. A Favourite-inspired sketch means that period costumes also apply.

    The Masked Singer: "Finale" - Marina Toybina

    Marina Toybina is responsible for all the masked singers, background dancers, and background vocalists. As this was the finale, each of the 12 original contestants return, as well as the three finalists. A monster, a peacock, and bee battled it out for the title and their costumes were all ridiculous in the best possible way.

    Emma Fraser has wanted to write about TV since she first watched My So-Called Life in the mid-90s, finally getting her wish over a decade later. Follow her on Twitter at @frazbelina

    TOPICS: Costume Design, 71st Primetime Emmy Awards, Black-ish, Chernobyl, Escape at Dannemora, Fosse/Verdon, Game of Thrones, GLOW, Grace and Frankie, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Pose, Russian Doll, A Series of Unfortunate Events, Sharp Objects