With her work on Best Picture nominee 12 Years A Slave, Patricia Norris now has been Oscar-nominated six times for costumes, but the statuette has eluded her. Norris first was nominated in 1979 for Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven. Two years later, she was nominated again for David Lynch’s The Elephant Man. Following that were nominations for Blake Edwards’ Victor/Victoria and Sunset and for 2010. She worked on women’s wardrobes for films in the late 1960s and early ’70s including on Howard Hawks’ Rio Lobo. Her first film credit as a costume designer came in 1971 for Support Your Local Gunfighter, which starred James Garner. Since then, Norris has worked as a costume designer on everything from the Mel Brooks comedies High Anxiety and History of the World, Part I to such serious fare as Frances, Scarface and The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford. She also worked on 105 episodes of homespun TV saga The Waltons. This dedicated woman also worked as production designer on several films including helmer Lynch’s Lost Highway, Wild At Heart and Blue Velvet. She won a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Art Directors Guild in 2011 and the Costume Designers Guild prior to that. She also won an Emmy for the director’s cult classic TV series Twin Peaks.
For 12 Years a Slave, based on the mid-19th century true story of Solomon Northup, a free man and later sold into slavery, Norris authentically captured the clothing of the time period for those indentured and those in the Southern ruling class. Norris is passionate about costuming period films. “It’s the only thing I absolutely like doing because they’re interesting,” she said. “There is no fashion anymore, it’s just copies from somewhere else.” In designing costumes for 12 Years, she noted that there was little research of the time period to be had. “All you can do is follow your instinct, and thank God for cotton and things you can dye.” She said they made many shirts and pants and then aged them. “Making people look good in that period is easy, but making people look bad in that period is hard because you don’t want them to look like a chorus line. So you have to give each person some kind of personality so they all don’t look the same,” said Norris. “It’s not as difficult with the women but with the men — because there are so many of them — so you make it up in your mind … you figure out where people came from. There were good plantations and bad plantations, so it’s logic combined with what was available at the time and not having a lot of research except for what people wore.”
The sketches available, she noted, were scarce. One was of a happy slave eating an apple against a tree, drawn by a white man. So, without the benefit of photos of the clothing, she employed logic. She knew the South was a main manufacturer of cotton, so the costumes were done in linen and cotton. She also knew that everything was hand-sewn during that time period. Added to that were silks and other textiles that came in from ships loaded up from England and France.
Norris was brought onto the film by Brad Pitt’s production company Plan B Entertainment. She had worked with them before on the Jesse James picture. Dede Gardner, President of Plan B and one of the producers on the film, was working with Anthony Catagas (also listed as a producer), who recommended Norris to director Steve McQueen. The film itself was shot in Louisiana under hot and humid conditions from June 27 to August 13, 2012 — only 48 days. “I had seven whole weeks to prepare it,” said Norris, of the tough conditions and schedule. “Some of the actors came in late and shot and then left, so it was one of those things that you looked at day by day. We only had 11 changes so it got to be quite grueling.” Grueling, yes for anyone at any age — all the more remarkable for an 82-year-old.