2020's Best Costume Designs, From an Unqualified Fashion Writer with a Middling Screenwriting Degree

It wasn’t a bad year for movies.

Despite what the filmbros on the internet and in your 101 classes say (and please, take everything that comes out of their mouths with a grain of salt), the film industry has had some great successes in the Year of Our Devil 2020.

Nothing has been more satisfying than poring through film stills and concept art to pick out my choices for Best Costume Design. In a year when almost no one dressed up as usual, our film favorites carried the banner all the way ‘til the end.

Here are my nominees.

Emma. (Alexandra Byrne)


Of course, Emma.. Designer Alexandra Byrne is no stranger to the world of Jane Austen, having costumed 1995’s Persuasion, and her years of research and dedication have paid off: every piece of clothing in Emma is historically accurate and truthful to the early nineteenth century. Besides, each design is just fun to look at, with scores of ruffled collars, flowered bonnets, and endless layers. The colors in the clothing complement those used in the set design, effectively marrying Emma to her environment (or her environment to her).

The Trial of the Chicago 7 (Susan Lyall)


Along with the cultural and political instability of the late 1960s came a shift in personal style. The worldly transformation that was taking place is easily tracked through clothing patterns at the time, with men and women dressing radically different than they did just a decade prior. Armed with photographs of the real Chicago 7, Susan Lyall recaptured the essence of ‘60s turbulence and the desperation of countercultural youth.

First Cow (April Napier)


Brown fabric just became interesting with the release of A24’s First Cow. Two travellers in the 1820s frontier don’t exactly scream fashionable, but they’re not drab, either, as one might expect. Albeit using shades of tan and brown almost exclusively, the layering employed by April Napier elevates the costume design from just-another-element to one of the most exciting aspects of the film. The varying textures draw the eye and keep its interest for the duration of the movie.

The Human Voice (Sonia Grande)


The Human Voice is short, topping out around 30 minutes, but the visuals are striking. The costumes are not as flashy as those in Emma or Chicago 7, but they are bold in their monochromatism. In one scene, Tilda Swinton is decked out in red from head-to-toe; in the next, she is blue. The approach is minimalistic, but appreciated, and makes a loud statement in a small amount of time.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (Ann Roth)


The ‘20s were a doomed era of decadence and desire, and Ann Roth delivered on both those counts. Ma Rainey really lived and breathed, a travelling blues singer who influenced generations of artists and musicians. And, according to Roth, “her stuff was expensive,” meaning the film’s wardrobe had to be true to life, draped in beads and feathers and fine furs. The designs are exciting and luxurious, and will suck in audiences just as quickly as Ma’s lively performances.

I can’t pick a winner. I could barely pick five, out of the hundreds of projects that went through production this year. Variety predicts the nominees will be Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Mank, The Personal History of David Copperfield, Mulan, and Emma, which are all fine choices, though I like my lineup best.

Here’s to dressing.