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Talking the Oscar-Nominated Costume Design of 'The Invisible Woman'

Photo of Bill Desowitz By Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood January 22, 2014 at 2:05PM

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.
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Felicity Jones in 'The Invisible Woman'
Felicity Jones in 'The Invisible Woman'

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).

The Invisible Woman

"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.

This article is related to: The Invisible Woman, Ralph Fiennes, Immersed In Movies, Interviews , Thompson on Hollywood, Oscars, Awards Season Roundup


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.