Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas – S1 Holiday Bonus
Surprise! Christmas came early this year with a special holiday episode of The Art of Costume Blogcast. For this week’s episode, Elizabeth and Spencer record their first episode together in Los Angeles to talk about Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, a 1993 American stop-motion animated musical dark fantasy holiday film directed by Henry Selick and produced by Tim Burton. Listen along as our cohosts talk about the film’s complicated history and the costumes worn by your favorite characters.
Today I am so excited to speak with Jane Holland, costume designer from one of my new favorite shows, Cowboy Bebop. The live-action adaptation of Cowboy Bebop takes place in 2071 and follows Spike Spiegel (played by John Cho) as he wanders the galaxy in search of jobs as he begins leading a group of ragtag bounty hunters to chase down criminals across the solar system while trying to earn different rewards. I speak with Jane Holland about her inspirations and the process behind translating some of our favorite characters from the anime to this live-action adaptation.
Spencer: Thank you, Jane, for joining me. I’m so excited to talk to you, I love the show. I powered through it so quickly, I just couldn’t put it down.
Jane: Thank you so much for having me. I am excited to be here!
Spencer: It’s my honor! Every time I have a new guest, I love to hear about their journey to becoming the costume designer sitting in front of me.
Jane: It makes complete sense to me now, but it wasn’t straightforward. I didn’t know that costume could be a profession so I did a science degree because my passion was with words, drama, and performance; and an English and drama degree. I was interested in storytelling; that’s always been my passion.
Through drama, I ended up on a film set, and I was watching and talking to people behind the scenes, and I just thought, that’s where I belong. I want to be doing that. So I got involved in the costume department! I’d always made costumes for production while studying drama, so it wasn’t completely unfamiliar to me. That’s when I realized that there was a job there.
I was fortunate. to have foundd myself working on Jane Campion’s film, The Piano, as a standby. I looked after Anna Paquin and Holly Hunter primarily. I kind of looked after all the women. It was just extraordinary, that film that was so pivotal in so many ways. From a design perspective, working with that costume designer, Janet Patterson, really opened my eyes to what you can do in costume as a storyteller.
So I went from there to the Australian Film Television and Radio School in Sydney and studied costume design there. I came back and found my feet as a costume designer. Being in New Zealand, I’ve had a real diversity of projects!
Spencer: I love this story, and I feel that it is so relatable to so many in the costume field. I can hardly wait; let’s get into Cowboy Bebop. You did such a brilliant job with the show. I loved it. But have to ask, though, the anime is such a massive hit that is so beloved by fans. I have to imagine this was a bit of a daunting project to take on?
Jane: Yeah, there’s a responsibility for sure. So, going back to when I came onto the project, the enthusiasm was a bit quieter. I was aware of the fans, but I always felt my responsibility was to the anime. If I could find a connection and draw the threads and sensibility of the anime and bring that into the live-action costuming, I felt that if I could embrace the spirit of the anime, then maybe the fans would embrace the live-action costumes.
You have to be open, exploratory and you’d have to be brave. If you’re second-guessing everything and wondering what people are going to think, it can be stifling… So you have to be free! I was sort of feeling that I had a connection and that I was coming from the right place. There’s something about the anime. When I first saw it, I was blown away. The story is just so wacky, different, and surreal. I loved the cacophony of the soundtrack combined with the visuals.
My base place was asking myself the question, what was the movement of Cowboy Bebop? Bebop was about breaking free from restraint. It was about improvisation. It was about moving forwards and finding a new way. I embraced that spirit and the storytelling, which became the lens that I applied to my design process.
Spencer: That’s beautiful. I love the dedication, and I know that your embrace of the spirit of the anime came through in the live-action series on Netflix. Now, taking it from a technical perspective, how do you approach translating characters from the animation and bringing them into the live-action.
What sort of references besides the anime were you taking in when developing these characters? The show is really unique and stylized, and it’s set in a futuristic time period, but it’s also not futuristic at the same time.
Jane: Right, it’s very retro. We talked collectively about developing the “Bebop Mashup.” The anime has this mesh up, which, as you said, is futuristic, but then it’s retro. So it’s retro sci-fi. It’s full of these collisions; this dissonance then kind of just finds this place. So I think that that was always the challenge, was to find that place. For me, that was the Cowboy Bebop twist.
Spencer: Right, so then how did you apply that Cowboy Bebop twist to our main character, Spike Spiegel?
Jane: I started with Spike Spiegel and the blue suit because that is sort of the heart of this story. As you begin to drill down into that suit and its relation to the anime… when you really look at it and the shape, it’s kind of unusual. There’s a single boxy lapel that sort of disappears. He’s got this extra long leg, let’s say there’s this real stylized thing about it, but what is with the sleeves rolled up?
I looked at Japanese designers and Japanese tailorings, such as Yohji Yamamoto and Comme des Garçons. I looked at the tailoring from these designers because there was something in Japanese sensibility, which does precisely what Cowboy Bebop does. It sort of takes something conventional, and then it just gives that bit of twist we see in Cowboy Bebop.
I also looked at some Japanese and Korean designers who are making contemporary clothing, but they’re kind of reaching into traditional dress. When you look at that kind of tailoring, the way that a jacket does up or that off-center fascinating… that’s in the anime! There’s a link. I found a thread, which led me to work out how to create something that had that single lapel and then make it disappear and come around the other side. So these designers gave me a way to find out how to make Spike Spiegel make sense.
The suit is a very bright blue, and it’s unusual. We had to create something that embraced the character of Spike Spiegel, who is effortlessly cool, who then turns into this incredible fighting machine. Spike has this depth to him, with his entire past. But then goes back to being cool and heartbroken as well. I built all of that into the costume.
In the anime, his fight style is described as water. I took that as has as a motif that can be seen on his trophy buckle in a beautiful moment of triumph. You get this flash of this trophy buckle where you can see t’s a tidal wave, a symbol of water. The trophy buckles, made by our in-house jeweler, also are a nod to the Cowboys. This followed through to the buttons that are engraved with the Japanese symbol for water.
Then on the inside of the jacket, I ended up printing a tiny pattern of falling roses on the lining of his jacket as a motif for Julia. Julia has a lot of hand-painted roses in her costuming. The same person who hand-painted those roses drew the roses that we replicated inside of his jacket. That’s just a little secret in there. Spike has Julia wrapped around him because he’s a guy with a broken heart, and Julia is his lost love.
Cowboy Bebop was all about finding the essence of the character and bringing the anime together to work out how it might work on a real-life person. Then from there, drilling down how to add as much storytelling in those signature costumes as I could.
Spencer: That’s so magical and why I love costume design so much. All of the detail you put into everything from the lapel to the lining… It’s really inspiring.
Jane: The anime was really our concept art. You look at a lot of concept art for costuming, and often it really doesn’t make sense. The concept art doesn’t tell you how to make it. You can focus on design concepts, but it doesn’t always work when it comes to actually making the costume.
The anime gave me the concept art, and my job was to work out its design. How does it actually work? How is it going to function? There is a difference between art and design; created design has to function. As a costume designer, I want that artistic freedom, but ultimately it has to function.
Spencer: Moving on to our other main characters, the idea of function was something you kept in mind when translating them. Let’s talk about Jet Black, shall we? Jet feels as though he came right from the anime, but it still has that apparent twist you mentioned.
Jane: Right. Jet Black is more straightforward. He’s wearing overalls that are kind of utilitarian. The design lines you see in the anime I carried through. It is very similar, but there’s a lot more detail in the costume we made as we translate the anime into real life.
Spencer: It’s an interesting point because the anime is very flat in color; there’s not a lot of stitching detail. So that’s also part of the challenge too.
Jane: I think it’s great if you think it’s the same as the anime because, well, that’s a job well done, isn’t it? Then he has that robot arm, which was a costume piece as well. We made that. We have a great costume department with and costume props area. The arm was made in the process of sculpting.
Spencer:We have to talk about my favorite character. I love what you did with Faye Valentine because it’s reminiscent of the anime, but it’s functional, as you talked about earlier. Personally, I feel that her anime costume could not be translated onto a real woman and be functional. What you did with Faye’s live-action costume was functional but still mirrors the anime’s essence. Walk me through your work on this character.
I think it was clear to me that the Faye Valentine of the live-action series needed to do a lot more practically, functionally, than what that costume of the anime would allow her to do. I did the same with Faye as I did with Spike.
I took the character from the script, and I found the resonance. She’s a bounty hunter; she needed to be able to move, to fight, to kick! There was a whole function that was part of it, but there was also something about realizing the design lines of the animation.
It might appear that I’ve moved a long way away from the anime, but actually, I haven’t. The top, that’s not that different. We did quite a bit of trial. We had a full yellow two-piece; and a full black two-piece with yellow stitching. So we’ve still got the color in there. It was about finding the gravitas of the character and what she needed to do.
