"Costumes are the first impression that you have of the character before they open their mouth-it really does establish who they are."
Colleen Atwood was born in 1950 in Yakima, Washington. A woman whose works would go on to generate nine Academy award nominations and three wins - she was never a woman to back down from a challenge. Like many of us, she worked retail while she strived to make her career happen at places like Yves St. Laurent boutique at Frederick & Nelson department store in the city in the 1970s. This experience as a fashion advisor would lead her to costume design and initial notoriety from her work on Sting's Bring On The Night World Tour and documentary by the same name.
In 1980, she moved to New York where she would study art at New York University. Shortly after, Colleen would begin her film career as a production assistant on a film called RAGTIME. An acquaintance's mother was a set designer for the show and would bring her on. In 1982, she would get her first film credit as an assistant to costume designer, Patrizia von Brandenstein, on a film entitled A LITTLE SEX.
After working on JOE VS THE VOLCANO in 1990, Colleen would be recommended to meet a filmmaker named Tim Burton regarding his upcoming film, EDWARD SCISSORHANDS. This is one of my favourite flicks of all time. Every department tells a story like no other, truly bringing the audience into that world. Colleen and Tim sat down for an interview about the project and hit it off royally which was the beginning of a beautiful working relationship.
"The reward is that you can actually create a world separate from reality with a story, actors, music, and camera design. When it works it can entertain, move people and teach us all."
EDWARD SCISSORHANDS would be what prompted Colleen to move to LA in 1990 and where she would work for many years and continues to this day. The two would go on to collaborate on many visually spectacular films, such as SLEEPY HALLOW, MARS ATTACKS, BIG FISH, PLANET OF THE APES, ED WOOD, and ALICE IN WONDERLAND which would win her an Oscar for her costume design. Just with those impressive productions, you would think this lady was more than set for life, but she's played a big hand in some of the biggest flicks of all time.
"A good costume is really about a great silhouette. So if you can create a great costume through that and color and shape, people will get the picture."
Colleen has a gift not only for fantasy modern fairy tale costume design, but also in moody, dark realism. This is most evidently seen in her work on Jonathan Demme's films - PHILADELPHIA and SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. Both films look at reality based horror - both are upsetting and character driven pieces. As infamously said by Buffalo Bill in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, "Would you fuck me? I'd fuck me. I'd fuck me hard." In wardrobe as sexy and uber stylized as that. Yes, Bill. I would fuck the living hell out of you. Hannibal too. And that's because Colleen is so damn good at her design work.
"Some of the kimonos took as long as four to five months to make, with all the layers that go into it."
At this point, it shouldn't come as a surprise, gentle reader, that Colleen Atwood excels at any given genre or time piece costume design. She is the masterful mind behind the attire seen on the cast in LITTLE WOMEN, MARRIED TO THE MOB, WYATT EARP, CHICAGO, and, one of Jen's favourite films, MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA. For those of you that read the book, you are aware of the striking description of the kimonos in the story. If you are aware of the history of these gorgeous garments, their creation is a tremendous labor of love. Each kimono representing the wealth and worth of a person. Their exact look and design was integral tot he telling of this story and Colleen didn't disappoint. Her efforts would win her her second Academy Award. She also won for her work on CHICAGO.
"If you want someone to feel warm, you dress them in a warm color and put a warm light on them and you get the picture. Sometimes, all that needs pushing a little bit to help tell the story."
Winner of three Academy Awards, mother of two girls - Tracey and Charolette, Tim Burton's woman to call for costumes on his projects, a woman whose thoughtful design work not only helps in the creation of unforgettable characters but their films as well, Colleen Atwood's career is extraordinary and she's not slowing down. She was the designer behind the iconic wardrobe for My Chemical Romance in their Black Parade album and the designer for even more films like PUBLIC ENEMIES, THE TOURIST, NINE, LEMONY SNICKET'S A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS, MISSION IMPOSSIBLE 3, SWEENEY TODD, THE RUM DIARY, DARK SHADOWS, and SNOW WHITE & THE HUNTSMAN.
A lot of people who work behind the scenes don't get enough credit for what they bring to films and it was a pleasure getting to research Colleen's career and share it with you. I hope this inspires you to look into different departments in your favourite flicks and see the kick ass men and women who made that film so spectacular.