“There are so many people doing such great work out there,” said The Invisible Woman costume designer Michael O’Connor, who is Oscar-nominated for Best Achievement in Costume Design. O’Connor — who worked on the period drama about the life of Charles Dickens — was one of the most gracious people I’ve ever interviewed, handing out credit to his staff, his director Ralph Fiennes and even to his peers on other films. “If you look at a film like Nebraska, those clothes say everything about those people,” O’Connor said. “It’s good, intelligent work.” His appreciation and passion for the work is evident in every detail of the clothing he speaks of. He’s also fascinated with the historical research that comes into play prior to the actual designs and selection of fabrics. “The looking into it is the fun part,” he said. “There are subtleties that change throughout the years, and I love monitoring and watching that stuff. You know, the men started wearing suits at this time in the 1850s. The women’s bonnets changed shape as the shape of the dresses changed. The bonnets became shorter, more rounded and less of the face is hidden. They were made with a clever craft that no one makes these days anymore. The corners, the pockets for the watches, the overall attention to detail was there always.”
He said some of his inspiration came from the French neo-classical painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, whose work is displayed in the Louvre. He and Fiennes — who portrayed Dickens with a contagious enthusiasm — spent a lot of time thinking about what a particular character would weare. Felicity Jones, for instance, played Dickens’ very young and demur mistress. “We had discussions like, ‘Would her character really wear this kind of dress?’ Even little, tiny rickrack mossy, mustard-colored braids on Felicity’s dress, we discussed because we wanted to make sure the costume wasn’t speaking beyond the character. You didn’t want her to gleam out even though she was the lead actress, because the camera is going to find her anyway, so (in a scene with her family) you put her sisters around her in pink.” His greatest find was an original, mint condition waist coat from the period with green vine leaves and grapes on it against black that Fiennes wore in one scene. O’Connor said his director embraced the period completely because he wanted it to be a truthful film. “When the actors are wearing these clothes, it makes them feel different,” he said. Which is the same kind of thinking behind the costuming of one of the greatest films of all time, Gone with the Wind.
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When actress Ann Rutherford asked producer David O. Selznick why he was bringing in a seamstress from Italy to sew the silk undergarments for the ballroom scene, because as she reasoned, “Nobody will even know that we’re wearing hand-sewn silk.” Selznick looked at her for a moment and said, “You’ll know.” The layers and amount of costumes they created for The Invisible Woman was voluminous. The women, for instance, wore a crinoline cage, then a flounce petticoat with lots of tiers, then a petticoat smooth with one flounce at the bottom and then the dress. “It creates the perfect bell shape of the skirt,” said O’Connor. “You know when they are walking around on that stage, it’s such a pleasure to watch, because their skirts are swaying like bells. When they stop, the skirts are still moving like a little bell.”
In his research about Dickens, he found that the prolific author always lectured, whether it be day or night, in his evening attire. (In those days, there was day dress and evening wear). O’Connor and his crew created numerous waistcoats for the men as well. “It was a lot of work for all of us,” he said, noting that his staff spent literally hours and hours on the work and at the end were all completely exhausted. When the Academy Award nomination came, he said, he turned to his staff and said, “It was not in vain.” Indeed, not. The costumes from the movie are on display currently at Dickens House Museum and will be crossing the pond to be displayed in Los Angeles on February 7 at the FIDM (Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising) Museum. The film was distributed by Sony Pictures Classics.