Colleen Atwood is one of the most famous costume designers currently working in Hollywood. Born in Washington state, she studied painting in college. She got her start through an acquaintance while living in New York: “I met someone whose mother was designing the sets for ‘Ragtime,’ and I ended up getting a PA [production assistant] job on that movie. I just kind of kept going, struggling through the years until I got a few breaks, sort of got a career” (Who Dresses Johnny Depp? Costumer Colleen Atwood, a Northwest Native). She worked her way up from wardrobe production assistant to costume designer. Her career really took off when she began working with director Tim Burton; she began on Edward Scissorhands (1990) and now is his go-to designer.
Let’s take a look at Atwood’s many fabulous costume designs for historical (and a few fantasy) films!
Wyatt Earp (1994)
“This was a huge, but great challenge,” Atwood says. “After a year when The Piano comes out, which is so strict (in keeping with the period), you have to make a choice. Do you do costumes with a basis in history and try to stick to it, or do you bend it? We had a strong historical basis, but we bent it sometimes.” (The Look of the Old West — Kind Of)
Little Women (1994)
“I approached this from a mutual decision (with director Gillian Armstrong) to be more realistic than the two earlier versions of the movie, which were much more Hollywood…” The Look: Shabby but not chic. Drab dresses in either rough wools or summer cottons, often with visible repairs. In many cases, including the white cotton nightgowns, the patches and darning came about honestly. But even the new dresses were subjected to mending. “We made little holes that we mended in some things, like a glove or a collar, and then repaired them,” Atwood explains. (Old Look, New Reality, The Movie: “Little Women”)
That Thing You Do! (1996)
“With Beloved, I stuck very much to real fabrics and real accessories and real buttons of that time and place. I did not go over the top with the clothes, going, ‘Well, they could have just a little more fabric in the skirt because I like it.'” (Colleen Atwood / Costume Designer)
Sleepy Hollow (1999)
“The biggest challenge was the black-and-white dress worn by Miranda Richardson when she goes into the tree of the dead, and I got the inspiration for it from a painting. In the end, I made it my tribute to Adrian’s black-and-white ball scene in the vintage film Marie Antoinette.” (Film Finery: LA Exhibit Highlights Cinema’s Outstanding Costume Designs)
When it came to designing the costumes, Colleen found inspiration in the iconic images of surrealist photographer Man Ray, who lived in New York and Paris during the period.
She [Atwood] said: ”I did a lot of avante garde artist research into the forward-thinking people in Europe of the moment. Man Ray had a totally sensual concept of the body.” (C. Turner, “Designs on Hollywood,” Coventry Evening Telegraph, 28 July 2003)
Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004)
When veteran costume designer Colleen Atwood began work on Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, she realized creating the wardrobe for Jim Carrey’s Count Olaf character was like making a dance costume. “It was like designing for a moving target,” she said. “Jim uses his body a lot. The costumes had to move with him. He’s like a rubber man.” So Atwood used fabrics that stretched like skin and reinforced Carrey’s many coats, pants, and jackets so they wouldn’t tear or split during filming. (Clothes Make the Movie: Costumes From Oscar-Nominated Films Show the Fit Behind the Fiction)
Memoirs of a Geisha (2005)
Atwood, who won an Academy Award for her work on this movie and Chicago, calls the kimonos in the film an “impressionistic take” … “It is possible to reinvent something like the kimono, but with the greatest possible respect to an art form” … Atwood calls Hatsumomo a fashion character, whose robes were more intense in colour and pattern than a real geisha would wear. (E. Friede, “A Costume Drama,” The Gazette, 6 December 2005)
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)
“Silhouettes and texture were key to me with the palette choices. Juxtaposition of light and dark layering of a sheer fabric over a dark fabric gave a certain light to the fabric.” … Following Burton’s lead, Atwood loosely based her designs on historical dress of the period, choosing rather to tailor the costumes to each characters’ sensibilities. “When I first talked to Tim about Sweeney Todd, he said he wanted to create a world that felt mid-Victorian without making it too precious,” she remembers. “It’s sort of a combination of different parts of London, from 1830 to 1865, so I’ve evolved a lot of our textiles and own prints for all the costumes for every character.” (Jill A. DeDominicis, “Dressing Sweeney Todd,” Ornament 2008, Vol. 31 Issue 3)
Public Enemies (2009)
“There’s a very good historical library in Chicago. My inspirations came from pictures and real research. The history of those sorts of criminals shows that as they robbed more banks, they wore flashier clothes … It was interesting that the women involved with these guys basically served as the “front men,” so they had simpler kinds of clothes. They weren’t showy because they were the ones doing things like renting the houses. The clothes of Marion’s character started out very simple but then evolved as Dillinger bought her nice things…”(Oscar-Winner Colleen Atwood Immerses Herself in the Fashions of Distinctive Times for This Year’s ‘Public Enemies’ and ‘Nine’)
Alice in Wonderland (2010)
“For the Red Queen, Helena’s inspiration was Elizabethan. For the White Queen, Anne Hathaway’s inspiration was much more Louis XVI. So they were two vastly different time periods and shapes. Helena was vaguely trailer-trash material, so we used less luxurious fabrics. Hence the gold hearts made out of gold foil, which were a little tacky but still queen-like.” (Reinventing Alice’s Look for the 21st Century)
Snow White and the Huntsman (2009)
As Ravenna ages and becomes increasingly desperate for eternal youth, she at one point transforms into a flock of birds. It took a milliner two weeks to sew hundreds of black cock feathers into Theron’s avian outfit for the scene. “Each feather is individually placed and manipulated,” Atwood said. “If you don’t do that, you end up with a messy, feather-duster-looking thing.”
