I don’t really want to crunch the numbers on this right now, but I strongly suspect that Costume Design is the non-performing category with the most female winners, and that’s not just Edith Head. Not even mostly Edith Head. Though there’s a lot more to costumes than just sewing, it is a nicely “female” category in most people’s minds, even if High Fashion is dominated by male designers—no few of whom have their own Oscar nomination, come to that. But the women who are quietly creating period costumes for a Cast of Thousands seem more likely to win.
Phyllis Dalton only worked on 33 movies, and she seems to have retired in the ’90s—but she retired after the Branagh Much Ado About Nothing. Not all of her credits are quite so highbrow—has anyone seen The Spaceman and King Arthur?—but some of her work is pretty darn iconic. Such as her Oscar-winning work on Doctor Zhivago and her not-even-nominated work on Lawrence of Arabia. (Three women were nominated that year, though, including the ubiquitous Edith Head.) And, relevant to our theme, her work on The Princess Bride.
She primarily worked in period pieces. Her wins were Zhivago and the Branagh Henry V, with an additional nomination for Oliver! (She lost to Danilo Donati for the Zeffirelli Romeo and Juliet.) There are a few exceptions—Branagh clearly likes her a lot, as one of her movies was Dead Again—but mostly, the movies she costumed were set at least decades if not centuries before they were made, or of course in a fantasy kingdom which the book makes clear is set Once Upon A Time. She costumed Shakespearean characters, highland rogues, fantasy princesses, and a Dread Pirate or two.
I think she’s the first costume designer I’ve written about. I’m trying, as I go through this project, to get to all kinds of behind-the-scenes people, too, because a lot of them do good work that doesn’t quite get the attention of those in front of the camera. Peter O’Toole wouldn’t have been quite so dashing without Dalton’s work. Half the mood of Much Ado is set by all those flowing white dresses and those snazzy jackets. And my goodness, The Princess Bride. Not one but two iconic dresses for Robin Wright. That glorious Dread Pirate Roberts costume. Court wear and peasants and several things in between, though I think Cary Elwes is wrong when he refers to costumes’ being made of burlap.
Actually, for the record, I’ve probably seen The Spaceman and King Arthur, because it turns out to have also gone by the name of The Unidentified Flying Oddball and is from Disney. More period costumes, you see. Also, it turns out that she was a Wren during World War II. She worked at Bletchley Park and found it deathly boring. She won a Vogue contest getting her a chance at being an assistant at Gainsborough Studios. You don’t see contests like that anymore!
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