Some of you may be very familiar with the name Colleen Atwood, but many of you may not recognise it despite the fact that Atwood is the creative force behind some of the most iconic costumes in Hollywood. Atwood is responsible for the Hannibal Lecter mask in Silence of the Lambs (1991) as well as the truly awe-inspiring outfits in Tim Burton’s remake of Alice in Wonderland (2010). Atwood has even designed costumes for classic films such as Edward Scissorhands (1990) and Planet of the Apes (2001) to name a few.
In her 30 year career Atwood has been nominated for the Academy Award for Best Costume Design eleven times, winning three times for the blockbuster films Chicago (2002), Memoirs of a Geisha (2005), and Alice in Wonderland (2010). Her long list of achievements also includes an Emmy and numerous BAFTA nominations and awards, essentially too many trophies to mention!
Atwood began her career by sewing labels for bespoke designers in SoHo. After studying painting at college in Washington, she then broached a career in the film industry after getting a job as a PA on the film Ragtime (1981). Her advice to any budding costume designers is to take a job in films wherever you can. As she stated in an interview with the Huffington Post, “If you’re good at your job and you work hard, people will notice — it’s a foot in the door”.
One of the latest projects that Atwood has worked on is the all-star, all-singing, all-dancing blockbuster Into the Woods (2014) Who can forget the stunning Meryl Streep’s fabulous ethereal blue get-up or Johnny Depp’s zoot suit and fedora combo? Atwood notes that there are three key areas of consideration when designing: story, music and lighting.
The costume has to suit not only the mood of the film but also the actor themselves. Atwood recounts how she watched actors in rehearsals, how they moved and their interpretation of the character. The collaboration between Atwood and the actors meant that when it came to filming, the cast were able to manipulate the fabrics to create different effects. The design for Streep’s witch outfit, for example, was fashioned with a combination of silk crinkle chiffon and sheer nylon for the cape which allowed for the ‘floating’ effect which is central to the witch’s character.
Music comes into the process as actors such as Depp have clear interpretations as to how they want a character to come across and how they interpret the musical score. Depp’s inspiration for the witch was taken from Tex Avery and therefore a zoot suit was a natural fit for this version. Atwood’s long established career in the film industry is key to her relationship with actors such as Depp. Depp and Atwood have worked together multiple times on films such as Sweeney Todd (2007) and Edward Scissorhands meaning that Depp, another creative force, is able to be directly involved in the creation of his costume’s as he did with the wolf in Into the Woods.
The central location of the woods in the film also meant that Atwood had to play about with layering fabrics to create light and dark depending on where in the woods that character was. Towards the end of the film when the characters have spent a long time wandering, the clothes also have to reflect this passage of time which again calls for another adjustment in texture and colour of costume.
Aside from her show-stopping creations and bold design, there is also an elegant subtlety to her work. Prince Charming’s costume in Into the Woods reflects this attention to detail. Charming, played by Chris Pine, has subtle moss coloured detailing on his costume which compliments the colour palette of Cinderella’s dress. Each aspect of design is closely considered and it is this attention to detail, as well as a boundless imagination and undoubtable skill, which make designers like Atwood indispensable to the iconic impression that films leave on our minds.