Wonderland Couture: The Costume Designer behind Alice in Wonderland

| 30 June , 2010 | 3 Replies

Keeva Stratton, Quip Creative

Lewis Caroll’s curiously alluring fiction has inspired many a fashion adventure. From long stripey socks to – dare I say – mad hats, his most famous incredible imaginary world has encouraged us all to add a little wonderland into our own wardrobes.

A recent FIDA event featured gowns drawn from the classic Alice characters such as Alice, the Mad Hatter, the Queen of Hearts, Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee, to create a series of wonderland inspired couture gowns (see images).

Recently, of course, another idiosyncratic figure, the film director Tim Burton, gave us a recent take on Alice in Wonderland. Here’s what the film’s costume designer Colleen Atwood had to say about her approach to designing for such iconic characters:

Q:        Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland takes place in several different worlds.  How did you approach designing for it?

CA:      Well, it was a three-part process: one, designing the real-world setting of Alice’s life in Victorian England; two, designing the costumes of “Wonderland” and its live inhabitants; and three, collaborating on clothing design for animated characters.

Q:        How did you approach costume design for Alice?

CA:      For her, the real world begins at a grown-up party that portends the future – one that Alice realizes is not her true destiny.  For this section, I used the traditional blue color for Alice’s dress, with a Victorian silhouette, adding embroidery at the hem that hints at what is to come; that is, the rabbit. The idea of the dress was homage to the great illustrators Arthur Rackham and John Tenniel. Once Alice falls down the rabbit hole, the world really becomes “Tim Burton.” Alice shrinks and grows, but unlike the previous incarnations of “Alice,” her clothes do not. When she shrinks, a slip becomes a gown that she ties around herself. When Alice grows large, she explodes out of that same slip. Along the way, she is given clothes by the Red Queen and the Mad Hatter, and eventually, she even wears armor given to her by the White Queen.

Q:        How did you approach the costume for Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter?

CA:      The Hatter’s costume is based on that of a hat maker in the 1860s. As we researched, we found that the mercury used in felting hats was alarmingly toxic, causing damage to the mind and hair. With this knowledge, we moved forward and assembled the real pieces of the trade; then, did crazy things with them – thread bandoleros, pincushion rings and thimbles to click when he’s uneasy. These were all things that Johnny could use with his character. The coat was inspired by a mood ring, many colors within one fabric; sometimes its colors are even animated. His hat shape hearkens back to earlier illustrations. We chose to make it out of a worm-eaten-looking piece of leather that is embroidered with gold and decorated with a whimsical sash. I was also able to create a sort of hatter clan that reflected, in a previous time, this lonely hatter’s life.

Q:        What was your approach to Helena Bohnham Carter’s Red Queen?

CA:      The Red Queen was a challenge. Her head was going to be many different sizes, but her body would always remain the same. We sculpted a collar out of silk organza that made her neck look both longer and narrower, so the transition between her body and head didn’t make it look like she had a 19-inch neck. Her waist was also shaded, to give her a wasp-like center shape, which makes her head appear even larger. I played with the traditional red, black, gold and white “playing card” palette in the Red Queen’s world. As the story unfolds, the Queen’s court includes real people in exaggerated costumes, all extreme in some way. We played with shape and makeup effects to give them a more human quality.

Q:        What was your approach to the White Queen?

CA:      The White Queen is the Beverly Hills version of the Red Queen. In fact, she’s a bit more tightly wound, with a little bit of sparkle, sort of like the Good Witch. But there’s something of the sisterhood in their silhouettes and the shape of their clothes and the feeling of them, so it ties them together. Her dress has lots of layers of fabric, with silkscreen snowflakes and metallic foil prints to give it sparkle, but a kind of cracked sparkle. And she’s got lots of jewels added to give it a little bling.

Q:        How did you keep everything from becoming too ‘unreal’?

CA:      Each costume detail was based on fabric, buttons and trim that were sourced, just like they are for a real costume. Above all, Tim wanted the animated and live worlds to feel as one.

About Colleen:

Washington-native costume designer Colleen Atwood stands at the top of the film design industry, with a long list of accolades, including eight Academy Award® nominations and two wins. Her longtime collaboration with visionary filmmaker Tim Burton began with Edward Scissorhands, and has continued to this day – altogether, they have worked on eight motion pictures, including his latest, ALICE IN WONDERLAND.

Alice in Wonderland is released on Disney DVD and in a Blu-ray TM /DVD Value pack, 1 July 2010!


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