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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'

"What was important for Nelly was to go for subtle colors and gray, mousy working dresses that make her more vulnerable. And slowly as she became more influential with Dickens and their relationship grew, her clothes were more ornate. She has pretty dresses at the races, a pink dress at her birthday party. As an older woman, [haunted by her memories] she wears darker, heavier colors and more restrictive clothing. It was about taking the character from one space to another. And there are contrasts with her two sisters and her mother, who is darker and more dramatic-looking."

As for Dickens, Fiennes would send the costume designer photographs of men from the period and ask him to provide dates so they could stay historically accurate. Many of the photographs they liked, though, were either too early (when Dickens dressed like a proper dandy) or after Dickens and Ternan parted.

Ralph Fiennes in "The Invisible Woman"
Ralph Fiennes in "The Invisible Woman"

"I'd tell Ralph we should go for this type of hat and waistcoat and sometimes he'd ask if the feeling was right in a particular scene. I had discussions with Ralph about a frock coat for quite a long time. It needed to be just above the knee, and if was any longer, he'd look a bit strange in it. Or I would say, let's put something flashier in when there's a theatrical moment going on. But it's very difficult for that period because you don't want him to be Barnum or Willy Wonka." 

Indeed, according to O'Connor, Victorian men started wearing more sober-looking suits in the 1850s. And so he had a suit made for Fiennes that became a favorite that he wore at the tea party, and he wore casual jackets with check trousers. "It was more like creating a wardrobe for Ralph. And we had diary entries where Dickens would describe what he was wearing. He'd put something on like these big, yellow, check trousers with a big, green coat, and we'd see if it would work for that moment because you don't want it to detract from what the scene's about. You want to give the essence of Dickens."

"The pleasure is seeing the difference between the 1850s and the 1880s and the theatrical moments putting on the play together. It's nice when they feel the costumes working for them because we had to make all of these costumes with all the layers and have them fit tightly. And it was about the restrictions they were under."


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.