Costume Designer Colleen Atwood Talks Alice Through the Looking Glass

A longtime Tim Burton collaborator, the costume designer Colleen Atwood is responsible for Johnny Depp’s now-iconic Edward Scissorhands get-up, won an Oscar for 2010’s Alice in Wonderland, and was nominated for Burton’s Sweeney Todd. The release of the Burton-produced Alice Through the Looking Glass sees Atwood back at the fanciful-yet-functional drawing board. Alice (Mia Wasikowska) has returned to Wonderland and makes her first visit to Underland, thanks to some bad news from the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp), whose hair has turned white while he mourns his missing, and possibly deceased, family. With Alice all grown up, her few looks take on more meaning than they did in Alice in Wonderland, so we sat down to chat with Atwood about wild shoulders, drawing inspiration from Lewis Carroll, and designing for 3D.

One of our favorite aspects of the characters' clothing in Alice Through the Looking Glass is the whimsical balance between historical tailoring and Wonderland-style cuts and colors. What is your approach to striking such a balance?

Let me start by saying, they could not have found a more perfect Alice than Mia…she is Alice. Her style is a natural, period look from the world above ground and is different from the first film. She has returned from being out at sea and is grown-up and feeling empowered, so she is no longer your traditional Alice in a blue frock with fluffy hair. The girl that Lewis Carroll based Alice on had a long bob haircut at a time when most girls were extremely feminine with their hair in ringlets and wearing big dresses. You could tell she was a forward-thinking girl for her time, and I like the idea of a girl that is a little outside the box and who creates her own world, and I think that is an exciting message to women in general. Alice only wears pants, disguised as dresses, in this film, as they were just more practical (especially because of all the stunt work her character has to do)…

Anne Hathaway, Johnny Depp and Mia Wasikowska. Courtesy Walt Disney​

The Hatter’s look is other-worldly and magical but still somewhat real in a sense. He is in a different head space at the beginning of our story and his costume goes through a journey of trying to help him find his soul, which I envisioned almost like a black and white Edward Gorey drawing…like someone had removed all his color. It’s Johnny’s face so you know it’s still him, but he has gone sane and a little bit insane at the same time, so it’s a different kind of journey. When Alice first returns to Underland, the Hatter is wearing his usual attire (jacket, over-sized bow-tie and hat), but it is the hat which truly defines his character. The hat is similar to an actual hat from the Victorian period but enlarged to make it look more whimsical.

Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter. Courtesy Walt Disney Pictures​

Where did you find your inspiration for the characters’ clothing? In particular, do you look to the many past illustrations from the original and subsequent publishings of Lewis Carroll’s books?

I begin by doing a lot of reading to look for ideas and inspirations, like the John Tenniel illustrations from Lewis Carroll’s original books, which were just so indicative of the story itself. I [also] studied Japanese design of the ‘80s, especially the shapes of the period and the structure and design of the clothing. I find inspiration in beautiful things…I love to see what I can do with them. I think everybody nowadays cross-pollinates in the media world that we live in, whether anyone admits it or not is another thing, but I am happy to admit that I look at everything that I can for inspiration.

You experiment with a few exaggerated costume elements, notably shoulders, and particularly on Sascha Baron Cohen’s character, Time. How did that look — one of the movie’s wildest — come about?

Each character in the story is iconic, so to create an iconic kind of feeling for a character that’s so abstractly named, I spoke with Sacha to find out how he viewed his character, and he sort of gave me an idea of who he was. Unfortunately, he didn’t get a lot of prep time with us because he was on another film and came in quite late, so I was very nervous about his costume working for him because he’s a really great physical actor. When you work with a physical actor like Sacha, you have to make sure their costumes function for them, so a big concern with his costume was the size: it has super-wide shoulders and elements that have a lot of weight to them and which are not necessarily very comfortable to wear, but he managed to make it work so that he looks intimidating and humorous at the same time.

Sacha Baron Cohen as Time. Courtesy Walt Disney Pictures.​

Speaking of exaggerated proportions, now that 3D is becoming more of the norm, have you noticed that you have to work differently to create characters’ looks?

With any digital characters, I design the costumes on little maquettes and give swatches of all the materials, as well as buttons, lining, etc. to the visual effects team which they then digitize and send back to me for my notes. Once you bring 3D into the process it becomes more complicated, however, because any sort of patterns in the costumes or the materials look totally different in 3D and many times have to be changed or animated to make them look more authentic (like they were created by a seamstress, which they actually were).

Helena Bonham Carter. Courtesy Walt Disney Pictures​

Disney merchandises some clothing related to the Alice in Wonderland franchise, but what about looks from the film themselves? Do you envision any of the fashion you create showing up in the real world?

I think, in a strange and special way, Iracebeth’s sculpted armor costume may resonate in the world of fashion. I don't quite know what they would do with it, but I think that a certain part of the fashion world will connect with it in a humorous way, and I'm looking forward to their translation of it because I’m sure they'll enjoy it. And the embroidery on Alice's Chinese-themed jacket and the structure and the way it's designed might resurface on the runways in a couple of years. Also, we made some amazing little boots for Iracebeth and Mirana that I know people will connect with.  

Mia Wasikowska. Courtesy Walt Disney Pictures


Susannah Edelbaum

Susannah Edelbaum's work has appeared on NPR Berlin, Fast Company, Motherboard, and the Cut, among others. She lives in Berlin, Germany.