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In costuming the past, we lose the present

Merrick Morton/AP

In “Blue Jasmine,” Cate Blanchett’s wardrobe has a central role in telling the story of a woman who (seemingly) has everything before she unravels financially and emotionally. Jasmine clings to her wool bouclé Chanel jackets and Hermes Birkin bags as links to a more stable past. Indeed, it’s those Akris blouses and Valentino cocktail dresses — and more broadly the work of costume designer Suzy Benzinger — that help Jasmine almost reinvent herself.

But Benzinger’s name will not be read when the category of best costume design is announced Sunday at the Oscars. That’s because every film nominated in the category is set in the past. From Catherine Martin’s exuberant vision of 1920s New York in “The Great Gatsby” to Michael Wilkinson’s Halston-covered “American Hustle,” it seems that the only way to nab a costume nomination is to design for a period film. Since 1980, only one film set in the present day (“The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert”) has won an Oscar for costume design.

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Which brings us back to “Blue Jasmine,” a film that should have received a costumes nod. Designing for the present can be more challenging than reimagining the past. If the clothing in Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska” didn’t match our perception of today’s working class, we’d know. But Martin could take liberties in “Gatsby,” mixing the 1920s with the 2010s. It’s a work of fiction, like “Gatsby” itself.

We all love a good costume drama. But what gets lost in our appreciation of the past is an acknowledgment that the present can be just as stunning on screen.

Christopher Muther can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther.
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