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A Whobilation of Color

Costume designer Rita Ryack went with a 1950s look for 'Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas,' adding whimsical buttons and other over-the-top details for a cartoon feel.

November 30, 2000|BOOTH MOORE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Creating costumes for characters of the village of Whoville in the live-action film "Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas" was no easy feat. After all, in the original 1957 book, the folksy Christmas-loving Whos are practically naked. The bigwigs at Universal Pictures wanted the Whos to resemble a community of "contemporary cultural icons."

"They wanted a Who in a workout outfit, a Who as a soccer mom. . . . I suppose you can't really ignore the studio, but I didn't do any of that," said the film's costume designer, Rita Ryack, whose credits include "Casino" and "Ransom."

Instead, she chose a 1950s aesthetic for the film's 450 costumes, consulting vintage cookbooks for ideas for the many food-inspired outfits and scouring flea markets and antique shops for supplies.

Ryack created the Whos' pear-like bodies with padding and emphasized their shapes by designing clothes with triangular silhouettes. Sweaters, for example, have sloping shoulders and wide bottoms, and coats are bell-shaped with swinging hems.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Monday December 4, 2000 Home Edition Southern California Living Part E Page 3 View Desk 2 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
Wrong context--In "A Whobilation of Color" (Nov. 30), "Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas," costume designer Rita Ryack's quote of "two springy hairs" was out of context in reference to the Grinch's hairstyle. She was referring to the character Cindy Lou Who.

To create an animated, cartoon feel, garments were festooned with whimsical antique buttons. "Every button was chosen for it's Seussian quality," said Ryack, a graduate of Yale School of Drama who worked in animation before turning to costume design in the mid-1980s.

The homemade look of the costumes for the Whos' Christmas celebration (the Whobilation) was deliberate. "I thought since the Whos spend their whole year preparing for Christmas, everything would be made by hand," said Ryack, who enlisted second-graders from Brookside Elementary School in Ventura County's Oak Park to create gingerbread men, presents and stars to embellish the costumes. "Anything you see that looks crude and has lots of macaroni and glitter, they made."

For the zigzag, polka-dot and striped knitwear, Ryack went to New York designer Maria Ficalora and L.A. designer Susanne Cousins, whose nickname, appropriately enough, is Suss.

"The Grinch look has a lot to do with what I do. The asymmetrical lines, bright colors and bold designs have a real Scandinavian influence," said Cousins, a native of Sweden, who has spun off her own line of licensed Grinch sweaters. She and two other knitters worked on hand looms in the back of the Beverly Boulevard Suss Design boutique to create more than 250 pieces for the film.

The sweater the Whos give the Christmas-loathing Grinch during the Whobilation has a Christmas tree design on the chest that Ryack decorated with flashing multicolored lights. "I did hundreds of designs for that sweater," she said. "I wanted something that the Grinch would find offensive but that he would grudgingly wear."

The garish sweater and his silk Hugh Hefner robe aside, the Grinch wears mostly tufted, ratty fabrics and chenilles. "I wanted everything to look like he made it out of materials from his cave," said Ryack. Unfortunately, she added, the costumes were at times overwhelmed by the Grinch's hair. "I thought they should have given him two springy hairs. . . . I didn't expect architecture."

But Oscar-winning makeup designer Rick Baker's green yak fur couldn't compete with the costumes in the Grinch's dressing montage scene. After rejecting a tablecloth skirt and throwing up a pile of clothes in despair, he settles on lederhosen, embroidered, no less, with Seussian flowers and animals.

Many of the costumes are so intricate, the details are hard to discern on film. The postman's night cap is the same shape as his daytime postal cap, Mayor May Who's velvet slippers and robe have matching gilt monograms, children's coats are decorated with popcorn, holly berries and bows. "It was challenging," said Ryack, who is now working on Jackie Chan's "Rush Hour 2." "'But in a way, it was great to let my imagination flow. T-shirts and jeans can be more challenging."

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