Piero Tosi, a costume designer whose careful research and intuitive eye were prized by leading Italian directors like Vittorio De Sica, Mauro Bolognini and especially Luchino Visconti, died on Saturday in Rome. He was 92.
Mr. Tosi dressed some of the biggest stars of the day — Sophia Loren, Maria Callas, Claudia Cardinale, Marcello Mastroianni, Burt Lancaster. He was nominated for the costume design Oscar five times — for the Visconti films “The Leopard” (1963), “Death in Venice” (1971) and “Ludwig” (1973), for Édouard Molinaro’s “La Cage Aux Folles” (1979; he shared the nomination with Ambra Danon), and for Mr. Zeffirelli’s “La Traviata” (1982).
Although he never won that prize, in 2013 he did receive an Honorary Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Board of Governors, the first costume designer to do so. The citation called him “a visionary whose incomparable costume designs shaped timeless, living art in motion pictures.”
Mr. Tosi was born on April 10, 1927, in Florence. He attended the Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence, where he studied under the painter Ottone Rosai.
In a 2013 interview with Port magazine, Mr. Tosi described how his friendship with Mr. Zeffirelli led to his entree into the film business. He was in Florence in the late 1940s, he said, when Mr. Visconti turned up there to direct a stage production of “Troilus and Cressida” at the Musical May Festival. Mr. Zeffirelli made the introductions, and he was offered a job as third assistant to Maria De Matteis, the production’s costume designer.
“Of course I was so pleased and accepted straight away,” he told Port. “This is how my career started, really. I was later asked by Visconti to work as a costume designer on his next movie, ‘Bellissima.’”
“I was only in my early 20s,” he added, “but I was very courageous, strong and passionate.”
That film, released in 1951, starred Anna Magnani as a mother trying to get her young daughter into the movie business. Mr. Tosi is said to have taken an unusual approach to his first assignment as costume designer, asking strangers on the street for their clothes.
Deborah Nadoolman Landis, a costume designer and historian and founding director of the David C. Copley Center for the Study of Costume Design at the University of California, Los Angeles, recalled a story Mr. Tosi once told her about sitting at a train station in Milan, taking photographs of women as they got off trains, searching for the right look for Ms. Magnani’s character. One woman’s coat struck him; he approached her and offered to buy it. The startled woman balked until he explained that the coat would be for a film role for Ms. Magnani, one of Italy’s biggest stars.
“And she looked at him,” Dr. Landis said in a telephone interview, “and she took off her coat and said, ‘For Anna Magnani, you can have my coat.’”
Mr. Tosi would also frequently be involved in hairstyles and makeup, unusual for a costume designer. Why?
“Because the face is fundamental,” he explained in a 2006 interview with the journal Framework. “You know, you do a lot on the costumes, but then the whole scene is focused on the face.”
As for the clothes, he said that achieving the proper look involved melding cloth, actor and character.
“I gradually shape the costume on the actor,” he said. “I work on the actor, step by step. After that one has to find the nature of the character. In the end the costume is not just clothing any more, but it becomes the skin of the character.”
This symbiosis was what interested him, not merely designing and making clothes, as he acknowledged after his work on Mr. Visconti’s “The Damned” (1969), a film set in the 1930s, brought him a lot of attention.
“When ‘The Damned’ came out, a film which was successful in America, I was asked by a fashion company to design a clothes line inspired by the 1930s, but I could not accept that,” he said. “I could never design modern clothes for an anonymous person, something you shape on a mannequin.”
Mr. Tosi was a believer in costume authenticity “right down to the undergarments,” as a 2009 article in The New York Times put it, since foundation garments affect how people move and carry themselves. He often worked on period films that required him to resurrect underwear of yore.
“Just as dress was becoming looser and less formal, women were abandoning their girdles and some would soon be burning their bras,” The Times article noted, “in the Italian film world the whalebone corset was brought back with a vengeance.”
Yet, Dr. Landis noted, he wasn’t a slave to historical re-creation. She recalled a story from his work on “The Leopard,” a film set in the 1860s. An aide had researched cavalry uniforms of the period, determining that they were a particular blue, but Mr. Tosi didn’t like the shade. The aide raised the authenticity issue. “And Tosi said, ‘Well, we’re just going to make it a much better blue,’” Dr. Landis recounted.
His contributions to a movie could be subtle; for a key nighttime scene in “Rocco and His Brothers,” a 1960 Visconti film, he put the actor Alain Delon in a dark sweater with a white V at the neck, to help make him visible. Or they could be eye-popping. For “The Leopard” he designed 300 19th-century gowns for a ball scene — one that was filmed in Sicily’s August heat. “Everything was melting under my eyes,” he recalled to The Hollywood Reporter in 2013.
Mr. Tosi racked up most of his costume design credits from the 1950s through the ’80s, but he continued to work on films into the last decade. He served as costume designer on more than 65 movies, and would surely have worked on more but for his aversion to travel. When Ms. Cardinale accepted his honorary Oscar for him at the 2013 Governors Awards in Hollywood, she told the crowd that he had never been to the United States.
In 2003 Mr. Tosi received the Costume Designers Guild’s inaugural President’s Award. His work has been the subject of several exhibitions, including last year at the Palazzo delle Esposizioni as part of the Rome Film Festival.
Information on his survivors was not immediately available.
Dr. Landis said that while many people conjure period dramas when they think of a costume designer’s contributions to filmmaking, the anecdote about Mr. Tosi and the train passenger’s coat showed a more important side, one involving meticulousness and insight.
“Here’s Tosi,” she said, “sitting on a bench in a Milan train station, waiting, waiting, waiting for that Anna Magnani to come off the train.”
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