Oscar-winning costume designer Michael O' Connor ("The Duchess") may be an expert at period pieces, but he was a Charles Dickens novice along with actor-director Ralph Fiennes before making "The Invisible Woman." And in this year's battle of the period pieces ("American Hustle," "The Great Gatsby," "The Grandmaster," "12 Years a Slave"), O'Connor is somewhat of a surprise nominee for this biopic about the secret affair between the middle-aged Dickens (Ralph Fiennes) and a teenage actress, Nelly Ternan (Felicity Jones).
"Ralph wanted to be like Dickens' world and embrace the period and not shy away from some of the more eccentric and decorated elements in terms of the costumes and an extreme shape for women, especially," explains O' Connor. "Normally, people set their movies later in the 1870s when things became more elegant and sophisticated, but we focus on the 1850s, aside from the 1880s, as a framing device."
In addition to combing the London museums (particularly the Victorian and Albert) and studying "The Darby Day" painting by William Powell Frifth, O'Connor headed straight for "The Pickwick Papers," "Oliver Twist," and "David Copperfield" in search of historical inspiration, of which there was plenty in the legendary author's descriptive prose. Historians presume, in fact, that Ternan inspired Lucie and Estella from "A Tale of Two Cities" and "Great Expectations."
"You pick out a character like Flora [Finching from 'Little Dorrit'] and you think Dickens was rather conventional in the way he viewed women at that time," O' Connor continues. "He liked them pretty, he liked them small, and he liked them in pastel colors. So I thought when Dickens first encounters Nelly, he wants her to be one of those girls that he writes about as a romantic ideal.