It was essential to me was that it shouldn’t be gratuitous and overtly sexualized. Those aspects of her character, that’s up to the actor to deliver rather than me imposing that restriction on her. We’re past that in terms of how we present a leading female character in a show.
So the design lines are actually very similar. Like the stocking, she’s got those high leather leggings. She’s also wearing tights underneath. There’s a lot that is similar, and I pretty much guarantee that if she just shrugged that red leather jacket off her shoulders and struck a Faye Valentine pose from the anime, you’d say she’s exactly the same.
Spencer: I agree, one thousand percent. If the jacket fell a little bit, then viewers would’ve thought it was exactly the same. Faye doesn’t need to be stuck with being this overtly sexualized character. I feel like your costuming helped give Daniella Pineda the room to bring life to this character. What you did with that costume was quite brilliant.
Jane: Daniella, she’s just so super cool. We needed something that’s got a little bit of street and a bit of sass. She had to be in something that she could do all of this stuff in.
Spencer:I love to hear that. Did you feel like you collaborated a lot with the actors and actresses on this project?
Jane: Yeah! I think that they’re critical relationships. They are to me because it’s a very intimate space. I was lucky, being in New Zealand and being so far away, that I was in the states right at the very beginning. I was in Los Angeles, and John Cho and Daniella were in Los Angeles. While I was there, I met both of them. I measured them. We talked about the characters. John and I sat down in a café, and we just talked about concept. We talked about ideas, the feeling of the character, and specifically what the costume would be. I think it was very valuable.
When I arrived in New Zealand, we had to work fast. When John arrived, we had put the suit on. There were so many things we talked about. From the beginning, and maybe in that first conversation, we talked about how Spike stands; it was really important to him. There’s a particular angle with his hand in his pocket. A classic anime pose! It’s the more information you have to be working together, the better.
Spencer: You’ve talked about aging and dyeing a little bit. There’s a lot of blood, dirt, and action in this show. I’m notoriously obsessed with aging and dyeing. Can you just give me a little vision of this fun project?
Jane: *laughs*There’s this thing where you kind of build this beautiful costume. Then the first thing that happens to it is that they have to walk out, get hit with a bullet, and now there is blood on it. They trash it completely.
The trashing of the costume is part of the beauty; it’s another angle to costuming. It’s part of the craft. You have your pristine new thing, and then how do you make it look lived in? There is such an art to that. The textile artists who work within that have a painterly approach. There’s very little that ends up on screen without going through the aging and breakdown department.
Spencer: What I appreciate, especially when I think of space-oriented movies and television shows, I think of very minimalistic, clean, futuristic silhouettes. But you made Cowboy Bebop feel very real through the aging process.
Jane: It’s suspending disbelief, isn’t it? I mean, there’s a theatricality to any show that is not a representation of daily life. So what happens is Spike goes out, and he gets completely roughed up, and then next episode, he’s sort of clean again. We staged it where Spike has a closet on the Bebop where he opens the closet, and there’s a whole line of blue suits. That’s what you buy into with costume. It’s part of who they are. If they change out of that, there’s a reason. There are a few moments where characters are in a different costume, and there’s a reasoning behind that. But they come back to that signature costume as a place of comfort.
Spencer: The last character that we’re going to want to talk about is Vicious. I loved his black suiting. It’s, I think, one of my favorites.
Jane: When you look at the anime, you’re trying to work out what something is. It can be difficult because, a lot of the time, it’s pretty abstract. There was reference; you can see the design lines that come from the images of the anime. There’s a theatricality to him in the tailcoat that I interpreted.
I tried to find a musical kind of resonance with everybody. I found myself in a bit of a punk world with Viscious, but more heightened and stylized. I ended up drawing from real-life for Viscious by looking at the Antwerp six, such as Ann Demeulemeester, all amazing designers.
When Alex put on that costume, I wanted him to feel the power of the costume. Vicious has that straight leg and these big boots with this beautifully tailored coat. It’s got movement to it, so when he fights, there’s movement. The detailing of the chains that hold the coat together, they were made by our in-house jewelers.
He’s got a trophy buckle as well. His trophy buckle has the cormorant because, in the anime, he always has a cormorant on his shoulder. So I took that cormorant and put it into his costume and on his ring as well.
Spencer: This has been so much fun, and I’ve had such a good time talking with you. I feel like I’ve learned so much, and I just feel like rewatching the series now. What can we see you doing in the future?
Jane: I hope for a second season! There’s so much ground to break. The second season is always where it feels like you start to take flight. I mean, you’ve got a warehouse full of stuff, a whole load of reference. It’s such a fun show. I mean the world-building… just oh my God! We had so much fun mixing vintage pieces, mixing different eras. There’s so much more that I want to do with Cowboy Bebop if I have the opportunity!
Spencer: It’s almost like every episode is its own movie. There’s always something different. World-building sounds like an understatement to me.
Jane: It’s a crazy train! It is exactly like that. It’s like doing movie after movie, and it just doesn’t stop. That’s traveling as well. This is the fun part of it, to create the look of that world.
Outside of Cowboy Bebop, we’re just finishing off this beautiful half-hour drama piece, which is a Māori supernatural story. Filmmaking and storytelling on a much more personal level, which I’m interested in doing as well. So I’ve kind of got this other little world alongside my career as a costume designer.
There’s a film that’s just come out in New Zealand called Juniper with Charlotte Rampling in it. There’s always some storytelling to do.
Spencer: Jane, thank you so much for joining me. This has been a lovely interview, and I’m really happy and excited for you. Cowboy Bebop was incredible, and the costumes, peak storytelling! I just want to thank you for your work on this project.
Jane: It was really great meeting you and nice to talk about the process. The creative process is such a fun thing. I mean, that’s the beauty of it.
The live-action adaptation of Cowboy Bebop is now available on Netflix!
Computer-animated films, just like other types of animation, don’t have an established role of a costume designer, or at least that is how it is in most cases. Creating costumes has been part of the character design process, which the animator or character designer will do. However, this is slowly changing, and costume designers are starting to gain their own spot in animated films. After all, the main purpose of a costume designer is to help bring a character to life and tell its story through costumes.
With the technological advances from the past years, computer-animated films are now as real as they have never been before. We are witnessing the most glorious moment of technology, where computer-animated films look so real you feel that you live in that same world. Textures, shapes, and colors are now so close to reality that the digital-animated world becomes almost palpable. Costumes on their own have gained a lot more importance as details are now more essential to the audience, and in the same manner, they have become a stronger part of storytelling. Each seam, trim, stitch, jewel, buckle, and button are so precise that you want to grab those costumes from the characters and put them into your wardrobe. To get these details as precise as the animation demands, costume designers must step into this process, just like we saw in the past article from this series “Costuming the Animated World: Stop-Motion Animation” with productions like LAIKA.
“The costume design is an essential part of this process: the clothes the characters wear reflect their personality and support the narrative in many ways”. -Maarit Kalmakurki
Computer animation has not always been as we know it today, it started around 25 years ago, and it is evolving at an impressive rate. Pixar Animation Studios is a pioneer and leader in this technology. Back in 1995, the company released the first computer-animated feature film: Toy Story. In those days, animating clothes was very time-consuming, so there are many hands and feet shots from a toy’s or children’s perspective. But things started to change, and from learning to animate humans, fur, hair, water, and certainly fabric, making costumes gained more importance and recognition. With time, Pixar has developed stitching, lace, leather, mesh, and veil textures. They even developed software to “sew” the garments together to achieve a real approach to costume construction.
Left to right: Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter, John Lasseter, and Joe Ranft. Photo: Michael Ansell – Courtesy of Pixar Animation Studios
In Toy Story (1995), despite the main characters being toys who never change their costumes, all contribute to storytelling. Woody’s costume certainly rings a bell in all of us: a mustard checkered shirt, blue jeans, cow-print vest, hat, boots. The intricate details, such as his red handkerchief, buttons, belt, gun holster, and sheriff plaque, contribute to character creation. In terms of storytelling, his cowboy hat, for instance, is the only accessory that he can take off. Whenever he doesn’t have it, he is missing part of his identity, and it is something that he misses, but his owner does too.
“The last step is the fitting process, where we lay the garment on the character and make her walk just to see how it fits, how it lays, and then go back to the original 3D model and make any changes. At Pixar, which may or may not be different for other studios, we still flatten the meshes into 2D texture. That 2D pattern is what we send to the simulator. This way the simulator understands the grain direction of the cloth which is very important to represent sewing in real life”. Claudia Chung, Pixar (Interview: Clothes on Film, 2012)
In Brave (2012), to create the tartan kilts, which used around 8 yards of fabric, a draping process had to be implemented. This meant creating pleats manually around the character’s waist in the fitting process so that the fabric would lay properly and thus, create a real effect of a kilt.
