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Behind the Seams With Joanna Johnston at THR's First Costume Designer Roundtable

Mary Todd Lincoln stayed on top of the period's fashion trends in bonnets, crinoline, plus she loved fuschia so much that she outfitted White House footmen in the shocking hue.

Austin Hargrave

Joanna Johnston flew in from London just to take part in The Hollywood Reporter's First Costume Designer Roundtable and photo shoot on November 13 at Siren Studios in Hollywood.

The costume designer — who has previously worked with Steven Spielberg about seven times in all, including for Saving Private Ryan and War Horse — spoke about President Abraham Lincoln's wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, who was not widely perceived as having a big fashion presence. But her research revealed that Mrs. Lincoln did have a very specific — albeit "fussy" style — and she was tres de la mode when it came to the right number of crinolines, as well as fashion forward with her bold color choices.

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 "I call this Mary Lincoln’s ‘optimist dress.’ Johnston said of a printed blue silk taffeta dress. "Sally Field wears it riding in a buggy with Daniel Day Lewis [who plays Lincoln] in 1865. “This was when they were making plans for the future and promising to be nicer to each other.”

The optimism of the frock extended to her favorite color, fuschia. The First Lady loved fuschia so much that she had a White House china service made in that color for the White House and also outfitted footman in fuschia uniforms. “I didn't do that in the film  because I thought it might look ridiculous," says Johnston. "But she really was a great modernist and I think she was the first First Lady.”

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The swans-down muff Field carries in the scene was the first item Johnston bought for the film in 2006, after she spotted it at a London antique shop. “It's a beautiful thing to stroke. And there was a bit of a nip in the air when we filmed the carriage scene so it was nice for Sally to have her hands cozied up in there,” she says.

The plush royal blue cape was dyed multiple times (“It was a nightmare”) and features original lace embroidery to convey Mrs. Lincoln’s rather fussy style. Mary's elongated spoon bonnet, which had just come into style, was reconstructed by milliner Harry Ross at Western Costume. The bonnet features a feather plume and vintage lace.

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What you don’t see: two large crinoline petticoats and a full crinoline hoop petticoat underneath the dress, which was at the height of fashion that year. “I wanted the sense of her moving [fashion] forward," explains Johnston, "and this was when crinoline was at its peak in early 1865."

 

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