Colleen Atwood: To Design The Costume, Understand The Character

Sep 30, 2016
Originally published on October 5, 2016 5:09 pm

From Hannibal Lecter's mask to Edward Scissorhands', well, scissor hands, Oscar-winning costumer Colleen Atwood has pretty much designed it all.

Working steadily since the 1980s, she's dressed characters from the past and the future — the Middle Ages for Into the Woods, the Civil War for Little Women all the way to Gattaca and the 2001 Planet of the Apes. Her latest movie, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, is her eleventh with Tim Burton. It travels back in time to Wales during World War II.

Costume designer Salvador Perez passes Atwood's costumes — on display at Universal, where he works — every day. "I get to walk by and see her costumes from The Huntsman," he says, "and every day that I look at those costumes I see a different detail that I didn't notice before. There are so many nuances to her costumes. How her brain works fascinates me."

Atwood is known for costumes that are rich in detail — which she adds even when she knows those embellishments might not be visible to audiences. In preparation for a film, she studies what might have been in a character's closet and searches for the right materials.

For years, one of her go-to places has been B&J Fabrics in New York's garment district. "As a young designer I never had enough money to buy the fabric that they, but they were always very kind to me, and helped me find fabric that I could buy," she remembers.

B&J Fabrics is a family run business founded in 1940. Today, in its vast space on the second floor of an office building, bolts of fabric of every color and texture are stacked up to the ceiling.

Atwood heads straight for a rack of delicate, lacy samples embellished with feathers and rhinestones. Her next movie is about a circus, set around 1920. So she's looking for materials that will convey the period but also allow easy movement for today's acrobats.

"Back then, they didn't have so many stretch fabrics," she says. "So they were quite corseted. ... The challenge with this is to make it look old but make it work like what they're used to working in, which is stretch, stretch and more stretch."

Atwood settles on two samples: a black piece with strands of shiny black beads, and a silver piece embroidered with turquoise beads. She loves them: "Instant glamour. Instant showbiz," she says.

'Visual Sense And Practicality'

Atwood grew up in Quincy, Wash., a small town in farm country. She says she was always encouraged to nurture her artistic side, and that both of her grandmothers were also creative.

"One of them was from a little bit wealthier background and had tremendous style, and was an amazing gardener, and kind of lifestyle artist," she says. "And my other grandmother was really a hard scrabble, Irish grandma who taught me how to sew and how to do crafty sort of things and make things work. I think the combination of the visual sense and practicality have a lot to do with who I am today."

Something else that shaped Atwood's career — she got pregnant when she was 17. She didn't graduate from high school with her class. To help support her baby and her husband, who was in college, she worked at a French fry factory.

"I was cutting the black spots out of potatoes in rubber gloves on swing shift," she says. "So, you know, that was really a mind blow for me at age 18. To think 'this is it.' Because, for a lot of people I was standing next to, this was it."

But Atwood got a scholarship to attend Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle. Then, she moved across the country to New York, where she found work in TV wardrobe departments. Her first solo costume designer credit came in 1984 on Firstborn, starring Robert Downey Jr. and Sarah Jessica Parker. The movie wasn't a hit but it quickly lead to bigger and better jobs, such as designing costumes for Michelle Pfeiffer in Married to the Mob and Natasha Richardson in The Handmaid's Tale.

For Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, Atwood says she looked carefully for the deep, vibrant blue of Miss Peregrine's dress. "It was like a hard blue to find, I have to say, because I was looking for a blue that didn't photograph black," she says. "Even though today I read a review of it and it described it as her 'black dress,' and I was like 'Ugh.'"

But Atwood is not precious about her work even though she's known for sweating the details.

"I was around people that worked in factories, people that worked in restaurants, people that worked in stores. I was around fashion snobs. I was around a lot of different people," she says. "In my work, when I get a job and somebody is described as 'a waitress and a mother, I kind of know what their life was really like and what they really looked like and how they lived and I think that really helps me in my work."

Designing the costume, says Atwood, is all about understanding the character.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Costume designer Colleen Atwood has designed everything from Hannibal Lecter's mask in "The Silence Of The Lambs" to the sci-fi Victorian look of "Edward Scissorhands." She's been nominated for 11 Oscars and has won three. Her newest credit is "Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children." It opens today. NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports the designer took an unlikely path to become one of Hollywood's most in-demand talents.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: Colleen Atwood has dressed just about every kind of character from just about every era, whether it's the Middle Ages for "Into The Woods..."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "INTO THE WOODS")

JAMES CORDEN: (As Baker) Tell me, where did you get that beautiful cape?