Later on, with Coco (2017), a different challenge came along: there were many skeletons, and dressing them was certainly different from dressing humans. Besides having differences in body shapes, the costumes would often get caught between individual bones creating an irregular drape to the fabric. This was a detail that animators thought crucial to the story, and it worked so well that to the audience, it looked real.
The Incredibles 2
The Incredibles 2 (2018) brought together a group of amazing designers that contributed deeply to the film’s costumes, including the beloved character Edna Mode. The immense amount of research that involved the costume design started by researching the time period that inspired the film around the 1950s and ’60s and giving the costumes an iconic twist. Some of the things that the team did consist of analyzing sewing patterns and garments from this time and diving into magazines to learn about family customs and behaviors. This not only helped them design the main characters but also the background characters’ costumes. “I took note of the boldness of shape, and the silhouettes, the perfectly tailored fit. This was the most defining quality I found,” said Deanna Marsigliese, character designer at Pixar Animation Studios.
With a fifteen-year span between the first and second movie, the details incorporated into costumes are evident and exquisite. In the case of superhero suits, they were actually part of the character’s skin in the first movie, which made the logo stretch unusually. However, all supers have a separate costume for the sequel, which has been observed and perfected by Fran Kalal, character tailoring lead, Bryn Imagire, shading art director & costume designer, and their team. They supervise that every seam, every fabric, and texture are as close to real-life as possible. They even have some garments at the studio to imitate the textures, creases, lights, and shadows.
As mentioned before, there was an immense amount of time dedicated to background characters. They are actually the ones that enhance this 1950s decade. There was a lot of mix and match between men’s suits and women’s skirts and blouses, but that made it possible to have more than 60 unique designs for males and more than 60 unique designs for female background characters.
The Incredibles 2 had an important addition, the character Evelyn Deavor. She is not only the smart and creative mind behind the entire plot but has a bohemian and luxurious style to die for. Her entire wardrobe is a mixture between masculine and feminine details, bold prints, and faux zebra coats. Evelyn is actually the character with most costumes changes throughout the film, with 20 costumes which are insanely huge for an animated character. The detail on her costumes is flawless.
Finally, there is Edna Mode, the famous superhero designer who not only served as an inspiration for the creative team at Pixar, but they had to get into her mind to design a fashion show for a scene (which unfortunately didn’t make it to the final piece). However, creating this scene served during the character creation process where animators had to dive deep to design Edna Mode’s costumes and her own creations.
“She says she wants things to be ‘bold, dramatic and heroic.’ So I figured Edna would use her fashion line as a vehicle to celebrate superheroes and her powers. Once I realized that, the designing fell into place on its own.” Deanna Marsigliese, character designer, The Incredibles 2
In Toy Story 4 (2019), Pixar animators included recently extraordinary storytelling with the costumes of the beloved character: Bo Peep. In movies 1 and 2, she wears a pink polka-dot skirt, a pink bodice with a blue camisole underneath, a bonnet, and her cane. Her skirt is full, and she is wearing layers of petticoats underneath, probably a crinoline, and blue bloomers.
When she is presented again in Toy Story 4, her character has undergone many changes; she has transformed into an adventurous lost toy. In the same way, she transforms her costume. Now her skirt is a cape, which is worn inside out, displaying a dark purple lining, her blue bloomers and camisole are now used as a blue jumpsuit, and the cord she used to lace her front bodice is now wrapped around her cane. The latter item is now used for much more practical purposes. Her bow, belt, and button are probably items she has collected through the years to complete her outfit. For the Pixar Animator’s team to understand and finalize Bo Peep’s costume, they had to make the costumes in real life to see how they would look like a doll’s size.
Other studios have created amazing computer animations with incredible detail incorporated into costumes. DreamWorks Animation’s How to Train your Dragon trilogy (2010, 2014, 2019) is an amazing example of a costume being used for character creation and transformation. Hiccup starts as a timid boy wearing a long shirt, trousers, boots, and a fur vest. His costume is simple, with dull colors and textures. In the first movie, he starts incorporating some accessories to appear braver and prepared for battle. Slowly, as his character becomes more mature and fearless, his costume basically transforms into armor that provides him strength, protection, and empowerment. His silhouette broadens, giving the character a much more determined look.
The classic textures and elements from Vikings, such as fur, leather, and helmets, are enhanced with metallic and dragon-scale texture. This texture was actually real dragon scales that Hiccup and the rest of the characters incorporate into their armors to have a scarier look. Also, they evolve the helmet shape into a mask that hides their identity with not only horns but scallops, wings, and fins. By the end of the third movie, we witness the final growth of the character. His costume is now a mixture of all stages of his life, incorporating details that he used in the past that define his own character.
Walt Disney Animation Studios started releasing their own computer-animated films not a very long time ago. The development in detail approach has also been astonishing, but the movie that got the bar higher than ever was Frozen 2 (2019). The evolution of the two main characters, Anna and Elsa, through their costumes is absolutely impeccable. This is due to the extraordinary research and dedication that the team put into this. They traveled to Norway, Finland, and Iceland as part of their creative process to get design ideas and inspiration for the film’s overall look. In the costumes specifically, the Norwegian and mystic elements are evident both in Anna’s and Elsa’s outfits and the rest of the characters.
In addition, Anna and Elsa are now on an adventure into the unknown, which means they need comfortable costumes that will allow them to run, swim and jump, which wasn’t as simple as rising hemlines. Since the first movie, both characters had a defined style, which helped designers Brittany Lee and Griselda Sastrawinata-Lemay.
In Frozen 2, they are older and braver, and thankfully the technological advances in computer animation helped add more details to their costumes that contributed to character creation and storytelling. Part of the film’s realistic approach is the way the fabric moves and drapes in different situations. This is possible once more due to the technological advances in CGI, which imitate different fabrics, and animators can determine their movement depending on its weight, composition, and medium. “Something that is meant to be a velvet shouldn’t be moving as if it was tulle or if it was cotton,” Lee explains.
“On this film, we could really be elaborate and add a lot of extra bead work or sequins that wouldn’t have been possible to do on the first film. We really tried to meet technologies’ needs in creating more art work and more design where appropriate.” – Brittany Lee, visual development artist, Frozen 2 (2019)
Anna’s costumes always have warm colors and a playful and classic silhouette. For most of the film, she is wearing her travel costume consisting of a deep purple cloak, a black dress with long sleeves, mustard high-neck blouse and pants underneath, a brown obi belt, and tall black leather boots. Her costume is inspired by the traditional Norwegian folk wear known as the “bunad,” a long A-line dress made of wool with embroidered flowers. In this case, she has wheat and crocus (Arendelle’s national symbol) designs embroidered through the dress and cape. “Anna is all about Arendelle,” Sastrawinata-Lemay said. The addition of pants, which Elsa wears as well, allows the characters to get involved in really adventurous journeys without being the main focus of attention on their costumes.
On the other hand, Elsa has a cool color palette since almost everything she wears was created using her magic: ice. Her outfits are always enhancing her mystic, sensitive and powerful character, and she has an elegant and linear silhouette, perfect for the Snow Queen. Elsa’s gowns are actually inspired by haute couture fashion houses, like Alexander McQueen and Ellie Saab, “just in their mystic grand silhouettes and bold statements,” Lee says.
Her travel costume consists of a light blue tailored coat with a belt and a paneled veil cape that hangs from the shoulders. These have jewels encrusted, forming a snowflake and an angular-broad shape, giving a look of “militaristic epaulettes,” which undoubtedly provide her with authority and determination. As mentioned before, she has pants underneath and sparkly snowflake adorned blue boots. Her costume respects that linear silhouette that gives Elsa her stamp as Queen of Arendelle, but it now shows her transformation towards a more confident and fearless woman.
Lastly, Netflix Animation’s Over the Moon (2020) has some jaw-dropping costume designs created by the internationally acclaimed fashion designer Guo Pei. Director Glen Keane knew he needed someone with costuming experience to take the lead on what the costumes of Chang’e were going to look like. Since the movie has so many elements from China’s culture, it was reasonable that a Chinese designer would be the one jumping in for the process. Guo Pei has always embraced her culture in her designs, and Over the Moon was no exception to this.
The costumes of Chang’e demanded a lot of attention to detail, symbolism, and sophistication since she is no other than the Moon Goddess. As it was her first time working in animation, she spent a lot of time with artists to ensure that they were animating the entire costume just as she had envisioned it. Part of the process involved lots of research by going to museums and making several sketches to achieve the desired costume design. This last process was, in fact, the perfect way of communicating their ideas since Guo Pei doesn’t speak English and Glen Keane doesn’t speak mandarin.
