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Costume designers and actors, a tightly woven fabric

December 20, 2012|By Randee Dawn
  • Sally Field put on 25 pounds to carry off the "podgy" look of First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln in Steven Spielberg's drama, the costume designer says.
Sally Field put on 25 pounds to carry off the "podgy" look of First… (David James / DreamWorks )

Actors and costume designers have a rare relationship on set: They're both involved in building a person, using the actor's body as the raw materials. It's a relationship built on trust and talent, and when everything goes well, clothes really do make the man (or woman). Here's a peek behind the scenes of four such recent partnerships.


Toni Collette (as Peggy Robertson)

Julie Weiss (costume designer)

The character: As Alfred Hitchcock'sreal-life assistant, Collette's outfits had to establish her as a mid-century working woman but never be too flashy, since Peggy always stood in the reflected glow of the master of suspense.

Making the match: Actress and costume designer bonded immediately, but even after careful research and consideration of the costumes, Weiss had a tendency to make last-minute changes. "Julie scuttles in and makes adjustments during rehearsals," Collette says. "It's totally accepted with her." It can't be helped, Weiss says. "It would help if everything was set up beforehand and you could open a bag with a beautiful tag and a stamp," says Weiss. "But you get on the set and watch that rehearsal, and I don't mean to be disruptive but you start thinking, 'What if this was different?' 'What if you put this on?'"

The challenge: For Collette, the costumes were never a problem — but the one-piece garments that held her in snugly were. "The real challenge was in trying to urinate while wearing one!" Collette says with a laugh. But for Weiss, what's under the clothing is nearly as important as what's on top. "You find a garment like that changes your posture, changes your eyeline. It changes where you put your hands." Ultimately, Collette acknowledges she liked the sensation: "I loved that feeling of being knitted together."


Sally Field (as Mary Todd Lincoln)

Joanna Johnston (costume designer)

The character: An early fashionista who knew about keeping up appearances, the plump Mary Todd liked her outfits snug and covered with any number of baubles and designs — a "fussy, fussed look" as Johnston calls it.

Making the match: Field says her layered costume helped her get into character: "Part of the task of any actor in building the character is building the exterior, learning how to move in all of those clothes — petticoats, stockings, garters, lace-up boots." It could take her anywhere from 30 to 45 minutes to get dressed, she adds. The actress put on 25 pounds to reach Mary Todd's "podgy" look, as Johnston describes it — and padding was not an option. "Mary Todd made her dresses very tight, into the body," says Johnston. "I could only pad what I could cover — so since Sally put on weight she got some in her upper arms and particularly in her face, which looked more natural.

The challenge: There was another restriction to most of Field's costumes: They were too wide for the trailers. "They had to make a tent for me on set wherever I was, because I couldn't get in and out of the motor homes," Field notes. And, as in "Hitchcock," the restroom proved something of a challenge too. "I got so I knew how to do it — like a Cirque de Soleil performance."

'The Master'

Laura Dern (as Helen Sullivan)

Mark Bridges (costume designer)

The character: Philadelphia society woman Sullivan was wealthy enough to have her clothes specially made, and was always aware of making a good impression and subtly flaunting her own sexuality.

Making the match: Bridges took a whole-person approach to creating Dern's character, inviting department heads for makeup and hair to fittings. "He wanted to make her dignified but possibly inappropriate," says Dern. There was also room for humor in the clothing choices, she reported, such as when Helen goes to the Southwestern U.S. and her clothing incorporates Western motifs. "Those kinds of choices really read to an audience, without them even knowing it," says Dern. "That's very subversive design."

Clothing challenge: Getting Helen all done up may have helped Dern slip into character — "she used it as Helen's process of getting out the door, getting ready to present herself to the world," recalls Bridges — but her fitted dresses presented something of a puzzle, as they had to be slipped over the head post-makeup session. "There was always a moment where you had to make sure there was a scarf on her head, and two of us pulling the dress down," he adds. "There's definitely this level of trust you have to develop."

'Les Misérables'

Hugh Jackman (as Jean Valjean)

Paco Delgado (costume designer)

The character: "Les Misérables" follows the resourceful Jean Valjean through most of his life, from life as a convict to being mayor of a small village and then reclusive family life.

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