The best dressers on Oscar night

In "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King," Liv Tyler's Arwen wears a hand-embroidered corset of Indian silk brocade. Her flowing skirt is made of silk velvet edged with metallic thread, and leaf-shaped sleeves cascade down her arms to emphasize the ethereal image of an elf princess.

The elaborate gown from the epic saga is just one of thousands of costumes that earned Ngila Dickson one of two Oscar nominations this year. She'll be competing against herself for her work in "The Last Samurai."

It took weeks of sketching to come up with the Art Nouveau-inspired design for the crown that Tyler wears.

But ask Dickson what's she most proud of and it's evident that it's the hidden details that thrill Ms. Dickson the most: the elaborate butterfly design on the back of Tyler's silver crown, for example. And the invisible underskirts that were dyed and hand-embroidered to get the same shimmering gleam as the outer layers.

Dickson has no regrets that few moviegoers were able to see those fine details.

"I don't mind that nobody knows the amount of detail that went into it," says the designer, based in Auckland, New Zealand, whose previous credits include TV's "Xena: Warrior Princess." "That's not the point. The point is when you watch the film, you feel it's real."

Box-office success and four-star reviews mean little in the complicated world of Hollywood costume designers like Dickson.

What counts most is workmanship and palette control and the fact that the pocket handkerchief worn by Jeff Bridges's Depression-era mogul in "Seabiscuit" is folded just right.

At an annual exhibit of the best movie designs of 2003, which opened earlier this month in a downtown Los Angeles gallery, visitors are treated to a time warp.

The futuristic black-leather suits worn by Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss in the "Matrix" share a room with the red-and-white jockey silks and 1930s brown wool suits of "Seabiscuit."

Around the bend, the hand-stitched kimonos of "The Last Samurai" hang within sword-throwing distance of the micromini skirt and leg warmers worn by Cameron Diaz in "Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle."

Few people may have seen "View from the Top," a flight attendant comedy starring Gwyneth Paltrow, but its fluorescent blue and orange uniforms deserve a place alongside the Royal Navy hats and epaulettes of the Oscar-nominated "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World," according to Kevin Jones, museum curator of the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising, which is hosting the exhibition.

"What's important is how the costumes appear on screen - what the colors look like, how the fabrics move, whether they reflect the time period correctly," Mr. Jones says.

Errol Flynn's tailor

For the designers, the drive for authenticity often requires fastidious attention to detail.

In "Seabiscuit," the heart-tugging true story of an aging, crooked-legged horse, designer Judianna Makovsky scoured the US and Europe to find the heavy wool used in the 1930s men's suits worn by Bridges and thousands of racetrack extras.

She then enlisted a veteran studio tailor who had dressed Errol Flynn, James Cagney, and other legendary actors to re-create the Depression-era suits.

"It's about the shoulders," confides Ms. Makovsky, an avid collector of men's ties who earned her third Oscar nomination for costume design with "Seabiscuit." "If it's cut wrong, I'll know. Most people think that menswear is nothing, but it's a very big deal. Period tailoring is an art."

Time and budget permitting, most designers begin research on their task weeks before a film starts shooting.

Penny Rose, the costume designer for Disney's "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl," showed up for her first meeting with the director armed with ideas based on extensive interviews with a pirate authority from the British Maritime Museum and reviews of 17th-century art books.

Cement mixer as sewing machine

"It seemed to me that the pirates should be super real," Ms. Rose said during a phone interview from the Chicago set of her latest movie, "Weather Man," a contemporary film starring Nicolas Cage.

"They should stink, their clothes should be filthy, and above all, I didn't want them to change clothes."

To create the unwashed look, Rose and her staff put the costumes through a cement mixer and used fraying and overdying processes to "utterly wreck them."

Dickson took a similarly realistic approach in her work "The Last Samurai."

To prepare for the Tom Cruise film set in 19th-century Japan, she met with samurai armor makers and visited textile markets in Tokyo and Kyoto to prepare for the challenge of dressing thousands of Japanese noblemen, village dwellers, and warriors.

In the end, most of the costumes were hand sewn or built in Japan, based on the sketches and fabric samples she provided.

Not comfy? Good.

In the case of the battle dress for the third "Lord of the Rings" film, even the minuscule chain links on the warrior tunics were authentic. Dickson had a team of shear-wielding workers join each electroplated ring together by hand.

That attention to detail made for such a heavy costume that at one point actor Viggo Mortensen wasn't able to lift himself up without help.

"We had to haul him off the floor," Dickson recalls. "It's kind of amusing in retrospect."

Rose also shows little sympathy for the people she dresses, whether it's a pampered megastar or union-scale extras.

"I'm a great believer in making the actors wear exactly what the characters would have worn in the period. It's no good doing '1920s' and putting panty hose on," says the designer, whose film credits include "Evita" and the upcoming Jerry Bruckheimer epic, "King Arthur." "Wear the suspenders. Feel it. I'm cruel, but I think it's incredibly important."

But what will they wear to Oscars?

In terms of their own tastes in clothes, designers often tend to be as unpredictable as movie audiences.

Dickson, who is tall, slim, and dark-haired, likes to enlist her friends from the fashion industry to make her clothes.

"At the moment, I'm favoring purple," she shrugs. "This week."

Makovsky, for her part, has a few firm ideas about her own Oscar-night outfit, which is being made by John David Ridge, one of the designers who worked for her on "Seabiscuit."

"No trains, nothing too tight, and something warm," says the petite redhead. "Comfort is all."

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