The most iconic costume worn by Chang’e is her royal gown, made of red silk and intricate embroidery. This gown is bold, vibrant, and powerful. It enhances the Chinese culture in every aspect, including the embroidered motifs on her back, which actually tell her dramatical love story. “I designed some elements of ancient Chinese royal dresses in Chang’e’s costumes, such as wide cuffs, long tails, and a stand-up collar like the tail of a phoenix. These elements all strengthen the dramatic tension and contrast her image as a god and as a human being,” Guo Pei shared in an interview.
Costume design in animation is slowly gaining the recognition it deserves. Even if a costume designer is not leading the process, the research and dedication incorporated into it must be recognized and respected. The entire team’s effort and dedication to costume design for the films mentioned here is absolutely astonishing and sometimes underestimated. Since it has always been part of designing the character, costumes are not appreciated the way they should. On the other hand, with such amazing, fantastic worlds created in animation, costumes are sometimes plain or abandoned. Having unlimited possibilities in terms of technology and imagination on the way costumes can help with storytelling by introducing superpowers in characters or being extremely detailed in the time period where the story is taking place. Sometimes, costumes do not enhance as much as they should, and it’s at this point when the expertise of a costume designer is much needed in the animated field.
However, things are really starting to shift. With films such as The Incredibles 2, Frozen 2, and Over the Moon, where costume design undergoes deep research and construction, it is necessary to dive into its process and understand its importance. Even more than that, make sure that future animated productions follow suit and involve costume design the way they are supposed to make their animations even more amazing than they already are.
“People tend to think of costume design in terms of an end product. It’s a garment. But costume designers think of costume as part of the character that they’re creating, so it’s the hair, the costume, the props, the makeup, the way they move, whether these costumes and props are ever physically made or not.” – Camille Brenda, CalArts Institute
The art of creating stop-motion animations might be one of the oldest filmmaking techniques ever invented, which date back to the 1890s. Stop-motion uses photography as its medium to bring an object/puppet to life by playing series of photographs in sequence. The advances in photography made this medium effective, and throughout the years, animators have incorporated the use of CGI technology. It is considered an art because of the number of talented people working with their hands to bring characters to life. To achieve the desired motion, 24 photographs are played per second. It is a technique that no matter the amount of technology incorporated into it, the human hand would never be replaced entirely.
The very first stop-motion film created is The Humpty Dumpty Circus (1898) by J. Stuart Blackton and Albert E. Smith. In this short film, the animators took their daughter’s toys and created a circus in motion. Unfortunately, this film has been lost and there are only photographs that support the existence of it. Since then, many others have continued to create stop-motion animations, by modeling with paper, clay, and puppets. They have all contributed to what we know now as stop-motion films and continue to delight us with beautiful masterpieces.
Creating a film at such a small scale (each human-shaped character is about 10 inches/25cm) demands extraordinary attention to detail in every aspect. From sets and props to facial expressions, hair, and of course, costumes. The different textures created to imitate a fabric or surface, or the movement and weight of fabric themselves regarding the size of the puppet are some of the details that animators, modelers, and costume designers take into account when creating each character.
There are different techniques used to create puppets, depending basically on the needs of the character (movement and physical traits) and the entire aesthetic of the film. Animators mainly use resin, clay, fabric, latex, or foam modelled on top of a metal armature which allows movement and stability to the puppets.
In 1989, the British company Aardman Animations introduced their very famous characters of Wallace and Gromit with a short stop-motion film called A Grand Day Out. This animation gave them an Academy Nomination and was their beginning to what became a worldwide phenomenon. In their animations, costume design is an integral part of character creation and in the same way, there is not a specific role for a costume designer. Animators do the entire job of designing the character from head to toe. The character modeler is in charge of bringing this character to life taking care of all the details that its costume demands. While the character is modeled in clay, all the textures that need to be on its costumes are added (stitches, creases, wrinkles, and seams). Then, it is cast in plaster, which will make it solid and easy to maneuver. Each part is then coloured (or sprayed) with a diluted latex mixture, and details will be hand-painted.
Wallace is most of the time wearing a green knitted vest, red tie, white shirt, and brown trousers, this is his primary costume. But, as storytelling demands, more costumes are designed for him when creating a new storyboard. Due to the technique used to create their puppets, costumes are to some extent simple and not loaded with a ton of details.
A Nightmare Before Christmas by Tim Burton (1993) was the first stop-motion feature film to receive worldwide distribution. For this film, more than 220 puppets were made using clay. Jack Skellington came to life from Tim Burton’s original sketches as the iconic character we know, and whose costume (a black striped suit and a bat-like bow tie) has been undoubtedly a stamp to this character.
“Some of the finest model animators in the world brought the creepy characters eerily to life (…) all of which were textured to have the look of the scratchy, cross-hatched pen-work found in Tim Burton’s original drawings” (Sibley, 2010)
Another extraordinary stop-motion film by Tim Burton is Corpse Bride (2005). In this film, animators were pushing the boundaries of the different mechanisms they incorporated into their puppets. Once again, characters and costumes were designed originally by Tim Burton but then perfected by Carlos Grangel, character designer of the film. As usual, Tim Burton’s characters were very long and skinny with large heads and eyes. This was something that modelers had to take into account when creating the armature for each one of them.
One of the most challenging parts of the film was creating Emily’s dress (The Corpse Bride) since it demanded a lot of movement and fluidity. Animators had to create different mechanisms to generate movement in the veil and skirt. Also, some structures have to be placed under the characters’ dresses to maintain the silhouette of the costume while the puppet was moved.
“Every character has its own personality, and personality dictates shape, balance and rhythm. So, every character has its own silhouette, and its important that we can recognize every single character when its on the screen. And they are puppets, so they have to be really graphic, and really stylized”
-Carlos Grangel, Character Designer, Corpse Bride. 2005
Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) directed by Wes Anderson and produced by 20th Century Fox was a ground-breaking film in the animated world. It was based on Roald Dahl’s 1970 children’s novel of the same name, and whose origin had a lot of influence on the aesthetic of the film. In Fantastic Mr. Fox, we see animal puppets act like humans, which meant they had to stand, walk and sit as if they were human beings. In this case, Felice Haymoz was brought in to be part of the film as the character designer, she describes this as her best job ever.
“I started by drawing foxes, and asked myself ‘What if they had to stand on two legs? What if they have to brush their teeth?. So, starting from the real anatomy of the fox helped a lot, and after that we were able to move into the next stage of what the foxes were going to wear, like ‘Okay, he has to wear this outfit now so his legs have to be more upright.'” -Felice Haymoz, Character Designer “Fantastic Mr. Fox” 2009.
For this film, the fabric was used to create the costumes, and sewing everything this size demanded it to be absolutely flawless. Using actual fabrics allowed animators to move the puppets more freely since the costumes would just adapt to the “performance” of the puppet. Besides, it is also a better way to achieve greater detail and to make every costume much more elaborate in terms of design.
Another film directed by Wes Anderson was Isle of Dogs (2018), where once again Felice was in charge of designing the human characters. She used many Japanese references, and costume design helps with storytelling and personality traits for each character. The details and accessories each costume includes are astonishing. In the case of Atari, all those zippers and labels in his overall are impeccable; while on Tracy, even though she is wearing the same uniform as her classmates, her accessories impact her character.
Coraline (2009) by LAIKA Studios was the beginning of the extraordinary productions that this group of creatives has brought to the big screen and who have made impressive advances to the stop-motion animation technique. At LAIKA, the puppet department is divided into sculpture, mold making, armature, casting, paint, hair, and costumes. Every single department works through the different stages of the puppet, so in the end, it will take around 30 people to build only one.
Having this amount of talented and dedicated people work on a specific job and perfecting it as much as possible is what makes LAIKA’s animations so stunning. They have absolutely transformed stop-motion animations. Each one of their films looks so real and unique that it is hard to believe that those extraordinary characters are puppets made by human hands.
Deborah Cook has had the amazing and incredible task of designing the most seamless costumes for the entire Laika universe. As the costume designer, she puts a lot of research into every character and understands how every single detail will speak on its own. Deborah is careful with the fabrication of each of the costumes and experiments with different materials to find the perfect fit for her tiny puppets.
“I just like the detail, I love the level of detail. You don’t get that on large scale costumes. We work so tiny but our character are blown up to the size of a live scale person on the screen” -Deborah Cook, Costume Designer. LAIKA Studios
After experimenting with fabrics and colours, and once the fitting is perfect it will be taken apart to have it as a reference to create all the duplicates. Each main character has around 20 duplicates, and every puppet has to look exactly the same for continuity purposes. The attention to detail that Deborah puts into her work has no comparison. Every button, seam, piping, trim or gather all is there to provide essence to the character and contribute to storytelling.
The ball gown scene in The Boxtrolls (2014) was the first time these animators were dealing with puppets dancing to the same rhythm, wearing Victorian costumes. Part of the creative process included shooting the scene with a group of professional dancers while having the main characters act around them. This choreography provided animators and designers with a glimpse of how the Victorian crinolines looked like and then figure a way of making their puppets look the same.
