A Mid-Victorian Tale Of Madness: Sweeney Todd

Sweeney Todd has been one of the most iconic and long-lasting characters of the Victorian Period. Making its first appearance as a villain of the Victorian penny dreadful serial The String of Pearls, in 1847, his tale became an urban legend in London. In 1979 the acclaimed Tony-Award winning Broadway Musical “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” by Stephen Sondheim, gave the character a much deeper personality and depicted him even more as the demon he always intended to be.

The most recent version of this story is Tim Burton’s 2007 musical film “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street“, which is an adaptation of the Broadway musical. In this film, just like in other occasions, we witness how Tim Burton and the legendary costume designer Colleen Atwood, unite forces and talent to create an amazing Gothic-Victorian world, of course with the outstanding performance of Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter as the main characters.

“I’ve worked with Colleen Atwood many, many times, and she’s as important as anybody on a movie. Costumes are another character in the movie. Most of the great actors I’ve worked with, when they put on the costume they become the character. It helps them find who the character is” -Tim Burton

Sweeney Todd, former Benjamin Barker, is a barber who is unjustly convicted by Judge Turpin, a man who wanted to take his family from him. Todd is exiled to Australia and after many years, he is able to return to London, seeking revenge against Turpin. He starts working as a barber again, but hate has invaded his entire soul and killing becomes an obsession. He murders his customers with a razor while his partner in crime, Mrs. Lovett, bakes their flesh into meat pies. 

Left: Johnny Depp as Sweeney Todd. “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.”

The story takes place in London sometime between 1830 – 1865, and it combines elements of different parts of the city. It portrays a suffering and poor English society with classic and gothic elements as well. Atwood shared in an interview for USA Today that her main inspiration for creating the costumes for this musical was the music itself. She said, “It’s the starting point of all of it. It’s a moody piece, so I wanted a lot of texture in the costumes. I wanted you to be able to feel them on screen.” One of the main plots in the story is the class struggle that both Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett face in their lives due to power abuse. Costumes are an excellent means of exposing the difference in social classes, where people had to either wear worn out and recycled clothes or have a shiny cravat and top hat if they were wealthy. The main silhouette of the period is absolutely accurate, we see bustles, chemise, and corsets in the ladies clothing, and frock coats, vests, trousers, top hats, and cravats for men. Every single detail in the costumes works within the period and status of each character, creating another magnificent work of art by the outstanding Colleen Atwood.

“He (Tim Burton) is a director that appreciates the texture and nuances of costume. That’s a real treat for a costume designer to work with” – Colleen Atwood

The main character, Sweeney Todd, depicts an obsessed madman who has been through a terrifying time in prison and is hardened to life. His costumes are rather simple since he is not aware of what he is wearing and really does not care at all. “He enters the world with a shell on, like an insect shell. His jacket has a sheen” Atwood said. Todd is re-entering a world he had left behind, so, his costumes express this new person he has become in order to seek revenge and clearly not be recognized; he is not Benjamin Barker anymore. He is introduced as if he were a walking corpse who has come back to London to fulfill only one duty, murder Judge Turpin.

His outfit represents that of a working-class man. He is wearing a black leather frock coat, a brown velvet double-breasted vest, tight-fitting striped trousers, and a white linen shirt with detachable high collar and front tucks. The latter being a very distinguished element since it ends up fully spattered with blood many times throughout the movie. His garments all have been through a distressing process, creating a wrinkled and stained appearance. No matching on colours or etiquette styling. The final touch of his look is the white streak in his hair which represents the last bit of life left within him.

“When I first spoke to Tim about Sweeney Todd, he wanted to create a world that felt mid-victorian, without making it too precious, and tried to have a little bit fun with it as well” -Colleen Atwood

Left: Colleen Atwood design for Sweeney Todd. “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.”

Accessories are always precious elements that complement the look of each character. “I really felt he needed some heavyweight to his feet like he was dragging weight, and his boots are quite heavy and have nails around the outside of the sole on top”, says Colleen to USA Today. Bringing a character to life is a process that both the designer and the actor have to contribute to, and most designers use their time in fittings to finish creating the look. “For Sweeney Todd, Johnny and I tried on some different stuff. Then we found this neck rag that I had, and he put it on and we were like: that’s Sweeney. That was our starting point for the character”, shared Atwood. Not to mention the razor blade that he is always carrying, which more than a prop, it is an essential part of the character.

Mrs. Lovett, on the other hand, is a lonely woman who lives her life driven by love but acting in a selfish manner. She is always taking advantage of the situation and getting away with whatever suits her. As she begins to thrive with her meat pie business, she transforms into a new woman. “She evolves throughout the story and her costumes become quite ornate”, said Colleen Atwood. She is wearing an 1840’s long skirt with a ruffle and bustle at the back, and a tight-fitting bodice with low rounded neckline. Her undergarments include a black hourglass corset with a pointed waist, laced at the back, a long sleeve chemise, and a pair of bloomers. The latter had been recently introduced to society as a more comfortable garment for ladies. Her main colours are always dark and somber, with a little tint of blue and dark red. As Sweeney, her costumes go through a distressing process as well, in order to portray her social class and the dirty work she does for a living.

Her main accessories are the black lace boots with heels which are a staple in the era, and her mesh fingerless gloves. She also wears a gothic style headpiece. This hat distinguishes her from the other ladies from the era which all wore close-fitting bonnets or knitted caps. Her messy curls and pale skin complement her goth look. She wears a lot of sheer fabrics with embroidery and beading, and some striped or polka dots prints that give the character a much more authentic look. All of her costumes have a lot of texture, including ruffles and frills on the neckline, and lace on her sleeves. These rather delicate textures contrasting with the stiff skirt and corset show both sides of her personality, being soft but mad and always driven by love and despair.

“A good costume is really about a great silhouette. So if you can create a great costume through that with colour and shape, people will get the picture” -Colleen Atwood

Right: Johnny Depp as Sweeney Todd, Helena Bonham Carter as Mrs. Lovett. “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.”

Many Victorian films always portray the rich society of England, due to the Industrial Revolution. However, it is amazing to realize how through the use of textures, accessories, silhouettes, and colour it is possible to create a still Victorian but gothic and mad world. Colleen Atwood, a multiple costume design award winner, has always surprised us with her talent. This movie, being a classic tale, is not the exception of her expertise and passion.

Now that spooky times are coming, take a look at this bloody and gothic piece of art, that is always a treat to watch due to the talented crew that made it possible. Hopefully, you will end up being mad and delighted about the flawless production that it is.


To learn more about Colleen Atwood’s work and the rest of the costumes from the film I invite you to check out the following links used as reference:

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