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Reinventing Alice’s look for the 21st century

Costume designer Colleen Atwood talks about the challenges of updating the ‘Alice in Wonderland’ characters.

March 07, 2010|By Booth Moore, Los Angeles Times Fashion Critic
  • MAD HATTER: Colleen Atwood made Johnny Depp's character's hat out of leather she found in Rome. The jacket relates to the period of Lewis Carroll.
MAD HATTER: Colleen Atwood made Johnny Depp's character's… (Disney Enterprises )

To reinvent the madcap look of "Alice in Wonderland" for the 21st century, Tim Burton turned to longtime collaborator Colleen Atwood. The costume designer, nominated eight times in the Academy Awards, took time out from working in Venice on her next film, "The Tourist," to talk about how she re-dressed the characters (the cast is led by Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Mia Wasikowska and Anne Hathaway) in the early Victorian tale, starting with Alice and her famous blue frock.

The new Alice is 19 years old, and she's not the typical frilly Disney character. She's tough.

Yes. When you read the script, Alice [Mia Wasikowska] is defined in a different way than you expect. She is someone whose purpose is not just to look pretty in a space and time, but to reinvent the world she's in. It's a modern look at a woman in a period.

And her blue dress, it's quite different from the one in illustrations from Lewis Carroll's book.

It's not that similar, no, but it pays enough homage so that you know she's Alice. We left off the apron and we didn't use a hoop, mainly because it looks stupid when you run. We did the action version of the period piece. The bodice is all antique, using original lace from the period, but the body of the dress is not. And I took a flight of fancy making the dress shorter.

How did you begin thinking about the Mad Hatter's costume?

In the first fitting, I had all these ideas — the bandoleer of silk thread spools, the fun ribbons on his outfit. I wanted Johnny to use the tools of hat making if he wanted to. And he took to it like a duck to water. The jacket relates to the period of Lewis Carroll, but it is in totally different materials, with lots of layers of silk. I found some leather in Rome that was laser-cut to look like it had been burnt. We had the hat made out of that.

How did you use costume to differentiate the characters of the Red Queen, Helena Bonham Carter, and the White Queen, Anne Hathaway?

For the Red Queen, Helena's inspiration was Elizabethan. For the White Queen, Anne Hathaway's inspiration was much more Louis XVI. So they were two vastly different time periods and shapes. Helena was vaguely trailer trash material, so we used less luxurious fabrics. Hence the gold hearts made out of gold foil, which were a little tacky but still queen-like.

We had a lot of challenges with her because of the head situation. [The actress's head was enlarged for the film using special effects.] The collar became really important because when your head gets big, your neck tends to disappear. So we had to slice the neck thinner and shave her waist away in visual effects and in the costume to make her head look bigger. She was a real piece of sculpture.

For Anne, I went for the flowing romantic, Norwegian fairy tale vibe. Since she was like ice — lips and eyebrows excepted. I took sheer white layers for her dress and printed snowflakes on them with silver that peeled away, so you got a sparkly effect without the bling.

What was the most challenging part of the project?

Alice's stuff when she shrinks and grows. Her clothes had to be all different sizes and scales, and we had to work out the mathematics of stripes. We made one huge dress, so that when she is normal-sized, it fit her as if she were 9 feet tall.

While she was shrinking, we ripped away fabric in between shots so it looked like the dress was squeezing her body.

Then we did the tiny little dress that Johnny makes for her to wear in the teapot. We made one that was normal-sized, and one for someone 3 inches tall.

I also did swatching and buttons and trims for all the animated costumes too.

And how did the animators do bringing those to life?

It turned out well. Sometimes animation can be flat, but they got nice depths of texture. I think the 3-D process helps.

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