Deborah Cook designed these Victorian skirts and worked hand in hand with the armature department to build these metallic structures to go underneath and provide the desired movement. In the end, only the main characters and a couple of dancers were animated using stop-motion, the rest of the dancers were animated using CGI. Nonetheless, the computer animators had to make their characters look like the puppets already made.
The latest film LAIKA has created and one that has set the bar higher than ever in stop-motion animation is Missing Link (2019). In this film, one of the greatest challenges was creating the main character puppet, since his shape was clearly out of the ordinary and his movements were hard to articulate. The film is set by the end of the Victorian and entering the Edwardian era (1890-1910) which presented different challenges for its costumes. First of all, some interesting changes in fashion took place during this period (such as the use of trousers for women). In addition, the attention to detail was once again Deborah’s greatest accomplishment. Every fabric, thread, and trim used encompasses perfectly not only where the story is taking place but also who each character is made to perfection.
Animations will always continue to surprise and inspire us by the amount of talent, research and work they bring together. In the same way, stop-motion animations will forever have their place in our hearts due to the complexity of their creation. It is breath-taking to see the process that each one of these films undergoes in order to achieve that stunning final result. Still, in this technique of creating animations, character design and costume design go hand in hand. It is a creative process that cannot exist without the other, and in that sense, the importance of costume design is slowly being noticed by the audience as it deserves.
Thank you, Wallace and Gromit, Jack Skellington, Victor, Mr. Fox, Atari and Tracy, Coraline, and Mr. Link (among many others that I couldn’t include here). And so many thanks to the creative minds behind the magic of these amazing masterpieces, for bringing so much joy to our screens and by inspiring us to create with our hands the unimaginable.
Cracking Animation. Peter Lord and Brian Sibley. Aardman Animations. 2010
Since the beginning of animated movies, costumes have played an important role in the creation of the character as in any other form of film. Unlike live-action films where the process and team behind each costume are huge, in animated movies, a Costume Designer is not always part of the crew. That doesn’t mean that animated characters’ costumes are less important. At the end of the day, costumes are there to help with storytelling and create characters.
Just like in live-action films, in animated movies, the creation of characters and their costumes undergo deep research, and dozens of drafts are made in order to obtain the final result. In Disney’s hand-drawn animated films, the creation of costumes was completely attached to the creation of the character itself, making both character and costume indistinguishable. Back in those days, the process of creating a film took many hours of talented and passionate animators, dedicating their lives to bringing characters to life. Those characters, which have accompanied us through the years, had a whole team behind them, a team that made and cared for every single detail in their appearance and costume, making them absolutely unique.
“Costume design in animation is often not a separate task executed by a specialist costume designer, but it is an integral part of character creation” -Maarit Kalmakurki, 2018
In 1937, Disney premiered his first feature animated film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. He was taking a huge risk as it was the very first full-length Technicolor musical film, and he had no idea how the world was going to take it. During the years while creating this film, the animators made multiple technological advances in filmmaking, animation, and photography. The Golden Age of animation was just beginning.
The main concept that Walt Disney had for his films was “the illusion of life”. This meant that movies developed a higher standard of visual realism in animation. After many years of working in the conceptual design for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Walt Disney was not satisfied with the depiction of humans that the animators had created. So, the use of live-action models was implemented in order to approach “the illusion of life”. To achieve this, live actors would perform different scenes while wearing the costumes at Walt Disney Animation Studios. These filmed scenes were given to animators in order for them to study and refer to when experimenting with the movement, weight, lights, shadows, and textures of fabrics as well as the cut and silhouette of the entire outfit in the live character. In Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Marge Champion, daughter of a Hollywood choreographer, was the dancer and model for Snow White. She worked with the studio for three years before its premiere in 1937 and then performed as the Blue Fairy for Pinocchio.
The structure of Snow White’s costume worn by Marge was specially made for this purpose, however, it is still unknown who provided her dress since there was not a Costume Department at Walt Disney Studios. “Dark ribbon was sewn on the center front of the bodice, on the details on the puffed sleeves as well as on the edges of the fabric. This was possibly done to more visibly mark these lines and details when the animators drew the actor in movement. These dark ribbons also helped the animators to define shadow and assisted in thinking about colour saturation and hue and in defining weight and texture” (Kalmakurki, 2018). However, Marge didn’t always use the same dress, and some footage scenes show her wearing a slightly different costume than the one she wears in the final animation. This means that animators tested different colours and shapes, all in order to achieve the desired design for her costume. Due to the amount of time put into every footage, the movement of fabrics was interpreted by a simple line where a crease or a seam would go. But further on, when creating Sleeping Beauty (1959), animators were able to play more with lights and shadows on the costumes, creating a more realistic sense of the fabrics.
Snow White’s dress has European elements from the 16th century, such as a bodice with a pointed waist, puffed slashed sleeves, and an open square neckline with a stand-up collar. The latter makes reference to the ruffs worn by women during the 16th century in Europe. The slashing technique found in the sleeves was very popular in different parts of garments used during the Italian Renaissance, and which continued on until the 17th century as a synonym of wealth. Snow White’s entire look does not reflect a historically accurate silhouette, since it overall depicts the classic 1930’s elongated hourglass silhouette.
“The use of live-action models had been so helpful in the creation of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs that the method was extensively employed on the next animated feature, Pinocchio” -The Art of Disney Costuming, 2019
Pinnochio (1940), Disney’s second animated film, was based on the 1883 Italian children’s novel The Adventures of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi. This film used many of the elements that were previously used in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The use of live-action models was once again very helpful for animators to create the characters. Dickie Jones performed as Pinocchio and Christian Rub as Geppetto.
In this case, Pinocchio’s costumes resemble a 1920’s children’s classic outfit which consisted of knee-length knickers, a shirt, vest, suspenders, and a bowtie. His cap and gloves are a perfect costuming element that makes the character unique and “puppet-like” when compared to the other characters in the film.
In 1950, Disney created the magical piece Cinderella. Influenced mainly by the classic tale from 1697 by Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm version published in 1857. There were several conceptual designs behind the process of creating this character and its costumes, made primarily by the legendary Disney designer, Mary Blair. Despite Mary’s research, it seems that the lead animator Marc Davis decided her final costume (Kalmakurki, 2018).
“Together (Mary and Marc), they fashioned an iconic couture for the heroine, one that is inseparable from the unforgettable cinematic moment of its creation”
-The Art of Disney Costuming, 2019).
Due to Cinderella being produced right after World War II, and past financial difficulties the company had undergone, Walt decided to go ahead and use again live-action models for all the scenes in order for animators to work more efficiently. Helene Stanley performed as Cinderella, and later as Aurora in Sleeping Beauty. Helene didn’t use the same gown in every scene, and some still pictures show shiny materials on her gowns, which was perfectly depicted by the animators in the final result. In the end, Cinderella has three costumes, her house dress and apron in earthy tones, her pink and white romantic gown that her animal friends make for her, and finally the ball gown that her Fairy Godmother creates. The latter is considered to be a timeless piece for Western fashion since it has a strong influence from the fashion of the time as it replicates the 1950’s silhouette and style of Dior’s New Look.
Walt Disney had some guests at lunch one day… [and] one of them asked, ‘Mr. Disney, of all the animations that have been done in your studio, what is your favourite piece of animation?’ He thought for a moment and he said, ‘Well, I guess it would have to be when Cinderella got her ballroom gown, her dress’ … this was part of this magic that was Walt Disney, this belief that good things were going to happen, good things were there, and that’s what this animation was”
Sleeping Beauty (1959) brought its own challenges, and in this case, Walt Disney was looking for something different than what they had achieved before. The main artist of the production, Eyvind Earle was greatly influenced by Gothic and Medieval Art, as well as by the live-action films, Henry V and Romeo and Juliet. In the final animation, Princess Aurora has two costumes, first a grey dress with a black vest, white shirt underneath, and a scarf, and then a light blue ballgown. Princess Aurora’s costumes, unlike the rest of the characters, don’t really maintain a medieval style. Both of the dresses she wears in the film are attached closely to a 1950’s influence.
“Her look more closely resembles the American style of beauty and postwar glamour, which the rest of the world aimed to copy… it seems that the main character and the costume were designed with different principles and inspirations from the other characters in the film”
-Maarit Kalmakurki, The Art of Disney Costuming, 2019
Live-action filming was again used for the production of this film, but in this case, Princess Aurora’s costume had already been designed when filming took place. Both dresses Helene Stanley used during the scenes are very similar to the ones in the final animation. “Stanley’s costume for the character Aurora was provided by fashion designer Alice Estes Davis, the lead character animator Marc Davis’s wife” (Kalmakurki, 2018).
