Academy award-winning costume designer Colleen Atwood and director Tim Burton have been staples of my life for as long as I can remember. It all started with a film called Mars Attacks! and continued on with the somber world of Edward Scissorhands, through the vibrancy of Alice in Worderland. I’ve continuously found myself inspired by the collaborations of these two visionaries. Then came along Netflix’s new hit series, Wednesday. It combined everything I loved, the macabre nature of the legendary Addams Family, and the unique style that one could only see in a Tim Burton film. I was honored with an opportunity to speak with costume designer Colleen Atwood (who worked alongside Mark Sutherland) about the wonderfully wicked costumes of Wednesday.
Spencer Williams: I can’t tell you how excited I am to speak with you.
Colleen Atwood: Likewise. Thank you for having me.
Spencer Williams: Let’s dive into everyone’s new favorite Netflix series Wednesday. In that first episode, you had the daunting task of establishing not only Wednesday but the wider Addams family. I can’t imagine you weren’t a fan of the Addams family before, so what was this task like?
Colleen Atwood: I, of course, looked at all the Addams family variations before I started. Growing up, my grandfather randomly somehow knew Charles Addams in a way. I grew up with a Charles Addams cartoon in our family bathroom. I was always intrigued by the style and characters from a long time ago. To me, it was about paying homage to the creation of Charles Addams and the many people after him that had realized these characters. At the same time, we were putting them in a world that people would have connectivity for today.
Luckily with the way the script played out, we established Wednesday as an outsider in a contemporary world. In the first school, we see her in the classic white collared, little floral print dress. But as soon as she got to Nevermore, the floodgates were opened for creativity.
Spencer Williams: The uniforms of Nevermore were fantastic!
Colleen Atwood: I had to create the uniforms for the school, which was the first thing I did for the project because of the lead time for building them all. I talked to Tim (Tim Burton), and I showed him tons of fabric. We were talking, and he said purple would be really great. So I went to the mill and made the fabric in a big enough order that they would do it for me.
When it came to Wednesday, I didn’t want to get into the black-and-white stripe. That’s sort of a Tim signature. So I thought it would be interesting, because she was allergic to color, to do her uniform in gray. I ended up using a screen and painting the stripes so that they were not a hard stripe in gray and black. When you look at them, they’re kind of shaded, and they come and go a little bit.
Spencer Williams: There’s a soft gradient to it when you look closely.
Colleen Atwood: Yes! When you really get in there, you can see it. Then I was kind of obsessed with that collar shape. I wanted to do a collar, and I had this picture of a Teddy Boy kind of look from the sixties in the United Kingdom.
I love that super short, round spread collar that was around in the sixties, and I thought that was a fun way to go with a tie rather than the usual kind of sloppy, pointed school collars that a purchased uniform shirt would’ve given.
Spencer Williams: Catherine Zeta-Jones as Morticia Addams was just a real treat. She was perfect. I also imagine designing the costume for Morticia could be quite a challenge as her look is as black as can be. How did you approach this challenge?
Colleen Atwood: I started out with two or three materials. I was trying to figure out a way to update it and make it more contemporary. I tried it in leather, but it was just… too much! It was great, but it didn’t feel like Morticia to me. Ultimately, Morticia is softer. I went off and did it in silk, but then I did it in this jersey, which it actually ended up being.
I played with the neckline a little bit with Catherine in mind. I didn’t go for the v-shape. Then I was playing around with this technique of bonding two fabrics and sort of twisting together the silver and black. This created those side vents on the dress that gave it a little bit of a lift and a defined hourglass shape for Morticia.
Spencer Williams: It’s gorgeous. I mean, it’s very gentle and soft, but also still statuesque.
Now for our main character, Wednesday, played by Jenna Ortega. I love what you did with Wednesday’s costumes because it still called back to the legacy of Wednesday Addams while giving it a more contemporary feel and staying consistent with the color palette. How would you describe Wednesday’s style outside of the uniform?
Colleen Atwood: It was fun to do because, the only rule with Wednesday is that it had to be black and white. So we played around with all the different juxtapositions of patterns and textures. I wanted Wednesday to be a person that, like the other kids, went out and did things. Her approach may have been a little bit different and for a different purpose, but she was like everybody else in a way.
Spencer Williams: At the same time too, I felt like she was relatable to the audience. Maybe we’re not all Wednesday Addams, but you could see parts of yourself in her and her fashion choices.
Colleen Atwood: It’s a really exciting thing that people connected with the character on both a fashion level; but also on a human level too.
Spencer Williams: I have to call out one of my favorite costumes. It’s when she’s riding a motorcycle with Uncle Fester (Fred Armisen). The black and white Dalmatian helmets. That was just… a chef’s kiss.
Colleen Atwood: It was fun. The writers came up with the Dalmatian helmet idea. It was in the script. It was just so silly with the ears on it and everything! We played around with different ears and kind of went Snoopy with it. You can’t go wrong with that.
Spencer Williams: We have to talk about Enid. She is basically the opposite of Wednesday in every shape and form. There were lots of pinks and yellows. I also loved the fuzzy texture you gave her costumes.
Colleen Atwood: Enid was from a wolf family. They occupied a space next to each other, and I really wanted Enid to have a graphic sense to her in the same way that Wednesday did. I wanted her to have strength in graphics within the color range. Whenever she got dressed, pretty much everything had a picture here, a plaid skirt or a floral skirt. The stripes on the sweaters were strong stripes. I used the geometrics on her clothes in the same way I did on Wednesday. I just did them in color. The two of them together are so great.
