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Fashion | Screen Style

Encased for 'Space': Suck In and Suit Up

April 16, 1998|BETTY GOODWIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"Lost in Space" costume designer Vin Burnham readily admits she is not an actor's best friend. It's not that she doesn't make a star look thinner or sexier or perfectly built. It's that her costumes are almost painfully uncomfortable.

Take the cryosuits, the movie's costume centerpiece, worn during takeoff for life support. They are so form-fitting that the actors portraying the space-bound Robinson family (William Hurt, Mimi Rogers, Heather Graham, Lacey Chabert and Jack Johnson) and pilot Maj. Don West (Matt LeBlanc) had to be sealed into them with medical glue. Burnham wanted to make a key fashion point--you won't see buttons, zippers or buckles in 2058. Each day of filming, the cast would be unglued with medical solvent for lunch and then be pasted in again.

Burnham viewed the "Lost in Space" costumes more as a fashion statement than as a test of her science-fiction mettle. Indeed, she never saw the original '60s TV series on which the film is based. "It was sort of like going into a vacuum. There are no frames of reference for an era you know nothing about," she says.

Instead, Burnham assumed that absolutely everything in the future will bear a designer stamp, so the clothes had to be "groovy"--chic and sexy. Sexy was easy--the actors were well-proportioned to start with, but even they needed some assistance. For instance, she emphasized the men's chests and shoulders and women's breasts, hips and waists, with paint--silver to highlight and black to hide.

When the cast isn't sealed into cryosuits, they're wearing military-designed outfits. Costumes made of heavy black nylon mesh manufactured by England's Ministry of Defense. The cast's casual vests and pants were made of a fire-retardant, acid-repellent fabric that was manufactured by Spiewack in New York, a company that has made military clothes through several wars.

Anything to enhance a functional and believable "tough look," Burnham says. "I put actors into clothes that are not comfortable or are heavy or hot. Basically, actors don't like to see me coming."

The suits, which are both anatomical-looking and high-tech, are molded from latex foam, a now-standard, though technically challenging, process done in specialized costume houses. In Los Angeles, each actor was life cast in plaster, an ordeal in which a person must stand absolutely still for two to three hours. Burnham took the casts to London, where principal photography took place, and turned them into positive fiberglass models at Jim Henson's Creature Shop. She then sculpted designs over the life casts using a very hard clay, the same material used to make car prototypes. Molds were taken off that, latex foam was injected into each mold, and the molds were "baked like cakes in an oven," she says.

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It's the same procedure Burnham used to make Michael Keaton's Batman suits in "Batman" and "Batman Returns," for which she was "costume sculptor" to costume designer Bob Ringwood. "The first one looks to me like something out of 'Dr. Who,' very unsophisticated. But after the success of 'Batman I,' there was a lot more time and money to pour into the suit for the next movie, and it became much more streamlined."

The London-based designer, who is known for her sculptural and constructed costumes, started out designing for the Royal Opera House in London's Covent Garden. "My very first job in show business was literally when [Margot] Fonteyn and [Rudolf] Nureyev were dancing. I would make little wings for 'Swan Lake' or mice for 'The Nutcracker.' "

They may have been small tasks, but they never failed to excite her. She continued working in ballet and opera productions throughout Europe, Canada and the United States. "I did quite a lot of things like wings, tails, headdresses. If anyone was dressed up as an animal, I'd always do that, whereas my sister (Lal d'Abo, with whom she partnered for 10 years) would do the beautiful little ballet dresses. I was never a straight period costume designer."

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