A very common trend during the Middle Ages was the use of parti-colouring in costumes, which is seen in many of the characters. This film “shows a larger variety of characters and crowds of people than any of the preceding Disney films. They are all dressed in medieval fashion and the Gothic features are seen in every principal character’s costume” (Kalmakurki, 2018). Women in that era wore extremely long gowns belted at the waist called kirtles or houppelands with long dagged sleeves. Their headwear was very important as it defined their social status. Hennin hats, bourrelets, fillet, and barbette were the most common accessories found in women. On the other hand, men wore doublets, camicias, parti-coloured hose, poulaines (pointed leather shoes), and a codpiece.
Creating a character means designing it from head to toe, whether it is an animator or a designer doing the job. A costume is being designed for a specific character, and it is there to contribute to the storytelling. It will set the audience in time and space, tell us a personal and fantastic story and it would show where the character comes from and where it goes.
It is impressive to go back and see how Disney classics defined the animated world. Moreover, how every new project became a masterpiece where technical advances and talents were being discovered, and how it shaped the animations we enjoy today. More than anything, it is impressive to see how the costumes of these characters created a stamp as the way we will remember them forever.
The Art of Disney Costuming. Jeff Kurtti and the Staff of the Walt Disney Archives. 2019. Disney Editions, Los Angeles and New York.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty: The Components of Costume Design in Disney’s Early Hand-Drawn Animated Feature Films. Maarit Kalmakurki, 2018. Altoo University. Espoo, Finland
Earlier this year, I had the great honor of interviewing a true costume design legend, Mona May. There is absolutely no way you aren’t familiar with at least one of Mona’s films. I am talking about Clueless, Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, A Night at the Roxbury, The Wedding Singer, Never Been Kissed, Enchanted, The Haunted Mansion, Stuart Little 2, and The House Bunny. Really, I could go on forever naming her wide list of work. Today, I am excited to share with you some insight into the wonderful world of Mona May, as we talk about her growing up, inspiration, research, current and future projects, a new collaboration with Thrilling, and some advice for future costume designers. Thank you again Mona for taking the time to speak with me.
Spencer Williams: Mona, I can’t tell you how honored I am to have you here. This is so exciting!
Mona May: Hello Spencer, I’m happy to be here! Congratulations on the launch of your blog!
Spencer: Oh, thank you so much! I am so grateful for how receptive the costume design community has been to the launch of The Art of Costume. It’s a true honor to spotlight the incredible creativity and talent of costume designers.I’m so glad you could join me.
Mona: I love it!
Spencer: Well Mona, how have you been doing? It’s certainly been an interesting time.
Mona: I have been great. Actually, it’s been kind of a very interesting downtime, but I’ve taken a lot of different creative leaps. Because of the Clueless twenty-fifth anniversary, I’ve been doing so much press and my Instagram just blew up. I never was really an Instagram person. Now, I’m loving it! I’m doingMona May Minute, talking about my work and process to my followers, getting so many questions from everybody. I just love it. I’m collaborating with brands and different organizations like Girls, Inc.. a non-profit organization that empowers young girls…Mentoring is kind of a new adventure for me. It’s been a very, very creative few months.
In the beginning, I thought it was all very scary because I was on a Netflix film that was going to Canada to shoot and I was getting ready to get on a plane on Wednesday. Then on Friday, they shut us down. It was very disappointing as We were already prepping all the costumes with our actors. It was very jarring. All of a sudden, everything stopped. We were prepping at Universal Studios wardrobe department, and it was just packed with people, so many projects going on that we couldn’t even get a fitting room. Then everything just basically stopped, overnight it was empty.
Projects are finally coming back. Looks like I’m going to start Punky Brewster, the reboot for Peacock. I’m super excited to be back to work, to create and have fun.
Spencer: I am so thrilled to see projects are coming back. It’s like the end of a long winter. I always like to start with my guests, asking how you ended up in the world of costume design. Where did it all begin for Mona?
Mona: I like the question because my path is very interesting. I was actually that young kid who drew as a little girl. I had princesses and gave them all makeovers and had a whole collection of outfits for my princesses.
I was always interested in clothes and fashion. I was giving my mom advice when I was five years old, telling her what she should wear. As you can see this was kind of my natural path into costume. I studied fashion in Europe. I was actually born in India, I grew up in Poland and Germany. My mom’s German and my dad was Polish. My mom was an art dealer, so I grew up around art and artists. Then I came to the USA and via New York City ended up in Los Angeles at the Fashion Institute Of Design and Merchandising and studied fashion. It was very interesting to be here in Los Angeles because it was very different from European fashion, very casual and the clothes were a lot more fun.
During the time I was here studying, I met friends from USC Film School and the UCLA Film School that were doing short films for their school projects. They would always ask me, “Can you help us, you are in fashion?” Sure. It sounds interesting. I have to tell you that from the first little movie that I did, I just got the bug immediately because it was such a fun, collaborative process. Learning about the characters, diving into their psychology, it was so much more than just fashion. I was good at it and eventually, the word got out.
MTV was starting out, so I worked with Run DMC, Debbie Gibson, some commercials and this crazy show for MTV called Just Say Julie, which was with Julie Brown. It was super funny. I did props and costumes. I was able to express myself in this amazing way. Everything kind of led another. I got into the union. I did a pilot with Amy Heckling. The pilot didn’t get picked up, but then she wrote Clueless… she called because we just connected on such a creative level when we worked together. Amy loves fashion and has a really deep understanding of what’s going on and always has a hand on the pulse of everything, the language of young people and current fashions. When she called me up, she said you are the best person to design the costumes and the rest is history.
Clueless was a film about girls in Beverly Hills who dressed in high fashion. At the time when we were prepping the movie, fashion had a strong similarity to that of Kurt Cobain. The fashion in Los Angeles during the nineties was grunge, all about big plaid shirts, baggy pants, and dark colors. Our main goal was to bring European runway fashion inspirations to the story. It was all ahead of its time and blended with the characters in a high school setting. We also had to make sure that everything looked authentic and real. We didn’t want all of the girls to run around in high heels looking like snooty models. We wanted real girls that the audience could still relate to. So part of the challenge was translating that high fashion from the runways into high school.
We had amazing actors. Alicia Silverstone was this new girl on the scene famous from an Aerosmith video and most of the actors like Paul Rudd this was a big break… Clueless was really a project of love for all of us, we were so happy to be there and doing such a creative film with a great script and amazing director. Because of this opportunity, I was able to marry my love of fashion and costume design. What an incredible opportunity!
The budget on the movie wasn’t big, it was my first studio film as a designer, I didn’t even have an agent and had to negotiate my rate and my own perks. I want the young readers who are kind of on their path to becoming designers to know, you never know how things are going to really turn out. You have to be very open to opportunities. When we were working on Clueless none of us imagined we will be all talking about it 25 years later.
Spencer: You have an incredible story. So let’s talk about Clueless, celebrating its 25th anniversary. I mean, twenty-five years… Does it even seem real?
Mona: I mean, it seems like it was just yesterday. But, yeah, it just doesn’t. It’s bizarre and wild that it’s been twenty-five years, really and there is still so much love for this film.
Spencer: As you said earlier, your Instagram is blowing up. I’ve been seeing your name all over the press. People refer to you sometimes as The Queen of 90s Fashion. You would think the film just came out yesterday!
Mona: I am so proud that this film has stood the test of time. That is still so popular and has inspired generations of women. Even though the outfits were inspired by the 90s, I had a global point of view on fashion. So the movie is not as dated as maybe it was just on-trend. The outfits are so classic, the plaid, the peacoat, the berets, A-line skirts. You have the empire waist dresses with the cap sleeves. That’s what I gravitate to. I always wanted the girls to look and feel feminine and pretty. That’s what we’re doing in the movie. We’re kind of bringing back the feminine and bringing back the beauty of girls that was lost in the grunge and darkness.
Spencer: What type of research did you have to do for Clueless when it came to fashion as well as designing each of the subcultures, such as a skater kid, the jocks, stoner kids, or the teachers. What does that research look like?
Mona: Well, as a costume designer we each have a different process. After reading the script and meeting with a director and kind of downloading their vision is doing visual boards. You do collages. I gather art and look at photography. You look at fashion pieces. For me, that film inspiration was really about going to European runways, and really bringing something that’s not in the stores or on the streets. I was looking six months ahead or even further when it came to styles, textures, and colors. I had to use the predictive magazines, there was no computer and ideas with the click of a little finger. You look through these magazines and think about what’s right for each character, what will translate well into the world of young girls in Beverly Hills.
For example, when it came to creating the color palette for these characters, Dionne and Cher were very different. The color palette for Cher was classic, like reds, blues, yellows, and pinks as Dionne Davenport, the palette was much brighter. Her skin tone allowed me to push the colors and even use neon colors. I got to use a lot of different textures such as vinyl leopard and faux fur on Dionne as she was sassier. Cher and Dionne were best friends, but really very unique psychologically so the clothes had to reflect that.
