I was looking for a list similar to the one the title hints at earlier today, and couldn’t find a thing. So I’ve decided to come up with my own!
Colleen Atwood may not appear on screen, but her fingerprints are all over the world of film. Her gorgeous costumes, ranging from the bizarre to the ethereal, have captured my imagination since I was a wee one. She’s won three Academy Awards, three BAFTA awards, and my hart with her work, and tonight, I’d like to count down all of my personal* favourites to come out of her imagination and sewing machine and onto the big screen.
So, without further ado:
Pop… Six… Squish… Uh-uh… Cicero… Lipschitz…
I adore Chicago. It’s fun, sexy, playful, and absolutely eye-popping at every turn. Atwood’s costumes are comparable to Janie Bryrant (designer for the popular TV series Mad Men) in terms of the power they play in truly setting the scene and making the period come to life. Colleen’s costumes are as bold and daring as the exposed garters and ruby lips of flappers in the Jazz Age. This being a musical with a heavy emphasis on choreography, the costumes needed to be eye-grabbing, but also light and adjustable enough to accommodate the moves of the dancers during the musical numbers. The result is stunning, and managed to rope Colleen an Oscar.
4. Sleepy Hollow
Fun and overly personal fact: I first began to realize my budding non-heterosexuality thanks to watching this movie and seeing Lisa Marie in a corset.
Regardless of the serious decline in the quality of the storytelling in his films as of late, I always enjoy a collaboration between Tim Burton and Colleen Atwood. His flair for the dark and the off-kilter brings out something special in her, which is very apparent in Sleepy Hollow. It’s yet another period piece, set in the 1890s, which allows Colleen to have a bit of fun with corseting Lisa Marie, Miranda Richardson, and Christina Ricci, while Tim Burton indulges a fetish or two of his own by having Johnny Depp get repeatedly squirted with blood. The entire film (save one nostalgic childhood memory scene pictured below) is glazed with a Burtonesque, gloomy cinematography which prevents any colours from really popping out, so Atwood’s work manages to shine through texture, shape and pattern, rather than colour, and the results are simultaneously enticing and tactile, like an Edward Gorey print.
I’m a big fan of corsets, which is why, for all its mediocrity as a film, Sleepy Hollow beats out Chicago on this list. That, and sheer nostalgia.
3. Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events
Read the books. Seriously.
I’m a big fan of Lemony Snicket. He’s one of the most clever authors alive today, everything he writes, from a music review to thirteen young adult novels, is positively crackling with wit, charm, and strife. The movie is lacking in all three, unfortunately. This is mostly because poor Lemony’s vision of macabre, juicy, gothic tales for children wasn’t one shared by Nickelodeon studios, who made the film. They decided to opt for a lighter, sillier flavour: The plot was simplified, three books were sandwiched into one film, and Jim Carrey took a rather frightening character, Count Olaf, and made him hammy, mugging, and unthreatening, which left a bad taste in my mouth, as though I’d deep-throated a durian-flavoured lollipop and then washed it down with mouldy circus peanuts.
But there were some elements which actually worked together quite nicely. Emily Browning was one of those elements as the resourceful and charming Violet Baudelaire, and her costume, designed by Atwood, captured her personality quite nicely, as well as establishing a thousand fan sites dedicated to recreating the dress.
There are other, wonderful costumes in the movie of course, in particular, the frock of the perpetually fretting and nervous Aunt Josephine, and the outlandish pinstriped suit of Count Olaf, but Violet’s dress is so iconic it could stand on its own on earning spot number three. In the original illustrations, Violet wears only one outfit throughout the entire series (other than a hospital gown and a wedding gown) a purple peacoat style dress. What Violet wears is rarely mentioned ever, except for a ribbon she uses to tie up her hair when thinking up a way to invent something, be it a machine, an escape plan, or a scheme. Here though, Violet’s gown is as opulent and decorative as her surroundings, which, in a strange way, suits her. If she were dressed in a simpler item of clothing (Something I had a problem with when it came to the outfit of her brother, Klaus, who wore a simple blue sweater and pants) she would stand out uncomfortably. Here, she’s adapted to her environment, which, in a way, allows us to focus on what goes on inside her mind, rather than wondering why she’s in, say, a 1950s outfit in an otherwise quasi-Edwardian setting.
