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A sharp dresser

Sweeney Todd, so deadly with a razor blade, has a killer closet by costume designer Colleen Atwood.

January 30, 2008|Elizabeth Snead | Special to The Times

Costume designer Colleen Atwood, a six-time Oscar nominee and two-time winner ("Memoirs of a Geisha," "Chicago"), has spent a lot of time making the strange, dark cinematic dreams of Tim Burton come to life ("Edward Scissorhands," "Sleepy Hollow").

But "Sweeney Todd," the surreal slice-and-dice musical saga of a barber obsessed with revenge on the decadent society that wronged him, was her biggest challenge yet.

So what did she do first? She listened to the music.

"The music was the starting point for me. I had seen the play but it was so long ago. The mood of the music was what helped me see the characters and gave me the idea for the darkness and texture of the costumes."

What is the exact time period?

We took a lot of liberties, but basically the time is mid-Victorian, but very loosely. It's not a precious period piece or a Merchant Ivory production, that's for sure.

Tell me about Depp's costumes.

When he gets off the ship, he is wearing a leather coat that has been laser cut with small stripes. It's been aged so that you can't really tell that it's leather at all. The feeling is that he and the jacket have been beaten to death by the sea and the weather. You can't see it, but even the bottoms of his trousers are crusted with salt.

As the film goes on, how does his look change?

We just cleaned him up a bit when he began having customers and serving the public. He changed pants and had a striped trouser that was a bit more barber-like. And he had a barber jacket that I based on a butcher's jacket from that period.

That was appropriate. How about that razor holster?

The holster for the razor was something Johnny and I came up with, and I thought it was fun and humorous.

Also, I love hobnail shoes, which you can't really use in films because they are so noisy.

So I thought: What if I do boots with nails around the top of the sole? I had my boot maker do just that, and if you look closely, you can see a glimmer of the metal nails when he hits the barber chair pedal. Also, you never see it but those boots are bright red on the inside.

How very Christian Louboutin!


How about Alan Rickman and Timothy Spall's characters? They really are quite comical and cartoony.

Alan [Judge Turpin] was the slightly grubby man-about-town. His clothes have two or three color screens on the fabrics that gave him an oily, slick feeling. Alan and Timothy [Beadle Bamford] are the Romantics, that's what we called them. They are actually a bit more Georgian, the period before the Victorian era, a bit more decadent and flowery.

When people have a great moment in their lives, they tend to stay in that moment stylistically.

What about that rumor that there was -- or wasn't -- a padded codpiece in Sacha Baron Cohen's tights?

I'm not going to comment on that.

How about Helena Bonham Carter's Mrs. Lovett look?

I felt she was someone who remade things, put them together in her own way, which is also very Helena. One of my favorite costumes is her sheer black dress with an antique curtain skirt with hints of red in it. The blouse had a straw embroidery, ratty and disintegrated by the end of the filming. It was a real find, about 150 years old.

And I took the metal stars off a piece of Indian rag and put them around the neck of the blouse.

Where on earth do you find these rare fabrics?

You go to different countries and find vendors who keep bits and pieces for reproduction. Textile companies buy them or people who collect antique clothing. You find them at Hammersmith in London three times a year. That was a good source for me. Also Portobello Road is good. But it's getting harder and harder to find the real thing. And it's expensive. Hard to find a bargain that's over 100 years old.

Tell me about the dream sequences.

The first one we shot was the beach scene. Johnny wasn't sure that Sweeney would wear that bathing suit, and it was Johnny who came up with the idea of leaving his shoes on. The whole crew was dying with laughter.

Johnny told me that he kept all his Sweeney costumes? Is that true?

Yes. He kept everything. He has it all. He had that written into his deal. He has the foresight to do that!

What's next for you?

I'm starting work on "Public Enemies," a film directed by Michael Mann about John Dillinger, set in the '30s with gangsters and the start of the FBI. Johnny plays Dillinger. It all came together very quickly.


Elizabeth Snead writes the Dish Rag blog at

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