The clothes make the character

Now that the studios are releasing their big Oscar contenders, it's shaping up to be a great season for costume design. From a superhero in high-tops in the stylized comic book caper "The Spirit" to an uptight English heroine in shapely suits and bias-cut gowns in "Australia," there's a lot to look at.

The films span the years and the globe, many occurring in the moment before major social or cultural change -- frontier Australia in 1938 ("Australia"), the Connecticut suburbs in 1955 ("Revolutionary Road"), Richard Nixon's La Casa Pacifica and L.A. in 1977 ("Frost/Nixon") and San Francisco in 1977 ("Milk"). Clothing is integral to all their stories -- not just glittering gowns as eye candy, but clothing as a vehicle for character.

To see wardrobe in this context is a reminder of the role that style -- not fashion -- plays in all our lives, and the subtle cues we give off every day when we decide to wear one thing or another. It's the generational divide represented by TV interviewer David Frost's horse-bit Gucci loafers, the power of Harvey Milk's secondhand three-piece suit and the symbolism of a sea of fedoras in "Revolutionary Road."

And save for a few product placements (Ferragamo in "Australia" and Bulgari in "The Spirit"), fashion companies have mostly stayed out of the picture, leaving the work to the real costume designers.

In "Australia," Lady Sarah Ashley's (Nicole Kidman) wardrobe mirrors her character's development as she leaves England for the roughness of the Outback.

"I looked at a lot of women from the 1930s and how they dressed -- Carole Lombard, the Mitford sisters, Lee Miller and the Duchess of Windsor," costume designer Catherine Martin says of her research for Kidman's character, who steps off a seaplane in a nautical-inspired suit, a lady entering a lion's den. "She was anathema to the environment, arriving in this red earth in the most inappropriate outfit."

As the story progresses, Ashley loosens up. Her choice of a traditional Chinese cheongsam for a society ball "underscores the fact that she has really accepted the motley crew" -- her adopted Aboriginal child Nullah, her Chinese cook, the rough-and-tumble Drover -- "with whom she has formed a family," Martin says. "She's also not scared to step out of the norm of 1930s society."

In "Milk," one of costume designer Danny Glicker's biggest challenges was finding enough 1970s-era, broken-in Levi's for San Francisco community activist Milk's circle of supporters. But it's a three-piece tweed suit that elevates Milk (Sean Penn) to the national stage. After losing several elections, he ditches his casual Castro district uniform of Levi's, work boots and plaid shirts for the uniform of power.

"I'm not going to let the Pacific Heights biddies write me off again because of a ponytail," he says when he comes out of the dressing room in his new suit. Not that Milk ever totally joined the Establishment; his "tailor" is a secondhand store.

Costumes draw the battle lines in "Frost/Nixon," about the 1977 TV interviews in the wake of Watergate, starring the incredible Frank Langella and Michael Sheen. Sheen plays dandy British talk show host Frost in Savile Row-style suits, wide ties and even wider collars. His hair is something of a character itself -- coiffed into a perfect helmet and worn with deep sideburns and arched eyebrows -- a parody of all that TV journalism and politics have become since that moment.

Langella wears classic navy blue suits, modeled down to the lapel width after President Nixon's, which costume designer Daniel Orlandi inspected at the Nixon Library. "They were traditional, Republican," he says. "Does Dick Cheney dress any differently?"

Frost, forerunner to the metrosexual, is too well-dressed in Nixon's opinion, his Gucci loafers too effeminate. "I think a man should wear shoes with laces," one of Nixon's trusty aides says. The shoes become a defining point of difference between the two men, between Nixon and a generation he never understood. But in the end, it's those shoes that bring the characters together in what might be the most poignant moment in the film.

Men's fedoras are the backdrop for "Revolutionary Road," the darkly depressing tale of 1955 suburban nothingness with Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. The hats come to symbolize the monotony of the office jobs so many men pursued at the time, eager to prove they could attain perceived success, only to realize that they'd never had a chance to dream. (That's what the 1960s were for.) In one particularly stirring scene, DiCaprio steps off a commuter train at Grand Central Station into a sea of lonely fedoras. He's no one and everyone at the same time.

"Revolutionary's" menswear is less slick and Madison Avenue than that in "Mad Men," whose first season was set just five years later, in 1960. Costume designer Albert Wolsky puts DiCaprio in skinny ties with diminutive knots and high-waist trousers so voluminous they threaten to swallow him, highlighting his powerlessness. It's worth mentioning that men's hats fell out of fashion in the following decade, thanks to John F. Kennedy's proclivity for going hatless.

If there's any film coming out this season that has the power to start trends, it's likely to be Frank Miller's "The Spirit." Although it is set in a highly stylized world, there is a lot that's familiar. Unlike so many other superheroes, the Spirit (Gabriel Macht) doesn't dress in a unitard and cape. He has no superpowers. He's an everyman hero -- updated from the comic book original to wear high-top sneakers, a fedora, a trench coat that floats in the wind and a red necktie that's a beacon of hope in his hometown of Central City.

Eva Mendes (jewel thief Sand Seref) is well drawn in costume designer Michael Dennison's 1940s-inspired black-and-white suit and lacy dressing gowns. And Scarlett Johansson (Silken Floss) plays the villain's sexy librarian sidekick in feathery fake eyelashes and cat's-eye glasses.

But it is the Octopus (Samuel L. Jackson) who really shines, with wigs, eye makeup and a series of outfits that cast him as fashionable versions of villainous archetypes, including a Western outlaw in a duster coat and leather hat, a samurai warrior in a kimono and obi belt, a Nazi soldier in jodhpurs and boots, and a murderous pimp in a fur coat and hat.

It's a Halloween costume bonanza. And who doesn't like to play dress up once in a while?