Spencer Williams: Principal Larissa Weems, played by the incredible Gwendoline Christie… Phew! I’m so excited for her, this was such a great role for Gwendoline. She actually said in an interview with Vogue recently about working with you… “Principal Larissa Weems is the most glamorous character I’ve ever played, and the first time I’ve felt genuinely beautiful in a screen project. Colleen was so extraordinarily collaborative, and made me and my body feel so celebrated.” (Vogue, 2022)
I thought that was beautiful. What was it like collaborating with Gwendoline on this project and this character’s costumes?
Colleen Atwood: It’s really lovely that she said that. That’s such an articulate way of acknowledging somebody’s work as a designer. That’s really sweet. It doesn’t come often, even though people feel it, they don’t necessarily say it. Gwendoline and I met, and I had this poster in my living room where I was staying in the UK. It was an old vintage picture of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. It was a three-quarter hip shot of Tippi Hedren.
I bought the poster because I remember the moment I saw that movie. The poster was in the most amazing color, like a faded pistachio. I showed it to her, and I said, “I can’t get this out of my head. I think that you could be like Tippi Hedren. You could have the feeling of classic, old-world glamor. Maybe you have a local dressmaker who you torture into making these clothes for you.” We used tweeds and faded colors. The people that run these private schools aren’t just fussy, old people in blazers. They have to go out to fundraisers, they have to raise money, and they have to sell the school. So I liked being presentational in that way. Gwendoline then brings her own style to the table too! I mean, she knows how to walk in a costume. It’s a hoot because every time she stops in a costume, it’s the perfect catalog pose for the costume.
Spencer Williams: I love that. I would love some behind-the-scenes footage of her just walking around.
Colleen Atwood: Yeah, she’s so awesome. She was such a great collaborator for me, and I had so much fun with the character.
Spencer Williams: I was so excited to see Christina Ricci and her character, Marilyn Thornhill. She loves plants, and that showed in the costume.
Colleen Atwood: Definitely. I tried to find things that were very floral or showed plant qualities. I felt like she was somebody that kept stuff for a long time or maybe did a little thrift shopping, so she had a lot of vintage pieces mixed with her contemporary wardrobe.
I liked the idea of her being in green plant colors, but I changed it up with other stuff too. Tim really wanted her hair to be super red. So it ended up working well with the colors of her wardrobe, which are more muted. I had fun with her in the sense of mixing vintage pieces with contemporary fashion, giving her a timeless look.
Spencer Williams: It popped so well against her red shoes too.
Colleen Atwood: Oh my gosh. I couldn’t believe that we had actually found the boots. We ended up making them more red than they were. We found boots that had a red base that we could spray into a brighter red to get that really strong red color for her.
Spencer Williams: Let’s talk about the now very famous Rave’N dance. How did you pull this scene together? It’s pure art.
Colleen Atwood: Well, the whole idea of the Rave’N is that it was sort of a winter white scene. So we used the colors of snow and ice for the costumes. For example, Bianca’s look has a blue ice tinge to it. That was the rule, and that was in the script from the start. We also had to keep in mind how much blood there was going to be.
Spencer Williams: *laughs* How many hundreds of multiples will we need?
Colleen Atwood: Exactly. From the very beginning, our rule was if we were out and we saw something great that could work for that ball, we’d buy three of them. We started gathering pieces in the really early days to get enough stuff to make it work. For the principles, we found and made their stuff so that we could jazz them up a little. It’s really good that we knew ahead of time that they were going to get blood on it.
Spencer Williams: That is a real relief.
Colleen Atwood: Yeah! And then her dress for the dance…
Spencer Williams: We have to talk about it, I mean, this is the most famous dress in the world right now.
Colleen Atwood: I know. Isn’t it crazy? I saw the olympic skater the other day. That’s pretty cool!
Spencer Williams: It’s showing up everywhere now and, for a good reason. It’s a gorgeous dress.
Colleen Atwood: You know what’s funny about that dress? I was thinking about it the whole time because it was always in the script that she had this epic dress. I always figured I’d end up making it because I needed so many. Then I was walking down Bond Street in London, and I looked into this shop, and this dress was on a mannequin. “Oh my God, it’s the dress! It’s the dress I was thinking of, but better.” I had an assistant with me at the time who was about the same size as Jenna. So I asked her if she could put the dress on for me so I could see how it would move. It was so great. We ended up buying it, and then I had to replicate it.
I made a few little changes to it to make it more cinematic for Jenna. The scale of it was a little bit bigger, and I just pulled it in a little, so it wasn’t overwhelming on her. When she put it on, she loved it. It was a perfect kind of marriage between a dress and an artist. We had no idea what the choreography was going to be for the number at that point in history. I just knew it would be a dress that she could really dance in. She took it to the next level.
Spencer Williams: It’s so iconic. I felt like I was watching a star being born in that moment with the dress. Jenna was brilliant. It’s such an incredible scene.
Colleen Atwood: She really made it something more than anybody ever imagined. It was spectacular.
Spencer Williams: Colleen, thank you so much for joining me to talk about Wednesday. I love this show. The entire world loves this show. This was a real honor.
Colleen Atwood: Thank you so much. It’s been fun. Nobody knew what was really going on with this show, and then boom. It took over the world. It’s pretty great when that happens, right? Anyway, it was nice meeting you!