Isis Mussenden dresses one devilicious diva
When costuming a witch, certain factors need to be considered. For starters, the black hair and broomstick thing is, frankly, passe. And when the witch in question is Jadis the White Witch from “The Chronicles of Narnia,” black would simply be the ultimate fashion faux pas.
“She’s the Ice Queen; she couldn’t be dark,” says Costume Designers Guild nominee Isis Mussenden, who says the character of Jadis, portrayed with fierce intensity by Tilda Swinton, was the greatest challenge of the job.
Mussenden spent months in the concept phase — because the other thing about dressing witches is that they’re not human, so such mundane tasks as actually getting dressed are irrelevant. “I didn’t want to think that she went into the wardrobe and pulled her dress out,” says the designer. “I didn’t even want to think that she has a closet!”
Dismissing Pauline Baynes’ beloved yet bland illustrations from the original C.S. Lewis books, Mussenden hit upon the missing element thanks to her son’s obsession with Pokemon, in which the game’s characters physically evolve over time. She envisioned the White Witch’s costume as an organic element that would similarly evolve and change colors. “We called it a mood ring,” she says. “It would blow up as she was feeling strong and deflate as her powers would disappear.”
Seven different icy-hued dresses were crafted from hand-felted wool and silk, with a lace overlay that was then burned for texture and depth. But this ice palette is not the glittering white of a department store North Pole; it’s the opaque aqua of icebergs and the steely blue of a frozen sea.
The dresses are imposing, beautiful and feminine — as befits an enchantress who can lure children to her castle with Turkish delight and the warmth of a fur mantle. Alexander McQueen was a design inspiration, and in fact, none of the garments would look out of place on the couture catwalk.
“We were not going to make her evil-looking,” says Mussenden; that was Swinton’s responsibility. Mussenden adds that the alabaster pale, otherworldly beauty will do “anything” to make a costume work, including, in this case, wearing no makeup, which for many fortysomething Hollywood actresses would be a deal-breaker.
Really, who needs makeup when you’re swathed in white fox, ritualistically adorned with black feathers, or dressed, literally, to kill, in what came to be called “the Aslan poncho”: a lion’s mane ruff (synthetic, of course) worn atop a titanium chain-mail skirt that took a week to weld together.
For the Ice Queen’s signature piece — her icicle crown — Mussenden collaborated with the New York City artist Hope Atherton, who uses textiles and taxidermy in her work. “Hope has this little thing in her brain that’s really macabre,” says Mussenden. “It takes her one step further into darkness.”
The designer had always imagined a crown of ice that would melt away, yet it was Atherton who conceived of icicles actually growing from the witch’s skull.
Mussenden widens her eyes. “I mean, shards of ice coming out of someone’s head! It’s just fantastic!” She continues, chuckling at the memory, “And then when I said, ‘OK, how are we going to make this?’ she said, ‘I don’t know, that’s your job.'”