This year's Oscar nominations are all about scrappy underdogs shooting for the moon -- bandy-legged racehorses defying all odds, 12-year-old girls bronco-busting whales, wee hobbits saving Middle-earth. The same theme applies to this year's Oscar nominees in costume design.
If you thought casting the One Ring into the fiery cracks of Mount Doom was tough, try "draping" an A-lister for the big screen. Costume designers do battle with everything from shrinking budgets to towering egos. If -- if -- the clothiers ever win, the audience gets a slightly more authentic costume drama or more innovative epic fantasy.
The best movie costumes from 2003 are on display at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising, just east of Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles.
An annual Oscar-season tradition, the institute's "Art of Motion Picture Costume Design Exhibition" showcases more than 100 pieces of cinema couture, including togs from best costume design Oscar nominees "The Last Samurai," "Master and Commander," "Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" and "Seabiscuit."
Other costumes on display come from a diverse array of films, from "Mona Lisa Smile" to "Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle," from "Cold Mountain" to "Cat in the Hat." (Note the fake pecs on Ben Affleck's costume from "Daredevil.")
Visitors who buttonhole a docent will hear fascinating tales about each costume -- how overworked artisans struggled to find that rare brooch or bizarre paint ingredient. Each stitch and fold, if executed properly, can endow a film with a sense of authenticity, transporting filmgoers into another time and place.
The FIDM exhibition features a broad array of gowns, armor, jewels, helmets and tunics designed by Ngila Dickson for "Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King."
Two hobbit costumes -- pieces worn not by full-size actors Billy Boyd and Dominic Monaghan, but by their shorter stand-ins -- provide a fascinating sense of scale; each hobbit mannequin barely reaches Arwen's waistline. Fans eager to gauge Boyd's real inseam can step over to the "Master and Commander" display nearby.
Dickson also dreamed up the pieces for "The Last Samurai," earning her two Oscar costume nominations this season.
The "Samurai" display includes Japanese armor and other outfits worn by the near-hobbit-size Tom Cruise. Dickson was lucky to get four fittings with him, she said, and had to work with blinding speed so as not to interfere with his demanding shooting schedule.
"On any movie, getting anyone else's attention is always hard," she said.
But the real gems of FIDM's "Samurai" collection are the workaday kimonos worn by the supporting players. Dickson had the cloth specially made for the film and even hand-stitched it to ensure an authentic-looking bulkiness. Even the knots tied around the sleeves were meticulously researched, FIDM museum curator Kevin Jones said.
"Without any research, you could just put a kimono on someone and say, 'Go act,' " Jones said. "But the sleeve ties -- these are the little details that make a costume authentic, that bring realism to a film.
Another Oscar nominee, Judianna Makovsky, confesses to torturing as many as 7,000 extras every day, chastising those who forgot to wear their suspenders or don their Depression-era headwear on the set of "Seabiscuit."
"I was pretty much a stickler," Makovsky said. "I have to admit, I am a little fanatic. I wouldn't let them out the door until they were all perfect."
In photos from the 1930s, the designer even noticed that jockeys used wide rubber bands to hold their sleeve cuffs in place -- thicker than anything on the market. Makovsky ordered a huge tube of rubber and hand-cut hundreds of bands for Tobey Maguire and his fellow racers.
Three "Seabiscuit" costumes -- including one set of racing silks with the aforementioned rubber bands -- are on display this year. (The Maguire mannequin is actually too tall for the red-and-white silks. Exhibit organizers couldn't get the pants closed, so they discreetly placed the racing helmet over the mannequin's open fly.)
Next to the silks stands a suit worn by Jeff Bridges' paunchy and flush Charles Howard. The cloth came from an antique bolt no longer in production. Makovsky could have used modern fabric, but, she insists, people would have noticed the difference in the movie's intercut historic footage.
"People think we just go buy menswear, but even (Bridges') vest was knit for the movie," she said. "If it was made wrong, you would know."
Even store-bought costumes meant for contemporary tales typically require repurposing; each piece must be fitted, distressed, over-dyed, ripped, embroidered or reinforced. For "Lost in Translation," costumer Nancy Steiner took an orange camouflage shirt and turned it inside out to achieve a specific color palette for the screen. Three costumes from "Translation" are on display in this year's collection, including Murray's inside-out shirt and Scarlett Johansson's punkish pink wig.