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Costume Designers Stitch New Looks With Textures and Colors

Whether working in period or fantasy, these artisans know what it takes to clothe their characters

Whether dressing fairy tale creatures, clothing WWII code breakers or outfitting an iconic villainess, costume designers wove unusual and historical textures into their creations this year.

Colleen Atwood, winner of three Oscars for costume design, collaborated with helmer Rob Marshall for his musical “Into the Woods” (pictured). For this tale about the intertwining lives of several classical fairy tale characters, she focused on the concept of trees and shadows — the film’s titular “woods” environment.

Atwood fashioned leather cording on a chiffon background for Meryl Streep’s witch costume and created a twisting pattern on the sleeves of the dress so that the gown would have the texture and feeling of bark and leaves.

Streep’s witch later transforms into a striking blue-toned godmother, with a gown that retains a certain darkness but glints with a sparkle and shine. “It was special to do this transition with Meryl,” says Atwood. “You see her glamorous self, her beautiful witch and her sad living-in-the-woods witch self. They’re both important to the character.”

For “The Imitation Game,” costume designer Sammy Sheldon Differ relied on authentic clothing from the time period for both textural and practical reasons. With just five weeks’ pre-production time, she had to outfit a cast as well as extras on a tight budget. So, Differ scoured the streets to find pieces with the CC41 label that indicated they were rationed items from WWII.

The costume designer also discovered during her research that most people owned less clothing during the war, and there was more color and variety in clothing than she expected. Differ incorporated these findings into her work.

“I was focused on having textures, patterns and dots in the clothing for Benedict (Cumberbatch) so it had the appearance of code,” Differ says. “There was also a geometrical thing in patterns and prints from the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s that felt were right for the film because of the work Benedict’s character does.”

There were some unexpected textures in the making of the headdress for “Maleficent” as well. Justin Smith, a designer who worked with costume designer Anna Sheppard, was the key creative behind those famous horns, and he used everything from snakeskin to leather and fish skin in the process.

“There’s the summer look, which is a python skin head-wrap,” writes Smith in an email to Variety. “We’ve got the christening, which is the leather turban with leather-covered thorns. We’ve got a spring look, which is a narrow strip of leather sewn together so it creates a ribbed effect and then heavily lacquered and painted. Then there’s the stingray head wrap. So it’s stingray on the top and leather on the side.”

Smith had a clear focus while working with Sheppard and Angelina Jolie. “The main challenge was to be consistent with the iconography of the original Disney villainess, while designing and creating looks that would capture the tension between menacing and magical to become a contemporary couture version of the 1950s animation,” writes Smith.

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