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Holiday Sneaks

Clothed in character

Costumes in a movie help set time, place, motivation and mood. Designers for four new movies describe how they dress an actress by working with color and fabric, in ways obvious and subtle, to visually enhance a scene.

November 09, 2003

Cold Mountain

The character: Ada, played by Nicole Kidman, a genteel young woman who moves with her father to the mountains of North Carolina just before the outbreak of the Civil War and finds herself struggling to survive on her own.

The designer: Ann Roth

Designer's comments on the costume: The period is 1860, so that's what the dress reflects. There are prescribed corsets, there are six lengths of fabric for the dresses, they are pleated in. This woman would've chosen a dressmaker who'd have come to the house. She was the daughter of a minister in Charleston, upper-class rarefied society.

The underwear is extremely beautiful. Where she was living, in the mountains, the women wore flannel drawers and knitted undershirts and corsets, but not in any way had they heard of French coutille fabric or the laces she had access to, yet she wasn't a fashion plate in any way. She was just a lady, and that's how she dressed. That was not the case of literally anyone on the mountain.

The process of making the dresses was long and complicated. Lots and lots of adjustments were made to make this the tiniest waist (23 inches) of this most fragile person, who then becomes adept at managing her life -- a sturdier woman.

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Big Fish

The character: Sandra, wife, true love and centering force in the life (and tall tales) of Edward Bloom. Alison Lohman plays the younger Sandra, who appears in the film's visions of the past.

The designer: Colleen Atwood

Designer's comments on the costume: The costume is meant to evoke an awakening, so I chose something that was the color of a really blue sky. I found the dress in a vintage store called "Catwalk." It's a very simple upper-middle-class dress from the '50s and was made of polished blue cotton appliqued to netting. I took it apart and altered it -- I made up the new design. It's a very pure color and shape, classically genuine and delicate, meant to set the actress apart from the crowd of very noisy circus designs that surround her.

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Mona Lisa Smile

The character: Katherine Watson, played by Julia Roberts (shown here with Marsha Gay Harden), a bohemian art history teacher from Oakland who slams into the girdle-tight mores of the '50s when she goes to work at tradition-bound Wellesley.

The designer: Michael Dennison

Designer's comments on the costume: Julia's dress for the wedding scene was inspired by the silhouette of the period -- I was thinking along the lines of Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly. It also had to have a bit of bohemia to make it attractive to Katherine. The colors of the dress are taken from the stained glass windows in the church; her colors, a muted plaid that is toffee, oxblood, dark petrol blue and bronze, were chosen to be the warmest and most elemental in the scene. The costume is supposed to evoke a choice that was made by Julia's character to try to assimilate into the function (the wedding) as unobtrusively as possible but still maintain her individualistic style.

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Girl With a Pearl Earring

The character: Griet, played by Scarlett Johansson, is a young Dutch woman whose family sends her to work in the household of Johannes Vermeer, where she becomes his assistant and muse.

The designer: Dien Van Straalen

Designer's comments on the costume: Paintings were my only reference for the costumes in the film, and it helps that I live in The Hague, where "Girl With a Pearl Earring" hangs. Griet's costume was based on a painting by Gabriel Metsu, of a milk maid. Her jacket is made of thick velvet, her blouse of Indian cotton and the skirt is a rich woolen fabric -- their soft colors are meant to show that she is young and sensitive. The most important element of the costume, though, is the bonnet, which allows her to hide her face and expressions -- she was shy, and it gave her a way not to show her reaction.

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