While next year’s awards season looks set to be one of the most unusual in recent memory, with the voting window for the Oscars extended and many of the year’s most hotly tipped films postponed indefinitely, yesterday’s announcement that the 2020 Emmys would go ahead in a virtual format on its original date of September 20 came as less of a surprise. After all, with so many of us cooped up at home watching this year’s best series, it’s a little easier to ensure the show will go on for those working on the small screen.
This year’s lineup of nominees, particularly in the acting categories, also proved to be one of the most diverse ever—a welcome sign that the television academies are finally waking up to demands for a more inclusive approach to meting out the industry’s most prestigious awards. Whether this will translate into a commitment to spotlighting marginalized voices longer term remains to be seen, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction.
There was also one more unexpected category that emerged as a shining example of the breadth of storytelling on offer this year: best costume design. Unlike the Oscars, which limits the nominations to just five across all films for the year—meaning that voting tends to disproportionately reward period costuming, often in the most traditional sense—the Emmys are split across four categories. With separate gongs for contemporary, period, fantasy/sci-fi, and nonfiction or reality programming, voters are able to reward the full spectrum of costuming for television, from the meticulously researched gowns and tiaras of The Crown to the flamboyant fashions sported by the drag queens of RuPaul’s Drag Race.
And this year, it was those very stories of underrepresented communities that produced some of the most inspired and impressive costuming. While in the period category The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Mrs. America, and Ryan Murphy’s Hollywood all featured the mid-century glamour that tends to be catnip for establishment voters, it’s the DIY spirit of the costuming for FX’s Pose that feels like the deserving winner. Costume designer Analucia McGorty’s breathtaking recreations of the flamboyant outfits worn by members of Harlem’s queer ballroom scene in the late ’80s and early ’90s are notable for their lack of onscreen precedents. For the show, McGorty and her team created costumes from scratch, inspired by a mix of rare footage shot by the community and firsthand accounts of the very fashionable hijinks of its leading members. It’s this spirit of resourcefulness and innovation behind the costumes, as well as their remarkable onscreen presence, that deserves to put Pose at the front of the pack.
In the contemporary category, meanwhile, there is an even more varied selection on offer, with notable nods for Heidi Bivens for Euphoria and Sam Perry for Killing Eve, both of which used cutting-edge contemporary labels to lend their characters a feeling of authenticity. (Both shows also provided plenty of fun for fashion fans wanting to play a game of spot the designer.) Props should also be given to Michelle R. Cole’s work on Black-ish—notably the inventive Halloween costumes she dreams up for the Johnson family that serve as an annual highlight, this year taking her cues from Jordan Peele’s Us.
Arguably the most impressive effort this year, however, was Justine Seymour’s thoughtful exploration of Jewish identity through the costumes on Netflix’s sleeper-hit series Unorthodox. The series is inspired by the true story of Deborah Feldman and tells the story of Esty, a member of a Hasidic Jewish community in Brooklyn who flees her ultra-Orthodox upbringing and arranged marriage to build a new life in Berlin. From beginning to end, Seymour’s clothing choices serve to flesh out Esty’s story, from the modest dressing of her life in the U.S. to her experiments with more casual clothing while abroad. And what makes the costuming in Unorthodox so compelling is Seymour’s attention to detail and deep respect for the sartorial codes of the Satmar Hasidic community Esty grows up in. Instead of using these more buttoned-up styles as a simple proxy for oppression, Seymour’s interest in showcasing the beauty and dignity of this mode of dressing lends the show an essential nuance, reflecting Esty’s complicated journey with her faith.
Though the annual highlight of seeing television’s biggest stars walk the red carpet in dazzling fashions may end up being a little more subdued this year given the ceremony’s virtual format, there’s plenty to celebrate on the costume design front. But it’s in the efforts to spotlight communities that are conventionally misinterpreted or misunderstood—whether the LGBTQ+ people of color from generations past celebrated in Pose or the rich variety of Jewish communities in today’s America explored in Unorthodox—that this year’s nominations feel like an important step forward. For next year’s Oscars and Golden Globes, let’s hope the film world’s most fashionable nights out offer a broader and more representative pool of costume-design talent too.