Costume design is a fascinating industry. An outfit can make or break a character with the most memorable ones resonating enough to be remembered forever (and even worn as fancy dress).
As the world prepares for the 2017 Oscars, it seems an apt time to get inside the minds of the people responsible for transforming actors into sometimes otherworldly characters.
Here, a few of the costume designers nominated for an Oscar this year tell us their tips and tricks along with the fascinating stories behind their most recent films.
Colleen Atwood: nominated for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Swarovski held an hour-long BAFTA masterclass with Colleen Atwood, famed for working with Tim Burton on countless occasions. She has won three Academy Awards for the likes of Chicago and Alice in Wonderland. Here’s what she had to say about her illustrious career along with more insights when we caught up with her after:
On the role of a costume designer: You can never control what’s going on on film when you’re a designer. Sometimes you have to be precise and the minute you forget something is the minute that it ends up in front of the lens and you look like a fool. So I’m very particular about everybody looking as good as they possibly can in every shot of the film.
The process of designing a character is the process of discovery. And sometimes you discover in the first fitting. I think it’s really important to give actors something they can connect with. People like Johnny Depp and Eddie Redmayne take everything and use it to build pieces of [their characters]. Some actors like costumes to be their idea; some don’t. It’s such a visceral process.
On designing for the Harry Potter world: This world was probably one of the most exceptional worlds I’ve ever been able to design costumes for. I’d seen all of the Harry Potter films but didn’t have a full grasp of all the mythology and character origins. So I was aware of everything but wanted to make myself not aware of it at the same time. It’s not Harry Potter; it’s a spin-off. It’s in New York in 1925. I really wanted to keep a purity and a newness to it but still give a nod to the early work. I felt lucky in the sense I was designing for an exciting new world.
On the story behind the Fantastic Beasts costumes: The 1920s was an incredible era for America because it’s really the beginning of modern. The beauty and rawness of New York in that period was amazing.A lot of people came to America for the opportunity to make a life and it’s that possibility that made New York such a great city. We had over 3000 costumes from all over the world. The main actors were very close to the period with a little whimsy from the magical world.
On mixing wizardry with the everyday: I had an interesting challenge with the magical characters because they were disguised in this world. They were hiding. So I took the period but did little tweaks to the clothes to give them a wizardly feel. I put a little pointy swirl on the cloche hats and exaggerated the hems on the leather coats. Everyone still blended in with the period but had a little more glamour and mystery.
Eddie Redmayne’s costume was a similar challenge. His clothes are like his creatures in a sense. The physicality of Newt is an important part of his spirit so we worked very closely together on the shape and movement of his costume. His look had to blend with a huge background of neutral-coloured coats but at the same time, he was an exceptional person so I tipped his coat into the colour of some of his fantastic beasts.
On the challenges of a large-scale film: I am not a person who thrives on chaos. It was definitely busy but we managed to stay calm most of the time. In this film, the principal actors didn’t change costumes so you have to make sure it’s a costume you like looking at for an hour and a half and that it’s still working at the end as well as it worked at the beginning.
I had a vast number of costumes in order to create the background for the story. We did around 3500 crowd fittings; it was very specific. I pretty much approve every fitting. If I’m not able to be present at the fitting, I check photographs. I line up the whole crowd and look at them from top-to-toe.
People do all sorts of things to costumes that you have no control over like putting phones in their pockets and taking off their hats. So you just have to trust that the people that are watching them on set are paying attention to what’s going on with the costumes.
On being nominated for a twelfth Oscar: It is sort of whoa![Awards shows] are nerve-wracking no matter what so it’s quite terrifying. But success is in the work that you do so I really [try not to] think about it.
On the evolving world of film: What’s happening now in film for costume designers is we don’t get the time with actors for fittings. Sometimes, you get one fitting and then the actor goes away and does something else and comes back three days before they start the part. You have to have a really good team to get the fit and feeling right.
On her biggest career lesson: To keep moving forward in time and not get bogged down.
Madeline Fontaine: nominated for Jackie
Madeline Fontaine has worked on everything from 1960s period costumes to opulent 17th century Versailles. Her work for the Jackie Kennedy biopic starring Natalie Portman saw the costume designer collaborate with the house of Chanel and has earned her her first Oscar nomination along with a BAFTA win. We chatted to her about her historical career and more:
On the role of a costume designer: From my point of view, [costume design] leads to the “incarnation of the character” for the actors. And though sensitive and primordial, the coherence of the messages sent by the set, the acting, the light, the sound and the costumes all together make what a film aesthetically is.
On designing for a political icon: Jackie was a style icon; an ambassador of elegance, but she was also, for me, a character to make believable in a feature film. The huge amount of visual references and the collective memory could have been a handicap, but I did extensive research.
On replicating Jackie Kennedy’s infamous outfits: It starts in finding the good ingredients: the right fabric, the right colour according to the choice of the camera, the right method of making. And then adapting the proportions on Natalie Portman’s silhouette. [With the pink suit], we had the cooperation of Chanel in our technical process, and they helped provide final details like the very special buttons…
On the difference between creating historical and modern designs: [With historical pieces], the fabrics are much harder to find. The handmade work is also very difficult to achieve within the schedules of the projects.
On being nominated for her first Oscar: I feel deeply honoured to be recognised internationally.
On her biggest career lesson: Never think there is going to be enough time and everything will be ready. There are always surprises.