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OBITUARIES / Marit Allen, 1941 - 2007

Costume designer for many popular films

December 10, 2007|Mary Rourke | Times Staff Writer

Marit Allen, a Hollywood costume designer whose artful style made such movies as this year's "La Vie en Rose" required viewing for fashion lovers, has died. She was 66.

Allen, who was a fashion editor with British Vogue before she changed careers, died Nov. 26 of a brain aneurysm in Sydney, Australia, where she was working on the superhero movie "Justice League of America," according to news reports.

During more than 30 years as a costume designer, Allen created wardrobes for some 40 films. Her taste for feminine, romantic dressing and her talent for stylish period-piece looks made her a favorite of directors, including Nicolas Roeg and Ang Lee. One of her first assignments came from Roeg, who asked her to create a wardrobe for actress Julie Christie in "Don't Look Now" in 1973. Allen went on to work with Roeg on several more films, including "Bad Timing" in 1980.

When Lee directed "Brokeback Mountain" in 2005, which brought him an Academy Award, Allen created the costumes for a modern Western-wear look of cowboy boots, lean, snap-button shirts and chunky belt buckles. "Plain old Western wear . . . hit the fashion bull's-eye," a New York Times fashion reviewer wrote of the movie.

Allen also worked with Lee on "Ride With the Devil" (1999) and "Hulk" (2003).

Lee referred to Allen as "simply the best at what she did" in her obituary in the Independent of London. "She clothed her characters, not to cover them with a preconceived image but to liberate them to express everything she dreamed they could become," Lee said.

Other directors credited Allen for her talent at creating wardrobe details that subtly revealed character. For "La Vie en Rose," a biographical film about French cabaret singer Edith Piaf, Allen softened the singer's dark, austere dresses with wide swaths of lace over bare skin at the neckline and fully draped sleeves. After the film opened, actress Marion Cotillard was featured in several fashion layouts inspired by the movie costumes.

Allen's most recent film was this year's "Love in the Time of Cholera," based on the novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The romance directed by Mike Newell takes place in Cartagena, Colombia, at the turn of the last century. Allen made use of artisanal embroidery and hand-loomed fabrics for costumes but avoided the feeling of museum artifacts.

Her reputation as a stickler for authenticity was apparent when she described her work.

"On the big screen you can tell the difference between polyester and cotton thread and between hand-sewn seams and machine-sewn," she said in a 1998 interview with the Kansas City Star.

Allen was born Sept. 17, 1941, in Cheshire, England, and studied in France at the University of Grenoble. After moving to London, she worked at the society magazine Queen before she became a fashion editor at British Vogue. She remained there through the 1960s, a legendary decade in London fashion when the Beatles and designer Mary Quant set international trends.

Allen married film producer Sanford Lieberson in the mid-1960s and became friendly with film producers and directors. She worked with top directors throughout her career, including Stephen Frears on "The Hit" in 1984 and Stanley Kubrick on "Eyes Wide Shut" in 1999.

She and Lieberson had three children before they divorced in the early 1980s. She is survived by a son and two daughters, grandchildren and a sister.

Some of the most popular films Allen worked on are comedies, including "Little Shop of Horrors" (1986), "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" (1988) and "Mrs. Doubtfire" (1993). For "Doubtfire" she dressed actor Robin Williams in tentlike blouses and tractor-tread shoes for his role as a man impersonating a very large woman.

"I based them on the dress of my old headmistress and my history teacher," Allen wrote of the dowdy costumes in a 2005 article for the Times of London. "It is exactly how they looked."

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