The Imagination of Colleen Atwood: From Period Drama to Fantasy

When you think of Tim Burton’s films, you likely immediately think of the brilliant and fantastical costume design. From Anne Hathaway’s all-white ensemble as the White Queen in Alice in Wonderland to Johnny Depp’s black leather and silver metal outfit as the titular character in Edward Scissorhands, the costumes set the tone for the film. But you might not be familiar with the name of the woman behind the great costumes in many of Burton’s films (and a wide variety of other projects in television and film). Colleen Atwood is one of the all-time great costume designers, whether she’s working with period, fantasy, or contemporary clothing. 

Colleen was born in the state of Washington and studied painting at Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle. Her career began as a fashion advisor before she moved to New York City in 1980. She furthered her studies at NYU, but costume design was not her original goal. In a guest speaking engagement for the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising, she said, “I came from a bleak, small farm town in Washington state. I always loved art, drawing, and reading, but didn’t set out to be a costume designer.”

Colleen Atwood has worked across the mediums of film, television, and theater.

It was a job working as a production assistant on the film Ragtime that changed her career path, prompting her to go on to be a wardrobe production assistant for A Little Sex in 1982. Two years later, Firstborn was her first credit as a costume designer. She worked across the mediums of film, television, and theater, even designing costumes for Sting’s Bring On the Night tour and for the band My Chemical Romance. 

Colleen has frequently collaborated with directors Burton, Rob Marshall, and Jonathan Demme. Edward Scissorhands (1990) was her first collaboration with Burton and marked the beginning of a long partnership. She became his go-to costume designer, working on eleven more films including Sleepy Hollow (1999), Big Fish (2003), and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007). Her costumes for Burton’s films perfectly match his kooky, often gothic visions, complementing the production design and cinematography. 

Rob Marshall has worked with Atwood on many of his movie musicals, from the more realistic Nine (2009) to the fairy tale Into the Woods (2014). Most recently, she created the costumes for The Little Mermaid (2023), which was no small undertaking. Not only did the costumes need to live up to the beloved animated classic, while putting a new spin on them, but several of them also needed to allow their actors to do stunts in the water. 

The third director that Colleen has often worked with is Jonathan Demme, whose wide and varied filmography includes The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Philadelphia (1993), and Beloved (1998). That alone would demonstrate the variety of Atwood’s designs, before even considering her work on superhero TV shows like The Flash and Supergirl and science fiction films like Gattaca (1997) and Mars Attacks! (1996). 

While she has certainly worked on many period dramas and adaptations, she doesn’t like to be too tied to source material. She explained, “I like to start with visuals drawn from books, exhibitions, things I have seen. I have an assistant or other people do the Internet-based historic research. I like the spontaneity of what happens when you turn away from the screen and explore with an open mind.” A great example is how she costumed the titular character in the television series Wednesday, paying homage to former iterations of the character while also creating her own looks. In an interview, she said, “I won’t say I redid Wednesday but I feel like I took Wednesday into today’s world, into a world that was applicable to a large audience.” 

Colleen is no stranger to awards, having been recognized by the Oscars, BAFTAs, Emmys, and Costume Designers Guild Awards.

Colleen is no stranger to awards, having been recognized by the Oscars, BAFTAs, Emmys, and Costume Designers Guild Awards. She has been nominated for the Academy Award for Best Costume Design twelve times and has won four. Her first Oscar was for the flashy 1920s costumes of Chicago in 2002, followed only a few years later in 2005 by an award for Memoirs of a Geisha. Her only Oscar for a Tim Burton film came in 2010 with Alice in Wonderland. Most recently, she won in 2016, for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. These four wins make her one of the most decorated costume designers in Oscar history, being tied for third-most wins with Milena Canonero. Only legends Edith Head, with eight, and Irene Sharaff, with five, have more. 

Click image to enlarge.

This year’s SWAN Day film is Burton’s Big Eyes (2014), which Colleen Atwood designed the costumes for. It’s very tame work compared to her other collaborations with Burton, but still very impressive and perfectly complementary to the other craft work on the film. The story spans from the 1950s to the 1960s, with the costumes helping show the passage of time. While the costumes are appropriate for the periods, they also reflect the artistic personality of the main character Margaret Keane (played by Amy Adams). Colleen Atwood’s use of plaid is intriguing, as a complicated pattern reflects a complicated story. Even costumes like Margaret’s wedding gown or honeymoon swimsuit that only appear for a minute have painstaking detail made into them.  

