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'Lincoln' costume designer Joanna Johnston brings beauty to war

November 29, 2012|By Janet Kinosian
  • Costume designer on the movie Lincoln, Joanna Johnston.
Costume designer on the movie Lincoln, Joanna Johnston. (DreamWorks )

"Poetic" is the way British costume designer Joanna Johnston describes her journey creating the costumes for Steven Spielberg's newest film, the intimate epic "Lincoln," starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Sally Field. Having collaborated with Spielberg on many of his other dramatic films, including "Saving Private Ryan" (1998), "Munich" (2005) and, most recently, "War Horse" (2011), she brings sartorial beauty to dark periods littered with heroic characters, the apex now being Abraham Lincoln himself.

Were you intimidated by the iconic status of Lincoln, and did being a Brit make a difference?

Yes to being intimidated, but I don't think it matters so much that it's not part of your childhood. I think it's more the responsibility of doing right for the American people for someone who is so significant to them. Sometimes it's quite good to come in from a more objective place, I quite like that, but there's definitely a responsibility in this job, and I felt a weight of that responsibility. I felt it pretty much throughout [filming], though once we started shooting and Daniel got on camera, I think I felt the foot was in the door then.

You've worked with Spielberg many times. What is his way of approaching costume? Does he have a very specific vision of how he wants a character to look, or does he give you free rein?

The nice thing about these long-standing relationships is just that trust, isn't it? I know to a degree what he likes and what he doesn't like. This film is not a design job, it's a re-creating job, so it's a matter of depicting the men and women of a particular time, and it went without saying — I don't think we even had a discussion — that we were doing it authentically, that was just a given, no stylization.

In the very early days with him, when we're in playtime together, he was in England and we were in this amazing garden in Gloucester. I had this thought that I wanted to not have all the men in black, the frock coats, but to have a different patina to them. I showed him one particular color, this unbelievable aubergine of this plant/flower thing, and I said, "This is the sort of color that I'm looking at," so he had a visual. And he loved it and said, "Yes, just go with it." I even remember taking a picture of the plant.

How was Daniel Day-Lewis' silhouette created? Did you have a lot of time with him?

It was not a lot of time with him, but it was over a good amount of time because he and I both wanted to get our feet wet early on to get him moving. I wanted to get him a certain way along before I started doing other actors.

And the experience was amazing. It's one of these things you look back on now and it was just sort of brilliant; we were traveling — traveling and exploring and journeying — in a really good way. I suppose he and I knew that iconic look of Lincoln and that between us we had to not make it too obvious, too caricature. What an extraordinary man [Daniel] is and what he does with [the role]. So my process was really beautiful; it was very poetic in a lot of ways. There were a lot, a lot of tiny moves, and working very closely with my tailor.

How was Sally Field's Mary Todd Lincoln realized? Was it a similar process?

Sally and I'd worked together before, on "Forrest Gump," so that was heaven. First thing we had to do was what I call "chub her up." We had to fatten her up because Sally's really slim and Mary Todd was brilliantly slightly chubby. She had a look — what I called the "stuffed pillow" look, and her clothes were very fussy and over-embellished. We were constantly layering more and more stuff on Sally in the fitting room. I mean, if I calculated the amount of hours she spent in the fitting rooms with me, it probably adds up to months! She gained 25 pounds, and we got her waist up to Mary Todd's waist size, which was our objective. Well, I didn't do anything. I just asked her and she did all the work.

The lovely wool shawls Lincoln wore, Secretary of State Seward's beautiful gold brocade jacket — how did these things come about?

Lincoln was famously very keen on shawls — that is a fact, and along with the winter months, I think it's a fantastic look. Daniel made his choices about when to wear them, and it was always right. Seward was a great traveler, a man of position, and he liked his clothes and was a man of great taste. He'd been to China and Morocco, and I found — I couldn't believe it, actually — an 18th century Chinese silk robe that had been made in Morocco, so I used that with just small adjustments.

What did you learn about Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln that surprised you?

What I love about [Lincoln], there's so many opposites, so many diverse things with him that I find fascinating.... And it's funny about Lincoln's face, when I see it in my memory, it's not good looking, it's a kind of slightly ugly guy. Through the process of this film, I now look at those images and I think he's absolutely ravishing. How he projected himself, his image, his extraordinary presence, that frail body and that power in the face.

And Mary, she was amazing, absolutely amazing. I enjoyed her as a character. She was a really interesting woman, bright, modern, dynamic. I think it was difficult for her once she was in the White House.

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