COLLEEN ATWOOD COSTUME DESIGNER
By Marion Hume
How’s this for being vindicated? You were seventeen, with a baby born out of wedlock and the small town in rural Washington State – which, up to that point, was your whole world, had shunned you. You were a write-off, a failure. Now here you are, thirty five years later, with your baby all grown up with children of her own and your second child (born 20 years after the first) out in the audience at the biggest television show on earth. You’re up on stage and you are holding up your Oscar.
Before meeting Colleen Atwood, who is one of the best-known costume designers working today, these are the things you might know: That she won the Oscar for “Chicago” in 2002 (and recalling how slick Queen Latifah, Catherine-Zeta Jones and Richard Gere looked, you’ll agree it was richly deserved); and that she has been nominated for an Academy Award four other times – for “Little Women”, “Beloved”, “Sleepy Hollow” and “Lemony Snickert’s A Series of Unfortunate Events”. In Hollywood, five Academy Award nominations puts you in rare company indeed.
What you can find out, if you surf the net, is that Atwood is doing a contemporary movie next; Tom Cruise’s “Mission Impossible III”, although it is the project she has just completed, “Memoirs of a Geisha”, that brings she and I together today. But what you won’t expect is her warmth, her openness, her candour and her life’s journey. Having supper with Colleen Atwood at Shutters on the Beach, (the movie hotel of choice in Santa Monica), feels like going out to dinner with an old friend.
We’re here to talk about pearls, which, it soon transpires, Atwood adores as much as I do. Indeed, she insisted that the pearl jewellery worn by the mannered beauties in “Memoirs of a Geisha” would be real, not paste – an unusual choice in movie-world. given that meant added stress of security on set. “I know people think I’m crazy, but I often use real jewellery on my leading actors,” Atwood says. “I never tell people and no one thinks the jewellery is real on a movie set, but it looks more spectacular.”
For “Geisha”, she knew she needed the world’s most lustrous pearls because the gems were an intrinsic part of geisha life. “They were symbols of a certain beauty which was really subtle. You’d never find jewellery used boastfully as in the West, but instead as a clever note, a hint. And I think there’s something so beautiful about a pearl. There’s nothing like it.”
To refresh on “Geisha”, it is based on the best-selling novel by Arthur Golden and it has taken many years to come to the screen, hindered in part by an American man’s portrayal of the high art of the geisha as akin to that of the high-class prostitute, which angered the people of Kyoto so much, they vowed not to allow a movie to be filmed there. (Only the wide shots of temples in the current movie, directed by “Chicago’s” Rob Marshall, were filmed in Japan). Further controversy has been sparked by the casting of Li Gong, Zizi Zhang and Michele Yeoh, none of whom are Japanese, in the principle roles, although Atwood quickly makes it clear she’s not going to be drawn into that. “I would defy anyone to come up with better actresses. And no one mentions that Kaori Momoi is a phenomenal actress and very well known in Japan.”
As for the costumes, they are Japanese as filtered through the demands of the modern-day audience. Atwood’s task is always, she says, to create, “an impression of a time, a fantasy.” While in the fast five months of prep time allowed for “Geisha”, she immersed herself in cultural references of 1920s to 1940s Japan, visited Kyoto where she was surprised by the enormous generosity of traditional weavers of kimono and obi (the belts which hold the kimono in place), she stresses that her job is not that of historian. “This isn’t a documentary. It’s a tribute to the period.” She readily admits she’s made the kimono, which is bulky to Western eyes, more sleek and sexy.
It is said that the key to costume design comes from beneath. Get the underpinnings right, and the rest will follow (actresses trussed up in corsets will, necessarily, behave differently from their modern selves.) Here “Geisha” provided an unusual challenge. What to do when, traditionally, there was no underwear? “They don’t wear foundations as we know in the West,” Atwood concurs, “and the Japanese ideal is a straight line, with the bust flattened by the obi, whereas we definitely bowed out of that one! We were dying to do a sexy geisha underwear sequence, with obi-wrapped bras which could start a fashion trend. Alas, it didn’t make it into the movie!”
As for fashion being influenced by movies, Atwood says she hopes “Geisha” will sparks trends, just as “Chicago” did. “I’d love to see Galliano’s take on Geisha. I loved his fur pirates, I thought they were awesome. People who are designing fashion will have a great time revisiting Japan in a certain way.”