The rest kind of fell into place with a lot of effort of course as we had a lot of clothes in the movie. Since we were creating fashion that was not on the street every extra that was on screen had to be dressed from head to toe. The stoners, the skateboarders, preppy boys, the school A-list boys we dressed all of them. And that was in addition to our main cast like Alicia Silverstone who had sixty wardrobe changes and Dionne probably had about fifty.
I would come in at 5:00 in the morning, and the real challenge was everyone had to be dressed because they were all coming in grunge. If we are creating the world, they have to be on par and look as fabulous as everybody else on the screen. With the right color palette, textures, and have all of the new cool hip clothes or the backpacks. So it was a lot of clothes.
But that’s kind of the movies I do. If you really look at Never Been Kissed, Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, The Wedding Singer, The House Bunny, or even Enchanted. I just get these very creative jobs with big stories and journeys of the characters and this is where I thrive. I can put the creative puzzle together. As a costume designer, I don’t do it all alone. I have a big team: a supervisor who looks after the whole department, pays the bills, makes sure we are on schedule with fittings. I have shoppers, patternmakers, seamstresses, and the very important set crew who dresses actors and keeps the continuity. There is a big team behind me to support my vision. In this film, we didn’t have a lot of time prep, only about two months to prep so a designer needs a strong team to make it all happen.
Spencer: Oh wow. I’m sorry, did you say two months? I just got chills.
Mona: Yeah. We didn’t have a lot of money either. Also, you have to remember this was so long ago that the PR machine also wasn’t really in place. You know, like now if you are watching a television show, some of these fabulous clothes are just a phone call away. It’s much easier to put these incredible looks together. In my case, I didn’t have that luxury, so I had to be very inventive. The thing about not having a lot of money, I couldn’t buy all designer clothes. But in the end, I think the movie was better because of it. I had to find the clothes from the future, right then from all kinds of sources, high-end stores, mall stores, and thrift stores. Which created the unique look of the film- mixing high and low fashion which was not done before. It was fresh and the girls loved it!!
Spencer: Because of this process of thrifting and combining all of these pieces, you were setting trends. Those trends are as alive now as they were twenty-five years ago! It’s incredible really.
Mona: Yeah, it was really amazing how I was able to inspire girls to dress in fun fashions to be girly again and to mix old and new. Thrifting is so in now, so we all have to think about stability and not polluting the earth with a crazy amount of disposable clothes. I just did a collaboration with this shop, Thrilling, a company that’s online, a collective of thrift stores from all over the United States. We did a photo shoot as I am curating a collection for them and I was able to pull all kinds of cool clothes and show girls that you can dress high fashion in vintage. That you don’t need to buy new clothes and you can look more unique with repurposed clothing. I had so much fun putting it together and the response has been great so far.
I always try to inspire. That’s kind of the goal of what I do and who I am. I want to inspire young women. I want them to be inspired to be themselves and to be authentic. That’s the message I feel I have tried to send in all my movies.
Spencer: So this is really the hardest question of them all, and I am sorry I have to ask you. I think the audience would riot if I don’t. Is there a particular costume that has a special place in your heart? Do you have a favorite?
Mona: You know, it’s really one of the hardest questions to answer because they are all my babies and they all have such meaning. The yellow suit will forever be the most famous of the costumes that I’ve ever done. I mean, it’s almost like the white dress Marilyn Monroe wore. When you look at the yellow plaid, you automatically think Clueless. I love Enchanted too, you know. That white dress we did for Amy Adams, as a design, it’s just so spectacular. There were these costumes that I did for Haunted Mansion that were quite incredible as they were glowing in the dark. It was such a fun process creating them. I was using the stuff that’s on your tennis shoes that reflects when light hits it – that’s actually microscopic glass beads that reflect light. The director wanted the costumes to be very organic and have the ghosts in the graveyard glow when the main characters drive through it.
So each costume is so unique to the process. If I had to pick one, it’s probably the yellow suit just because it’s so iconic. It’s very synonymous with me and that movie to this day.
Spencer: So looking back at a lot of your popular work such as Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, Clueless, A Night at the Roxbury, it seems like you have a real connection to Los Angeles and the L.A. fashion scene. Do you feel that way, too?
Mona: You know what? It was not intentional. It was just something that happened. I do feel a connection to Los Angeles. I love color and the environment is something that has helped me paint my pictures in a brighter way. The setting is so much more positive and happy. You know, there’s so much light here. There’s so much color. Everybody has a signature. Some designers do really well, period costumes. Some designers do great with drama. I think that I’m kind of suited to my personality and artistic take on things with comedy.
Spencer: So unlike most people, I feel like my first introduction into the world of Mona May wasn’t actually with Clueless. My childhood is deeply composed of those Disney Channel television shows that so many people my age feel all of the nostalgia for.
Mona: Oh! Which one?
Spencer: Well, most of them were projects you were on. Stuck in the Suburbs was a good one, I still have the soundtrack *laughs*. Zenon: The Zequel. Oh, and how could I forget The Cheetah Girls: One World. Take us back a little bit to the early 2000s when you were doing these original Disney Channel television-movies.
Mona: It was so much fun because in between these big movies, I always had a little break and they reached out to me. My sensibility and my art are very similar to what Disney Channel stands for. You know, it’s very bright. It was all very happy.
It was really fun to work with young kids because they were on the verge of being women. So it was great to be able to empower them and also help them understand costume design. How does costume design help tell the story? At the same time, helping them to feel good in their bodies. I really loved working with Disney Channel. At the time, Disney Channel was spending a bunch of money on those little films. They allowed me a certain kind of freedom to do what I want, which was really creative.
Spencer: I remember being a kid in probably elementary school, watching The Cheetah Girls: One World and thinking beautiful and inspiring those costumes were. Plus, how exciting to go to India, your birthplace!
Mona: We just had a blast. It was an unforgettable experience. It was so interesting to work there and oversee the cross-culture. Here’s the thing, the Cheetah Girls had these modern, really kind of cool, funky clothes. Then as we went to India, we started to blend authentic Indian fashion into their own looks. It was such a cool and interesting blend.
Spencer: Ugh I love it. You are taking me all the way back! A key focus of mine and the team at The Art of Costume is exploring this idea of storytelling through costume design. Just as a basic question, do you consider costume designers to be storytellers?
Mona: Of course! This question is lovely. Clueless is a great example. The costumes are almost like a character in itself. Or, if you look at Never Been Kissed. Josie Geller (played by Drew Berrymore) starts as a kind of very bookish, nerdy girl and then goes into high school with this crazy idea of what high school the kids would wear. Then you see her transformation as she finds more about herself and the scrips unfold the story. At the end of the film, you see this young woman in that beautiful, age-appropriate pink dress and she is not the same girl we met at the begging of the film. The final look, that dress tells us about a sophisticated young woman who is not afraid of who she is – why she became. So costume it’s absolutely part of the storytelling. When you see a character on screen, within thirty seconds or less we have a good idea of who they are by the clothes they wear.
Twenty-five years later after doing Clueless, having articles written about me in Variety and fashion magazines such as Vogue and Elle, WWD, and New York Post brings more awareness to who we are as costume designers as artists. We are part of the creative process on a film or a tv project as important as directors of photography and production designers. I think this is so incredibly important because we want equality. Artistic equality and pay equality. Costume designers are a part of the collaborative process of filmmaking and as being mostly women we don’t get all the respect. I love that I’m speaking to you and I am doing all this press because it just brings more awareness to who we are as costume designers and our craft…
Spencer: Another great example I wanted to add to this idea of storytelling, is Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion. I can’t even imagine that film without you. The whole story is about these two characters almost kind of changing themselves in hopes to be impressive at their high school reunion. This story is so dependent on the clothes that they’re wearing. It’s even told through multiple flashbacks to their days in high school. For example, the great prom scene. Their whole story is relying on the costume designer to translate their trials throughout their life leading up to the reunion. We rely heavily upon our costume designers as storytellers, and I think it’s about time costume designers and costume departments as a whole are given the credit they deserve.
Mona: Absolutely. But I think the problem is that people don’t know how it happens. As I said, I had to put sixty changes together for Alicia Silverstone as Cher. People don’t realize how many clothes you have, how many fittings you have to do, and you know how many accessories you have to put together. Each outfit is unique and thought out to the last detail. It’s a huge job not only creatively but you have to deal with budgets, running crew in your department, communicate with actors, and deliver everything on time. So this is about shedding the light on what we do, how does it happen – the process.
Spencer: Right. I mean, touching on that same point. Throughout your career, you’ve worked on multiple projects that include costume design for both live-action and animated films such as Stuart Little 2, The Haunted Mansion. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention one of my favorites, Enchanted. By the way, one of my favorite costumes of all time is that gown Queen Narissa wore.
Mona: Thank you. Narissa’s costume is probably my second, right after the yellow suit in Clueless. I love, love that design and how beautiful it is on screen.
