Alice Gets Some New Clothes

Cannes Film Festival

Walt Disney Pictures


From a headless horseman to a mad hatter, from an angora-clad director to a uniformed ape, Colleen Atwood has sized them all up.  The Oscar-winning costume designer ("Memoirs of a Geisha," "Chicago") has been a frequent collaborator with director Tim Burton on movies ranging from period costumes ("Sleepy Hollow") to science fiction ("Planet of the Apes"). Her latest collaboration with Burton can be seen in the fantasy stylings of "Alice in Wonderland."

The collaborative process between the costume designer and Burton revolves around short meetings where mutual ideas are discuss.  A follow-up meeting occurs a few days later, where Atwood presents a completed outfit for Burton’s approval. Although their meetings are brief and efficient, Atwood enjoys the comradery she shares with the director.

"I feel I have an understanding of Tim’s special language," said Atwood.  "We are able to communicate well together.  I think we also have a very similar point of view about the world, and this makes it easier too.  This gives us a lot of freedom: we always look forward to the experience.  We share a lot of laughs and have a really good time."

Burton has given the story of a young girl who falls down a rabbit hole into a magical world a new twist: Alice returns to Wonderland as a young adult.  This provided Atwood with a freedom to create some new looks for a familiar character.

"The thing to remember is that we have to make our decisions off the screenplay; this isn’t the book or the cartoon," said Atwood.  "Alice is different developmentally than little Alice.  The same people are there, but she’s opening a door to a different world.  It’s all about the exploration of that world."

Atwood used the styles of the story’s setting as a basis for her costume creations.

"The opening of the movie sets the time.  We’re using the styles of that period, 1860s England," said Atwood.  "We wanted to pay tribute to her origins, so we kept the blue dress.  Once we go through the dream world we have a lot more freedom to play with the fashions.  For the Mad Hatter and the Red Queen, we did follow more 18th century and Elizabethan styles, but there are really no rules once you follow Alice down the rabbit hole."

Although there was no real color theory applied to the character’s outfits, there were certain limitations Atwood had to abide by.  Since the movie was shot primarily against green screen, the color green could not be used in the outfits.  Additionally, the Red and White Queen’s courts utilized red and white palettes, respectively.   Atwood had the most fun working with texture and patterns in the movie.  Utilizing her personal love of textile creation, she avoided buying printed material, choosing to create all the patterns by hand.

"I’ve explored textiles throughout the years, and thought working with a lot of patched material would really work for this movie," said Atwood.  "I applied ribbons and hand-painted a lot of material; silks and a lot of textiles.  I didn’t use striped prints but created my own to enhance the texture.  I wanted the patterns to be different."

Atwood spent roughly three and a half months working on "Alice" and left the set to work on another film while Burton and crew shot all the animated sequences.  Many decisions about the remaining costumes were made after Burton had the opportunity to review the animated sequences.  Upon returning to the set months later, Atwood and her team of eight employees worked quickly to design and complete all remaining costumes.

"I worked on creating outfits for the Hatter clan, and had twenty members of the White Queen’s court and thirty members of the Red Queen’s court to create," said Atwood.  "It was really fun working on these designs after the fact and taking in all the elements of the animation.  We made quite a few costumes in a short period of time!"

When Atwood first began the movie, she worked closely with the hair and makeup artist to determine the right look of each character as a complete person.  Once the movie was completed, she found herself out on the press circuit, an aspect of the film’s marketing she normally is not involved with.  "It’s really interesting, to see other aspects of it, to see the product from the marketing perspective," said Atwood.

As the press circuit continues for "Alice in Wonderland," Atwood is already busy with her next project, a thriller with a contemporary setting.  Although she enjoys mixing genres and doesn’t necessarily have a favorite period to design for, the modern setting places a longing in her heart.

"When I’m working in the contemporary period, I always miss the epic work," said Atwood.  "I’m always looking forward to it."