Fashionable tonight in a low-key Californian way, Atwood is wearing flat sandals, pants, a dark shirt with her dark hair pulled back, perhaps to showcase perfect pearl earrings. Clearly a very stylish woman, it was fashion that was Atwood’s bridge from one life to the next. The backstory is this. After having her daughter, Tracy (Her second daughter is called Charlotte) she and Tracy’s father did marry, although they divorced by the time Atwood turned twenty. When Atwood’s ex-husband married again and was raising a young family, Tracy lived much of the time with her dad.
In order to survive, Colleen Atwood worked the graveyard shift in a french fry factory. But the daughter of a farmer father and a teacher mother had been brought up to study hard (her two sisters are an environmentalist and a school administrator) and she read literature and studied art as she could (she also won art scholarships to college but was forced by her economic situation to turn them down). Eventually she got a job in “a very posh department store in Seattle” (a former branch of Marshall Fields, which no longer exists), where her artistic talent and sense of style were noted. She was promoted until she became a personal shopper, looking after rich women who would travel from all points of the USA. Before she’d reached her thirties, Atwood had, as she puts it, “met and known every kind of person, from a toothless woman on a conveyor belt to the richest people in the country shopping for designer clothing to wear to The White House.”
“I moved to New York in 1979,” she continues. “By then, I knew I wanted to work in the film business and I’d applied for a summer seminar at NYU – although I was 28 and everyone else was 19, and they wanted to make movies I wasn’t interested in.” A chance meeting of a friend of a friend, literally on a street corner, lead to Atwood discovering that “Ragtime” was in production. She volunteered to help for free and when someone didn’t turn up she got to work in a hot Manhattan loft all summer. This led to lowly paid work then, at last, a jig doing costuming for “Saturday Night Live.” “I’ve had two totally different lives,” Atwood reminisces and her past helps, she says, when it comes to striking a bond with actors, many of whom have themselves known tough times.
The night she won her Oscar, Atwood had much to celebrate. Her elder daughter, Tracy, a hairstylist with a successful business and a happy marriage to a pharmacist, who was at home with Atwood’s grandchildren. Tracy is, says her mother, “a miracle to me. When you have a child when you are 17, you don’t know what you’re doing, but luckily, she’s amazing.” Atwood’s younger daughter, Charlotte, was by her side at the awards show, “and she was determined to go to all the parties – until she fell asleep in the car on the way to Vanity Fair, so we went back to the hotel and put on our pyjamas and had hot chocolate with my sisters, who were there waiting and we all had our pictures taken with Oscar.” Atwood, who describes herself as “a quiet person,” remembers it as “a great night.”
But fame has a way of smoking things out of the woodwork. After the Oscar win, a letter arrived, “from this girl who I sort of knew in high
school, because in a small town, you know everybody. She’d written a
screenplay and she’d found Jesus. And then she wrote, “I’m really sorry that I voted against letting you graduate with the class,” and I’m like what? I had a child in May and they graduated in June and I was long gone before that, because pregnant girls weren’t allowed to attend school. But I did correspondence courses to finish my education. And that was how I found out that my class, my friends, had been asked whether I should graduate and they voted against me. I went their graduation and I’d always wondered why my mother’s behaviour was so odd. She was so upset. Until that letter came, I never understood why she was so mad. Because she knew and she didn’t tell me because she didn’t want me to be upset.”
Atwood admits that even now, she feels distinctly uncomfortable after so much as half a day in her old home town. What kept her on her path was, she says, a thirst for knowledge. “I’m not well educated because of my early life, but I always studied”. Now? “I have a sense of history, but maybe not being precious about it might be an advantage over someone who might have a more serious approach. I’m not scared to interpret, to change things.”
An anchor through her toughest times, was, she reveals, the novels of Charles Dickens, because, “he’s so brilliant at describing how people really wear clothes; the man with his new waistcoat, ten-year-old shoes and worn pants, and how the waistcoat made him feel as he walked down the street. There’s such texture to the narrative, such detail, yet it gives you a lot of latitude because you realise everyone isn’t wearing the exact thing from any period, they are mixing with what they already have, using what they’ve got and that gives it integrity.”
A life as textured as any Dickens novel has certainly given integrity to the award-winning work of Colleen Atwood.
“Memoirs of a Geisha” which features Autore pearls, opens later this year.