The bodice of another dress is covered with hundreds of iridescent black beetle wings, the leftovers from Thai diners, who eat the insects. “They were very, very difficult to work with because they were really sharp,” said Atwood, adding that each wing had to be drilled through to be attached. “Everyone had cuts on their hands” (In ‘Snow White and the Huntsman,’ Evil Queen’s Costumes Cast a Spell).
Into the Woods (2014)
“When I listened to the music of each one, I put it in its environment of where in my mind it originated from. The sad mother with the sad cow and the sad boy, that’s very Dickensian to me. And it felt like Johnny’s number [Depp plays the Wolf] was a little more swing vibe.” … Atwood heavily manipulates her chosen fabrics — or in many cases, creates them entirely from scratch. On the moppet Jack (Daniel Huttlestone), trousers are a moleskin base with linen sewn on with cording. “That’s three to four layers of material sewn together with a stripe — and then cut away so it isn’t all one dimension.” After the Witch (Meryl Streep) goes through a youthful transformation, she wears a bright teal, a much more glamorous couture version of her earlier dark, gnarled, and stooped costume. The dress is more elaborate sculpture than fabric. “It’s ribbons sewn on organdy along with the leather cording that was incorporated in the earlier costume,” Atwood explains. “The material was all handmade and then manipulated into the sleeves, with some boning to give it the structure. It’s basically an amplified version of the first costume” (Nathalie Atkinson, “Wardrobe Wizard’s Holiday Movie Magic, The Globe and Mail, 26 December 2014).
Alice Through the Looking Glass (2016)
The sequel to Alice in Wonderland.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)
Based on the J.K. Rowling book and set in the Harry Potter universe.
The Huntsman (2016)
The sequel to Snow White and the Huntsman.
What’s your favorite Colleen Atwood costume design?
I adore her work. I’ve been a fan for years. My favorite of her gowns, though, I think is the black and white gown from Sleepy Hollow.
It really doesn’t get much better, does it?
I love her work on “Into the Woods”, and especially the costumes she created for the witch. They just look so organic, and like they’re a part of the woods.
I was lucky enough to see the Hessian’s/Headless Horseman’s cloak in person. I spent a good fifteen minutes staring at the thing; film does not do the piece justice. There are so many layers and materials and stitching types–thread type & color, stitch size, and stitch type, it’s like a mixed media artwork!
Wow! That sounds amazing.
Yeah, I got a chance to see Charlize’s costumes from Snow White and the Huntsman, close up in exhibition for that year’s Best Costume Oscar nominees, and let me tell you, Ms. Atwood was robbed by the Anna Karenina costume designer! The cock feather cloak and the beetle dress were so darned detailed and beautiful and UNIQUE, that nothing should have beaten her out.
I still look askance at Memoirs of a Geisha. There was so much “mutton dressed as lamb” going on with the kimonos.
As a kimono enthusiast, collector and a person who knows how to wear kimono the films kimono were terrible. (not to mention the styling and makeup of the geisha look) So many things bothered me. They tried to create a more “western silhouette” and got vintage kimono which they remade into a shape that makes it impossible to wear as a actual kimono.
a older article that talks about the costuming
I’ve definitely heard that — the problem is my knowledge of mid-20th century kimonos is nil! I appreciate the link — always good to have information!
My favorites are The Fantastic Beasts franchise and Sleepy Hollow. I loved her costumes for Dumbo as well, of course that was released several years after the original blog post. Also, I don’t think that’s a picture from Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them in the original post. It looks like it might have been some pre-production mock up.