Spencer: Oh, it’s extraordinary. That scene where she emerges from that manhole in Times Square. Spoiler alert, she eventually becomes a dragon. Plus, Narissa is played by Susan Sarandon, it doesn’t get better than that. Okay, I will stop being a nerd for a few seconds. Not many people realize that animated characters and films require costume designers as well.
Mona: Yes! Yes! My first experience with animated costumes was with Stuart Little 2. I got a great opportunity to meet the director, Rob Minkoff, and had an interview with him. The first film was great because we had this mouse who was kind of conservative wearing little bow ties and suits the movie became a huge hit. So now people believed that there was a mouse living with humans. When I went to interview for Stuart Little 2, I brought drawings of Stuart and in a Prada suit, skateboarding outfit, or even a date outfit. I said to the director Rob Minkoff – the mouse is now a beloved character so let’s give Stuart a makeover. And that’s how I got the job!
The process is very similar to designing costumes for live-action. You start with drawings and then it becomes very technical with many many details from proportions to fit. I’m almost like an adviser to all the technical guys who are on the computer who build them all in 3D. I would come in and do fittings virtually on the computer. Pretty cool! We had to make sure that the clothes fit on the digital character, especially because he had a horrible body to dress. He had a giant head, basically, no neck, small shoulders, giant tail, and short legs and the director wanted him to look like he shops at GAP. But he was one of the best actors I’ve worked with, he loved all his costumes and never talked back. *laughs*
It was a great learning experience to work on these animated projects because it’s all very technical but I’m still designing costumes just not a human but a digital character.
I just worked on another animated movie recently that was for Skydance Animation. It was a female virtual character, a young girl, but she had a different shape than humans more of an animated character body with a bigger head and small shaped body. You’re designing the costumes and trying to make sure they still fit great. The clothes need to be the right colors for her skin tone, fit her body shape. They have to be right for her age, where she is coming from culturally, and the right socio-economic background. This particular character was going to be doing a lot of action so we have to allow for the clothes to move with her, making sure clothing is not too restrictive. So the process is very similar to live-action the decisions you make as a designer are the same. You just have to deal with gravity in live-action and not in animation
Spencer: Speaking of gravity, even in animation, gravity still affects the textiles and the flow of the clothing too! Well, unless you are space…
Mona: Very much so. It’s a funny thing that you bring up. When I was doing Enchanted, I got brought on very early because I was working with the animators designing the costumes since I had to translate them into live-action costumes. The first part of the film was all old-style animation. I was there when they were starting to draw the characters and putting some clothes on them. When we started to cast and I was hired, I would be in the room with them. We were trying to figure out the designs for characters like Nathaniel (Played by Timothy Spall) who was the sidekick to the prince. The animators started drawing little puffy hot pants and short shirts for his look. I’m like, OK, I have this actor who is over 200 lbs and he’s not going to run Central Park with these little shorts. So we need to really be realistic. We as designers can bring our experience understanding clothing, how it works on bodies how the fabric moves when it moves in live-action. Animators think more in fantasy and they don’t have to think of gravity. They can do anything they want but we as a costume designer have to deal with real bodies, especially in this case of Enchanted, which was about bringing the animated characters into a live-action world.
Spencer: Wow, that’s so interesting. I feel like I am certainly going to watch Enchanted again after this interview. I heard you are working on a new animated film, Flora and Ulysses for Disney+. Would you like to give us a special sneak peek?
Mona: I would love to talk about it. It was such a fantastic experience because it took me back to my roots of Stuart Little 2. It’s a live-action film with a CGI squirrel and working with CGI characters and live-action is complicated and fun at the same time. I love a challenge and learning new things on my projects. Sadly the CGI squirrel didn’t wear any clothes…
Spencer: Oh man!
Mona: I know I was very bummed. But what was really cool about this film was that the father is a comic book writer, and his daughter imagines his characters are coming off the pages of his comic books. So I actually had to design superheroes and it was so much fun because I had never done superheroes. I was able to learn a lot and learn about textures and different finishings. We worked with material that’s shiny, that almost looks like plastic. It was just a really great learning experience. I love a challenge and learning new things on my projects.
That’s what it’s all about for me. That’s what I would love to leave people who are reading along. Life is about learning. Every project brings a new experience and more opportunities to learn. When I got Stuart Little 2, I didn’t know how to design CGI characters. I had to learn. I loved it. Enchanted is such an interesting project because it blended old style 2D animation with live-action and CGI. Queen Narissa was a character that turned into a CGI dragon. I had to figure out how to blend all 3 different mediums. The 2D costume looked very flat, almost like a cut-out. Then when she comes to life, it’s like she just explodes with textures and color, and then all the details of her costumes become part of the dragon she turns into..
Spencer: When Queen Narissa comes to life as a live-action character, the costume took on a dragon scale-like texture.
Mona: Exactly. You know, probably one of the best parts of my job is learning so much. With each project, you dive into really intense research. You learn so much from meeting with other collaborators. I learned a lot from the director of photography when I was working on The Haunted Mansion when I had to make the costumes glow. We had to mix this stuff that glows that actually comes in powder form. You mix it with paint. You paint the clothes and then we had to shoot it with a camera that had a ring of light around the lens. We became a kind of like alchemists.
We work with actors. You know what’s very interesting and I talk a lot about it, when you have these ideas and you make the boards. You think you know who the character is. But then the actor or actress walks into the fitting room. This is when the magic happens. Going back to Clueless and the yellow suit, we let Alicia Silverstone try on the blue one. Then she tried the red one. The blue one was beautiful. The red one was a little bit too on the nose, like trying too hard. Then she pulled the yellow…Oh my God. This is the color of just sunshine. She’s the queen.
Another great story I have comes with those final dresses for Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion. Those blue and pink party dresses. I had something else designed for Lisa Kudrow’s character. A couple of days before Lisa came, we started talking and she had a really good point. Maybe the dresses should be very similar. There should be this feeling, like a “We made it” feeling. So I changed the design last minute, which wasn’t easy. It was hard because everything was already in motion. We made both of the dresses A-line with the empire waist. We made Lisa’s pink which represented her character. Mira Sorvino’s character was always more in control so she had the blue one, and it really was perfect. It was actually better than what I did before. It became iconic. So the flexibility and kind of openness to the process and change are very important in our work…
Spencer: This is all so inspiring to hear. I am sure it’s also going to be very inspiring to a lot of future costume designers who are going to be reading this. It’s inspiring to hear, as someone we look up to including myself, is still constantly learning. Even with all of these projects that came after Clueless, you are still taking the time to learn.
Mona: Yes. You know, we are artists but not machines. You have to be dedicated to your work. There are long hours involved. Sometimes you have to go away for months. You have to be passionate and willing to learn. You have to show up and be there. It’s not always going to be easy. You won’t always have the money. You might not have enough crew. So you have to love it. I think. You have to really be there and be professional. I think you have to be a very good communicator.
It’s a job that’s very interesting because it’s not a job that’s the same every day. Every project is different. Every day, different things happen. There’s a lot of change. You have to be on your toes, and sometimes you have to take yourself out of the equation a little. It’s not about you. It’s about the project. It’s about the art. In the end, it’s our goal to make the project the best we can. Sometimes, maybe you don’t win and you don’t get what you like. Sometimes, you do. You know, it’s really give, and take. I hope that is one thing that the readers of The Art of Costume take away from this.
Spencer: I think they will, and I am so happy you have taken the time to share your knowledge and experiences with us… So finally, what’s coming up next for Mona May I know you’re doing the reboot for Punky Brewster, a popular 80s sitcom That is so exciting!
Mona: Oh, I am super excited. Punky is now a mom. Punky is now in her 40s and she has three kids. You know, we want to make her kind of a cool mom, edgy mom. One of the girls is a fashionista who is about fifteen. So she’s gonna have some fun clothes. Freddie Prinze. Junior is going to be the ex-husband, the musician. I’m so happy that I was brought onto this project, to create something very fresh, something real, something that the young moms can emulate. We are looking at a woman who is 40 years old, who can also be a mom and be hip and be cool. We will be connecting with the audience in different ways. I’m lucky that I get these kinds of jobs, you know. I’m sort of a go-to when it comes to bringing something fresh, to remake something in a new way that’s so exciting.
Spencer: Mona, thank you so much for talking with me. I can sit here and just talk to you for hours, and hours.
Mona: I appreciate you talking to me. You are shedding light on what we do and spreading the word about costume design. It’s really important to me.
I also would love your audience to follow me on Instagram. I’m actually answering a lot of questions. On Mondays, I host Mona Minute, and I talk about my process so anybody can send me a question and I’ll try to answer as many as I can. I want people to be on this journey with me. It’s just great. I probably will be like the eighty-five-year-old grandma still doing this, and sharing.