2. Edward Scissorhands
Sometimes you can still catch me dancing in it…
Very few films have left as much of an impact on my life as Edward Scissorhands has. It’s practically made to be deconstructed as a metaphor for disabilities like autism: Edward longs to be close to people, to touch those he cares about, but cannot, for fear of hurting them, so he finds other ways to “touch” people, artistically. Creating art is something which helps me express difficult emotions and touch the people I care about most as well. Edward Scissorhands captures that spirit perfectly, Edward communicates his love and feelings of friendship for the community of suburbanites he gets to know through his sculptures of shrubs and ice.
Colleen’s costume for Edward expresses his isolation, restraint, and his quality of being alone and incomplete perfectly. Up alone in his castle, Edward wears a neck-to-toe piece of black leather and bolts, hinting at his artificial origins and his difficulty getting close to others. In Suburbia, he wears a shirt with slacks and suspenders over his outfit, but he keeps accidentally cutting at them, giving him a frayed, torn-apart look. You can’t hide what’s inside, I suppose. The suburban inhabitants, as a contrast, are clad in candy-bright clothes in pastels which match their houses and cars. There’s not a hint of nonconformity or disorder until Edward shows up. They are also full of false joviality and familiarity, warm and touchy-feely on the outside, but petty and prone to cold acts of bullying and gossip behind others’ backs. This is in direct contrast to Edward, who can’t touch people physically without causing harm, but who expresses deep, pure love in his own way. At the film’s climax, Edward’s love interest, Kim, is dressed in a dress as white as the “snow” falling from Edward’s ice sculpture of her, setting her apart from the gaudy community of suburbanites visually, when she’s already done so through her growing fondness towards Edward as the rest of the community turns away from him.
They’re not just gorgeous and unique costumes, they’re jam-packed with symbolism, appropriate for this lovely fable.
1. Memoirs of a Geisha
Japonisme Japonisme Japonisme!
If you are not familiar with Japonisme, it refers to an Orientalist movement in European art of the 19th century, which was heavily influenced by the influx of ukiyo-e art prints reaching the West. Artists as famous as Vincent Van Gogh and Claude Monet can attribute their artistic styles to influences from ukiyo-e and other Japanese art. You can definitely see Japonisme in the modern era, with the film and book Memoirs of a Geisha as the prime examples. Even though the book and film both take place in Japan, there’s very little about either that’s truly Japanese. It’s written by a Westerner, the film stars Chinese actresses, and the costumes are designed by a Western woman. Everything Japanese about it is filtered through a foreigner’s eyes. Trying to learn about Japan by reading Memoirs of a Geisha or watching the movie would be like trying to learn about American culture by watching a Mr. James McDonalds commercial from Japan, or trying to learn about First Nations culture by watching Dances With Wolves and The Lone Ranger. You’ll end up learning a hell of a lot more about how the culture which made the product feels about the culture they’re portraying than anything about the actual culture.
With that said, however, the costumes are a wonder to behold. They’re not traditional kimono, Atwood herself admitted that they altered it to make them seem more visually appealing to Westerners- Lowering the shoulders, making the robe more streamlined to offer the hint of a bust, and tightening the obi in order to emphasize the waist. The anti-Orientalist in me cries out, but the aesthetics still make me swoon. Unlike more drab Burton films, colours aren’t bleached out here, so Atwood brings out the full force of both colours and textures in Memoirs of a Geisha. Every character has their own colour coding; scorching and dramatic royal hues for antagonist Hatsumomo, a serene palate for the ever calm Mameha, and subtle beauty paired with dazzling hints of brilliant splendour for heroine Sayuri. The men also get their fair share of beautiful attire, in particular, the ever-handsome Ken Watanabe’s classic suits make me melt and long for a return in such sartorial displays for people of all genders. In terms of accuracy about Japan, it’s only a few notches above Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Mikado, but that can’t diminish the beauty and elegance of Colleen’s designs. She earned that Oscar.
Here’s to many more Oscar-worthy and outright gorgeous costumes from Colleen Atwood!
* See that word there, personal? It means it’s my opinion, not the word of God. Feel free to disagree with me, but don’t throw a hissy fit if you’re contesting my choices, just come up with your own.