Big Eyes came out on the same day – December 25, 2014 – as Into the Woods, which Colleen also designed costumes for. She might be known for her more fantastical costumes, but when asked about designing for Pain Hustlers (2023), another film rooted in reality, she said, “It’s a different process. Little details become very important, and the simplicity of it all becomes more important. The costumes can’t take over the story, because the story has to be the thing.” 

Colleen is a pro at making sure that the story itself is reflected in the clothes that the characters are wearing.

Colleen is a pro at making sure that the story itself is reflected in the clothes that the characters are wearing. In discussing Big Eyes, she said, “Margaret went through different phases with her art, but I feel the paintings are reflective of a kind of murky coloring of the time, which I tried to use for the costumes.” While costuming the Keanes might not have been one of the most challenging tasks Atwood has taken on, it shows off her range and refusal to be pigeonholed into one type of design. 

What do we have to look forward to from Colleen Atwood? She is being honored as part of the 2024 class of Disney Legends, an honor that has been bestowed every year since 1987 by the Walt Disney Company. She’s also returning to design costumes for the second season of Netflix’s Wednesday, as well as being tied to the upcoming Rothko. Perhaps most excitingly, she’s reuniting with Burton again for a thirteenth film together: Beetlejuice Beetlejuice. While she didn’t design the original Beetlejuice costumes (those were done by Aggie Guerard Rodgers, shortly before Colleen Atwood and Tim Burton’s first collaboration), she’ll surely be referencing the iconic looks while also refreshing them for a new decade. 

Colleen Atwood is one of the greats for a reason, and – as evidenced in her work on Big Eyes – someone who instinctually understands Burton’s visions, making their partnership one of the most fascinating in film history. 

© Nicole Ackman (3/26/24) – Special for FF2 Media

PS from FF2 editor-in-chief Jan Lisa Huttner: Big Eyes was released in 2004, making this Big Eyes’s 20th anniversary. FF2 Media is extremely proud to announce that Big Eyes is the focal point of our SWAN DAY SWEET SIXTEEN program on March 30, 2024. Based at the SVA Theatre in NYC, the program will be livestreamed and available to all simultaneously as well as afterwards on YouTube. If you are in Metro NYC, make an NYC reservation here via EVENTBRITE. If you are in Chicago, make a CHICAGO reservation here via EVENTBRITE for the parallel program. Our program is free and open to the public, but you must be on the reservation list to enter either the SVA Theatre building (in NYC) or the Claudia Cassidy Theater at the Chicago Cultural Center (in Chicago). 

LEARN MORE/DO MORE

Read an interview with Colleen Atwood from the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising.

Check out Variety’s coverage of Colleen Atwood’s designs for Wednesday.

Read a feature from the Academy Awards on Colleen Atwood’s designs and career.

Read a feature from The New York Times on Colleen Atwood’s work for Into the Woods.

Meet the 2024 Class of Disney Legends, including Colleen Atwood.

Check out the press release for Colleen Atwood joining Beetlejuice Beetlejuice as costume designer.

CREDITS & PERMISSIONS

Featured Photo: Actress Delaney Raye co-stars as Margaret Keane’s daughter Jayne in the film BIG EYES (2014). Photo Credit: Silverwood Films / Album / Alamy Stock Photo. Image ID: P4F3N5

Middle Photo: Amy Adams stars as Margaret Keane in the film BIG EYES (2014). Photo Credit: © The Weinstein Company / Leah Gallo / Photo 12 / Alamy Stock Photo. Image ID: EYWD40

Bottom Photo: Costume designer Colleen Atwood poses for her win on the film FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM (2016) in the press room during the 89th Annual Academy Awards at Hollywood & Highland Center on February 26, 2017 in Los Angeles. Photo Credit: Lionel Hahn / Abaca Press / Alamy Stock Photo. Image ID: 2DG63EX

Tags: Amy Adams, Beetlejuice Beetlejuice, Big Eyes, chicago, Colleen Atwood, costume designer, Margaret Keane, Memoirs of a Geisha, Nicole Ackman, The Little Mermaid, Tim Burton, Wednesday

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Nicole Ackman is an FF2 Media Associate based in North Carolina, after living in London and New York. She graduated from Elon University with a Bachelors degree in History and Strategic Communication and from City University of London with a Masters degree in Culture, Policy, and Management. She is a theatre and film critic and is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association. Her taste in film tends towards period dramas, movie musicals, and anything starring Saoirse Ronan. In addition to film, she is passionate about history, theatre, Disney parks, and classic novels by female writers.
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