Atwood also designed costumes for the animated creatures, such as the frog footman seen here. Sketch by Colleen Atwood, courtesy Walt Disney Studios.
In the opening of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, the heroine argues with her mother about—what else?—clothes. Scolded for not wearing a corset, Alice says, “Who’s to say what is proper? What if it was agreed that proper was wearing a codfish on your head? Would you wear it?… To me, a corset is like a codfish.”
Costume designer Colleen Atwood, who’s won two Oscars (Chicago, Memoirs of a Geisha) and received her ninth Oscar nomination for Alice, says this line “set up Alice’s character as slightly more modern, more of a human being.” Her costumes follow suit. Alice begins the film in 19th century blue party dress, which cleverly references the animated puff-sleeve creation she’s been stuck in since 1951. (“It’s an iconic thing, not a bad thing,” says Atwood.) But when Alice goes down the rabbit hole and lands in a transformative new world, her clothes do too.
“We made a decision that as Alice shrunk and grew, her dress would not,” says Atwood. This leaves Alice puzzling over what to wear throughout the film. First, she improvises a halter and quadruple-wrapped ribbon belt to hoist up her underskirt. Then, when she shrinks again, the Mad Hatter fashions a teeny dress for her to change into inside a teapot. Next, when she suddenly grows out of this garment and ends up gigantic and naked at the royal court, the Red Queen orders, “Clothe this enormous girl!” At this point, Alice is given an assymmetrical black, white, red gown. In each iteration, Alice’s dress gains a detail—black trim, contrasting colors, a stripe—that recalls a certain auteur’s visual language. Alice gets Burtonized.
Atwood has designed costumes for nearly every film Tim Burton has made in the last twenty years. Their working relationship is so close that they’ll sometimes come to the table with remarkably similar ideas. Take for instance Burton’s concept art for the Red Queen (or, the Queen of Hearts), a character that posed a certain challenge because, as Atwood puts it, “Cards have been done to death.” Without seeing Burton’s sketch, Atwood almost matched it. “The same thing happened with the Hatter!” she says. The key difference between the two Red Queens might be that Atwood’s sketch looks a bit more like her inspiration, Bette Davis as Queen Elizabeth I in The Virgin Queen, and Burton’s sketch looks a bit more like his, Helena Bonham Carter. Bonham Carter noticed that too.
The actress writes in The Art of Tim Burton, “I never know if I’m going to be in a Tim Burton film or not . Usually he says, ‘Well, it had to be you because, look, I’ve just drawn you.’ In the case of the Red Queen, he said this and produced a picture of a very angry, red-headed queen. With my eyebrows.”