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THE COSTUMES

Colleen Atwood's designs for 'Public Enemies' and 'Nine'

Oscar winner Colleen Atwood immerses herself in the fashions of distinctive times for this year's 'Public Enemies' and 'Nine.'

December 02, 2009|By Tina Daunt

Costume designer Colleen Atwood has dressed gangsters and geishas, and a kid with bad hair and no hands. She's won two Academy Awards -- for "Chicago" and "Memoirs of a Geisha" -- while giving filmmaker Tim Burton's "Edward Scissorhands" characters their decidedly off-kilter signature look.

Part of what impresses about Atwood's designs is their range: From historically precise evocations of the "floating world" where old Japan sought its pleasures to a feverish vision of suburbia, where a young man with scissors for fingers carved spectacular topiaries and a place in housewives' hearts.

She's one of those artists who's proven that in cinema, at least, clothes really do make -- if not the man -- the character. It's a quality very much on display in the two films she's done this season, "Public Enemies" and "Nine."

In the former, she creates a period look for the impossibly stylish Johnny Depp as stick-up man John Dillinger. In "Nine," which is based on Broadway's musical adaptation of Federico Fellini's autobiographical film "8 1/2 ," Atwood dresses Daniel Day-Lewis and a cast of sirens, including Nicole Kidman, Penélope Cruz, Marion Cotillard, Kate Hudson and Fergie.

Fellini's films have such a distinctive look. Can you give us a hint of what your costumes look like in "Nine"?

I think it's going to be a wonderful blend of flash images of Daniel Day-Lewis' character mixed with real life and fantasy. There's a flashback to the '30s with Sophia Loren, and there's a great showgirl number lead by Judi Dench. Most of the movie is set in the early '60s. There's a go-go number with Kate Hudson and her costumes are very mod. Then there's the scene with Penélope Cruz and the call from the Vatican. Oh, what was Penélope wearing?

Not much. (She laughs.) "Nine" sounds like the ultimate costume designer fantasy, yes?

What I like about what I do is that I get to do all different kinds of things. I enjoy the variety and the learning curve on every job. With a movie like "Nine," there was a lot that went into the dance costumes that was unseen. They really had to function for the dancers. The shoes in "Nine" are a movie in themselves. Since people had to dance, the shoes were all custom made in Italy by a dance shoe specialist. But it's very technical. You have to make sure they fit properly. The actresses did an amazing amount of rehearsal and hard work to be able to do those musical numbers. And the clothes?

There's a lot of work that goes into them that's unseen. I did "Chicago" right after I did "Planet of the Apes," and they really weren't that different in a weird way. The costumes really had to work in a certain way for movement. It was nice to revisit that in "Nine." When you dressed Johnny Depp for "Public Enemies," you had to evoke the Great Depression. How did you start putting together those costumes?

There's a very good historical library in Chicago. My inspirations came from pictures and real research. The history of those sorts of criminals shows that as they robbed more banks, they wore flashier clothes. What about Marion Cotillard, who plays Dillinger's girlfriend?

It was interesting that the women involved with these guys basically served as the "front men," so they had simpler kinds of clothes. They weren't showy because they were the ones doing things like renting the houses. The clothes of Marion's character started out very simple but then evolved as Dillinger bought her nice things. I noticed there are lots of hats in the movie. Did you have to buy millinery?

We got them from this young guy in Chicago who bought this very old company called Optimo Hats, with all the traditional hat blocks. He uses the finest felts for hatmaking out there today. And he has a real knowledge of the history of who wore what kind of hat.

Hats were treasured in that era and if you spend a winter in Chicago, you know why.

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