Colleen Atwood
Photo by Rafael Pulido

Colleen Atwood: “You want them to resonate”

Short Profile

Name: Colleen Atwood
DOB: 25 September 1948
Place of birth: Yakima, Washington, United States
Occupation: Costume designer

Ms. Atwood, it’s said that the best costumes can only truly pop when they are worn by talented actors. Would you say that’s true, or can anyone wear anything?

No, I don't think anyone can wear anything. I think you can try to wear anything, but if you don't own the costume that you're wearing in the sense that it feels like it's part of you, then it's kind of failed in its purpose as the costume. I'm sure I've had things that I’ve struggled with getting right or things that I felt were too much of a costume, for sure, so I’ve pulled back on it. Hopefully, before it got into the movie!

So does the success of your costumes also depend on the story, the directing, the music? Is a film really only as good as the sum of its parts?

The cinematography is a huge part of it as well! If they decide, for example, to shoot everything from the bust up, that’s a problem. You know, if you're into one thing and the DP's into something else, it's good to know that ahead of time so you can adapt to the style of the film. That’s a really important thing about costumes. I learned it early on working with Tim Burton because he sets the camera at certain angles and in certain ways for different characters. So when I know where he's going with the camera, sometimes I'll put detail on a costume where I might not normally address it as much. It’s different with each director and each cameraman, though, so you have to understand how they're looking at things.

“You want the costumes to resonate in a way that is real, even if it's a made up kind of real.”

After working on over a dozen films together, do you like that you and Tim Burton have really developed a recognizable style?

It's exciting in the sense that it's always fun. And there's a shorthand to it, so that's a nice thing. It’s also great because with Tim you often get the extremes, like Helena Bonham Carter's Red Queen or Johnny Depp's Mad Hatter from Alice in Wonderland. Those characters that are really heightened.

What poses more of a challenge for you: the fantastical costumes of Alice in Wonderland, or the more real world clothing from a film like Little Women?

Well, they both have their challenges because you want them both to resonate in a way that is real, even if it's a made up kind of real. Our body shapes compared to the real shape of clothes from other periods is quite different. We're much bigger, our shoulders are wider — and the challenge of adapting that, to make it set in that period within our period, and still make it wearable for a lot of different people.

Right, you’re not only dressing the leading roles but also the supporting cast and all the extras.

Exactly, so with the extras, it's very important that they're the background for whatever you are seeing in the foreground. I always pay a lot of attention to the extras and how they look, actually, it’s so crucial that they feel like they're part of the world that you're creating. I oversee all the extras fittings, I check what every extra wears pretty much every day of a film to make sure I'm happy with it. We always make sure that the character matches the costume they're being put in, so it doesn't take you out of the moment when somebody's walking by in the middle of the street with an apron on when they're supposed to be inside the shop.

So often when we think about costumes, we’re thinking of the iconic pieces — it’s easy to forget how important the rest of it is.

Absolutely, because, I mean, in film history there are some great iconic pieces of costume… Even if you think about the genius of The Wizard of Oz costumes, as simple as they are. I think that the first time I saw it was during the seventies, and the beauty of the costumes paired with the cinematography and the settings of that film, it really resonated with me. It was something I hadn't seen anything quite like before. I've always loved that movie a lot for all the costumes in it, and they're so iconic that they live on.

What has it been like for you to design these kinds of important pieces, like Hannibal Lecter’s mask, or Alice’s blue dress?

Hannibal Lecter's mask was something that I did a really simple drawing for, and I sent it to the manufacturer who sent back his first prototype. It was in this weird kind of fiberglass material that looked like leather. And originally, we were going to paint the mask but when the sample came back with that surface on it, it just looked so much cooler and creepier that we ended up using that. It’s a pretty simple mask, kind of based on a hockey mask. It was a bit of a happy accident, I think.

“I think that when people feel good with who the characters are, then the costume works for them.”

Do you know when you’re designing something that is going to be iconic in that way?

Not when you're doing it, really. You can't tell. I mean, you have things that you feel are fun and people are going to enjoy, but you never know what's going to really resonate in the big picture of time. And our culture is different. Like Alice, for example, was so embraced universally. It was pretty amazing. I'm always kind of surprised that some of these costumes are so loved, like, you see it coming back at Halloween in different manifestations. I helped realize the Edward Scissorhands costume, or the Martian girl from Mars Attacks, that was pretty good. Alice and the Hatter I still see again and again… So it's fun and exciting when you see it come back to you in that way.

What do you think it is that makes certain pieces of costume live on or stand the test of time?

I think when they have a strong graphic element, it helps. I think when there's a certain kind of humor to them that makes people smile, it helps in that way for those kind of costumes. I think it helps if they're beautiful. The materials can be nice, they can be great colors… It’s a lot of things together. But I do think that when people feel good with who the characters are, then the costume works for them.