BLAIR: ...The Civil War for "Little Women..."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LITTLE WOMEN")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) Oh, Meg, I do like that color on you.

BLAIR: ...Or the 1920s for "Chicago."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CHICAGO")

CATHERINE ZETA-JONES: (As Velma Kelly, singing) I'm going to rouge my knees and roll my stockings down.

BLAIR: Among costume designers, like Salvador Perez, Colleen Atwood is royalty.

SALVADOR PEREZ: I work at Universal, and there is a display of some of her costumes by the elevator. So every single day I get to walk by and see her costumes from "The Huntsman." And every day that I look at those customs, I see a different detail that I didn't notice before. And there's so many nuances to her costumes that, you know, how her brain works fascinates me.

COLLEEN ATWOOD: I'm a hard worker.

BLAIR: Colleen Atwood's hard work involves studying what might have been in a movie character's closet and searching for the right materials. For years, one of her go-to places has been B&J Fabrics in New York's Garment District.

ATWOOD: As a young designer, I never had enough money to buy the fabric that they had, but they were always very kind to me and helped me find things that I could buy.

BLAIR: B&J Fabrics is on the second floor of an office building. Bolts of fabric of every color and texture are stacked almost up to the ceiling. Colleen Atwood's next movie, her twelfth with Tim Burton, is about a circus, set around 1919. For the trapeze act, she sits through a rack of delicate, lacy samples on hangers, embellished with feathers and rhinestones.

ATWOOD: This is great with the chenad (ph) and the embroidery on it - instant glamour, instant showbiz.

BLAIR: She settles on two - a black piece with strands of shiny, black beads and a silver piece, embroidered with turquoise beads.

ATWOOD: Yeah, could I get sample yard of each of these?

BLAIR: Colleen Atwood grew up in Quincy, Wash., a small town in farm country. She says she was always encouraged to pursue her artistic side. Both of her grandmothers were also creative.

ATWOOD: One of them was more from a little bit wealthier background and had tremendous style and was an amazing gardener and kind of lifestyle artist. And my other grandmother was really a hardscrabble Irish grandma who taught me how to sew and make things work. And I think the combination of kind of a visual sense and a practicality have a lot to do with who I am today.

BLAIR: Something else that shaped Atwood's career - she got pregnant when she was 17. She didn't graduate from high school with her class. To help support her baby and her husband, who was in college, she says she worked at a French fry factory.

ATWOOD: I was cutting, like, the black spots out of potatoes in rubber gloves on swing shift. So that was a mind-blow for me at age 18 to think this is - this is it, you know, because, for a lot of people I was standing next to, this was it.

BLAIR: But then, she says, she got a scholarship to go to an art school in Seattle, moved to New York, worked in TV wardrobe departments and, in 1984, landed her first solo credit as costume designer for the movie "Firstborn." It wasn't a hit, but pretty quickly, Atwood was designing costumes for Michelle Pfeiffer in "Married To The Mob" and Natasha Richardson in "The Handmaid's Tale." Her latest movie, the fantasy-horror love story "Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MISS PEREGRINE'S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN")

EVA GREEN: (As Miss Alma LeFay Peregrine) I'm a type of peculiar called an Ymbryne.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Yeah, you turn into a bird.

GREEN: (As Miss Alma LeFay Peregrine) Well, I do, yes, but that's not very useful.

BLAIR: Miss Peregrine's dress is a deep, vibrant blue.

ATWOOD: It was, like, a hard blue to find, I have to say, because I was looking for a blue that didn't photograph black. Even though, today, I read a review of it, and it described it as her black dress, and I was like, uh.

BLAIR: But Atwood is not precious about her work, even though she's known for sweating the details.

ATWOOD: I was around people that worked in factories, people that worked in restaurants, people that worked in stores. I was around fashion snobs. I was around a lot of different people. And I think, in my work, when I get a job and somebody is described as a waitress and a mother, I kind of know what their life was really like and what they really looked like and how they lived. And I think it helps me in my work.

BLAIR: Designing the costume, says Colleen Atwood, is all about understanding the character. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.