Costuming can turn into History 101 for a film's designer


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It's no secret that when it comes to costume design, period films are most likely to be honored by the Academy. But that doesn't mean Oscar voters are sitting in theaters with reference books and scorecards, subtracting points for every deviation from the historical record. Creative flights of fancy are welcome and expected.

"I think to a greater or lesser extent in any period film your job as a costume designer is to help tell the story, and that story is the script," says Oscar nominee Alexandra Byrne, costume designer for Universal's "Elizabeth: The Golden Age." "If people want historical accuracy, they can visit museums and archives. For me, personally, how I work is I research the period completely so that I know what I'm doing even if I'm not being period accurate."

Oscar-nominated costume designer Colleen Atwood adopted a similar philosophy on DreamWorks/Paramount's "Sweeney Todd." During preproduction, she assembled a voluminous collection of research on Victorian London, then sat down with director Tim Burton and made a chart of the changes in men's and women's fashion during the period to help them decide where the film's characters would reside, costume-wise.

"We did the work, and then we stepped outside of that box and made our own box, which we loosely called the 'mid-Victorian era,' " says Atwood, who had worked with Burton on six previous films, from 1990's "Edward Scissorhands" to 2003's "Big Fish." "We went on the premise that people keep clothes for 20 years, especially back then. So the wealthy people in the film are more early 1860s and the other people were from the 1840s through '50s."

Unlike Sweeney, Elizabeth I -- portrayed by Cate Blanchett in the film -- lived during the 16th century, before the invention of photography. The only visual references available are her portraits, which were carefully crafted and romanticized depictions that, according to Byrne, the queen used to supplant the Virgin Mary as the icon of Protestant England. As fascinating as this symbolism was, Byrne felt it would prove too distracting onscreen, so she searched for a way to communicate Elizabeth's power using a visual language contemporary audiences would understand. Eventually, she found the solution in the work of ultramodern Spanish fashion designer Cristobal Balenciaga.

"In the 1940s, he designed some theatrical costumes, and one of them was based on a Spanish queen who was a contemporary of Elizabeth's," explains Byrne, who dressed Blanchett as a younger version of the queen in 1998's "Elizabeth." "His couture interpretation of an Elizabethan portrait was kind of the turning point in me beginning to understand how to reinterpret the way that Elizabeth used her appearance."

In New Line's "Love in the Time of Cholera," the wealthier denizens of a turn-of-the-century South American port city similarly use their clothing to communicate their superior class status.

"Men of that period, particularly upper-class men, were very formal," explains Tim Aslam, who served as "Cholera's" assistant costume designer under department head Marit Allen, who passed away in November. "They wore collars, they wore cravats. They wore waistcoats and frock coats, which were invariably wool because you can't really make a frock coat out of cotton, because the actual substance of it doesn't hold."

Working on location in Cartagena, Colombia, where the temperature hovered in the 80s and 90s with 95% humidity, the actors were not particularly fond of this fidelity to historically accurate fabrics.

Says Aslam: "We explained to them that, if you look at a photograph, you can see that they are wearing the same things they would be wearing in Europe or North America, even though it was very uncomfortable, because that's what gave you a look that said you were above everybody else."

Allen felt freer to depart from the historical record with the color scheme. Men of the period favored black, but she felt that it would read as flat and textureless on camera, so she made many of their outfits from dark green, red and blue fabrics. She also favored strong reds and blues in the costumes for the indigenous women.

"We had a slight license to go past the color a bit, because you are dealing with a tropical country, so the color is a lot more intense," Aslam says. "I think (director) Mike Newell and Marit didn't want to do a Merchant Ivory film -- a typical Europeans abroad thing with everything beige. They actually wanted to create this playful, colorful look."

The color palette was much more limited in "Sweeney Todd," which has a look that owes as much to black-and-white Universal Pictures horror films of the '30s and '40s as it does to anything authentically Victorian London. Production designer and Oscar nominee Dante Ferretti created sets that appeared almost monochromatic on camera, and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski further stripped the colors from the film in postproduction through the digital intermediate process.

The one "color star" was red, which gushes from the severed arteries of Sweeney's victims and peaks out from under Mrs. Lovett's (Helena Bonham Carter) dresses onto her decolletage.

"It's the underwear that goes under the corset," Atwood explains. "They usually wore a camisole and bloomers. So I made it out of a really fine crepoline. It almost looked like a spray of red, as opposed to a hard thing of the color. And she pretty much wore that under everything, but you saw it more in some costumes than in others."

Blue makes a guest appearance in the form of the shiny silk embroidered suit worn by Signor Adolfo Pirelli (Sacha Baron Cohen). The costume was a complete flight of fancy on Atwood's part, but she later came across some research material that depicted a Lower East Side used clothing vendor from the period wearing a similar outfit.

"It was really weird," Atwood says. "I went, 'I guess we did something kind of right, even though we didn't really know it.' "