It’s been a whirlwind couple of weeks for Madrid-based costume designer Paco Delgado.
He’s been making international appearances in support of his costume design BAFTA and Oscar nominations for The Danish Girl, directed by Tom Hooper. He’s also been promoting his work on a vastly different film, The Brothers Grimsby, an upcoming comedy spy caper starring Sacha Baron Cohen and Mark Strong.
Days ago, he picked up the period film prize from the Costume Designers Guild Awards, besting other heralded nominess such as Carol, Trumbo, Brooklyn, and Crimson Peak.
The Spanish-born designer’s star has been rising internationally since Hooper’s 2012 film Les Misérables netted Delgado his first Oscar nomination. While visiting Los Angeles recently, he said that the second time around the Oscar juggernaut is as amazing as his first.
“This is a nomination for an award that has been given by your colleagues. I think that makes it twice the honor,” he said. Winning the CDGA statuette was another vote of confidence.
The Danish Girl required Delgado to outfit star Eddie Redmayne in a fictionalized account of transgender pioneer and artist Einar Wegener, who became Lili Elbe and a celebrated figure in 1920s Copenhagen and 1930s Paris.
“When Tom Hooper offered me this script, I said to him, ‘I am going to become the European costume designer who has made more transgender characters in his career,’” Delgado said.
In two movies with director Pedro Almódovar, Bad Education and The Skin I Live In, Delgado dressed male characters transitioning to female. Each project has brought him new understanding of how to handle the clothing specifics.
For The Danish Girl, Delgado telegraphed the character’s psychological hurdles and emotional transition. Four of the film’s costumes are on display at the Art of Motion Picture Costume Design exhibit at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising Museum in L.A. During a recent preview, Delgado detailed some of the methods and materials he used in the portrayal.
At first glance, only one of the dresses on four headless mannequins seems aligned to a man – a stiff, bowed bronze wrap-dress Lili dons in her first awkward public appearance dressed as a woman. The big bow, the metallic sheen and the broad line the dress creates at the shoulders cloak, but don’t complement, Lili’s emerging identity.
“Lili is still trapped in a man’s body,” Delgado explained. “When we started doing the research, we realized you couldn’t change the body shape because plastic surgery at the time was for people treating injuries. Lili couldn’t have any change of the hips, or breast implants. She had to use the body she had and play with the cut of the dresses she was wearing.”
Her growing confidence in her feminine identity shows in later costumes. A soft, forest green, etched-velvet gown falls in full folds across her chest, and a corset cinches her square form into a slender hourglass silhouette. The dress is easily mistaken for one of his wife, Gerda’s.
A lace-trimmed, blue wool gauze day dress reveals as much about the costume designer as it does the character. Ever dedicated to authenticity, Delgado pulled it from his personal collection of vintage clothing. Purchased at an auction, the long-sleeve dress was slightly moth-eaten and too short in the torso for Redmayne. Delgado expertly patched the holes, adorned it with vintage lace from his collection and extended the torso with a new, built-in waist sash. To achieve a convincing period feel, he added his own vintage buckles and trim to other dresses, shoes and belts.
Very subtly, Delgado’s costumes staged a nonverbal conversation between the clothes, actors, and audience. Viewers can almost feel the upholstered stiffness in the constricted, stiff men’s suits Redmayne wears as Einar. The caressing softness of the silks, velvets and weightless wools of Lili’s most feminine dresses communicate her comfort.
“Some of the time, before I make a decision about the clothes, or about the fabric or color, I just touch it. I see how it feels. What is the tactile experience of the fabric?
“That’s very important to me and I think that it probably comes from the fact that when I was really young – I’m from the Canary Islands; it’s a subtropical place – and my mother had this crazy idea sometimes to dress us in woolen shirts. Imagine what it’s like when it’s hot. I can’t get away from feeling that sometimes, clothes can be horrible to your skin,” he said. “Though the audience cannot touch the dresses, they know from their experiences of fabrics, and the feeling of them, they know how it would feel.”
Delgado gets up from his seat to show the airy weight of the velvet dress, leaning in to touch the dress, then stopping suddenly, realizing his work has undergone a transition, too. Now his creations are precious museum pieces, no longer just wardrobe for an actor.