When people see "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," they leave thinking about many things: love, aging, fate. . . . and fashion? That's right, even if you, like me, are not even remotely interested in the subject, you can't help but take notice of a strikingly beautiful red dress that Daisy (Cate Blanchett) wears during a dream-like sequence in the film.
The frock in question was crafted by Jacqueline West, who was nominated for a costume design Oscar for "Quills" (2000) and who is the early favorite to win one this year. She says its design was greatly influenced by the creations of Claire McCardell, one of America's top costume designers in the 1940s and 1950s, and who is often credited as the creator of the "American look."
She says its color was requested by Blanchett, who apparently said, "It must be red; let me show [director] David [Fincher]," who "just loved it on her" and "could not resist." (He reportedly even used computer-generated imagery to "amp up" its color.)
And the decision to use it without accessories? Her own. "There was a discussion of whether or not she should wear jewelry, and I said no, her skin is like pearls. She is luminescent. Let her skin be the jewelry."
The dress appears at a pivotal point in the film. After years away from New Orleans, our backward-aging protagonist, Benjamin (Brad Pitt), has returned to find Daisy, whom he last saw when she was a young girl and he was an old man, all grown up. For the first time, their ages are close enough to make a date, for which they have both pined during their separation, acceptable. As they make their way home after dinner, Daisy -- resplendent in red, even amid the nighttime fog -- dances on a gazebo and tries to attract Benjamin's affections. In that moment, she is a vivid vision of beauty, grace and youth -- indeed, everything Benjamin has ever hoped and dreamed of. But he is not ready, he gently says no, and the moment is gone.
Now, you don't need to be a fashionista to understand that dresses, like most things you see in a movie, are there for a reason. Just as a blinking green light from across a dock can represent a character's unreachable desires in a book, a fire engine-red dress can carry with it loads of meaning in a movie. In "Benjamin Button," it may represent the fiery passion of Daisy's feelings for Benjamin, or the sizzling heat that Benjamin worries might burn one of them, or the urgency of the fleeting moment. It's not explicit, but it's there, in a red dress.
Interestingly, the most famous red dress ever featured in a film set in New Orleans was worn 70 years ago -- and wasn't even red. In "Jezebel" (1938), which is set during the years before the Civil War, a stubborn young woman (Bette Davis) asks her fiance (Henry Fonda) to help her pick out a dress to wear to the biggest society dance of the year. When he is unable to leave his work at her whim, she retaliates by purchasing a bright red dress, fully cognizant of the fact that wearing it will cause a great scandal. (Incidentally, the dress was actually black in order to create the appearance of red in a black-and-white film, but I digress.)
Since our focus here is the award race, though, the obvious question is: Can one dress -- or any lone piece of clothing that is particularly beautiful and/or significant in a film -- lead to an Oscar for costume design? The answer is, well, sometimes.
We'll never know what academy members would have made of the red dress in "Jezebel," since the category wasn't instituted until 1948, but I hoped to get a sense of what they might make of the red dress in "Button" by looking at other examples from the past. The results? Only a handful were nominated or won. What gives?
Let's look at an example, a dress that caused quite a stir inside and outside fashion circles but still came up short at the Oscars just last year.
In a climactic scene in the 1930s period piece "Atonement," star Keira Knightley is adorned with a stunning emerald-green silk gown. Not surprisingly, the majority of fans and pundits assumed that all the fuss over it meant that the film's costume designer, Jacqueline Durran, would win the Oscar. She did not. The actual winner? It was Alexandra Byrne, for costuming none other than Cate Blanchett in "Elizabeth: The Golden Age."
The truth is it's anyone's best dress.
Read more award coverage at the Feinberg Files blog at latimesblogs.latimes.com/files.