To bring Abraham Lincoln back to life in Lincoln (out in limited release now, opening wide on Nov. 16), director Steven Spielberg enlisted British costume designer Joanna Johnston, who helped transform Daniel Day-Lewis into The Great Emancipator and Sally Field into his feisty wife, Mary Todd Lincoln.
Johnston, who has worked on a range of Spielberg films, including Saving Private Ryan, did extensive research to prepare for the challenge, poring over scores of historical photos and inspecting period dresses and jewelry at the Library of Congress and the Chicago History Museum, before finding her sartorial starting point. “They’re polar opposites, Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd Lincoln,” says Johnston. “She’s spending a lot of money, and he can’t be bothered by that.”
As the former U.S. president, Day-Lewis is tall, gangly and clothed in a plain brown suit, a praying mantis in a black stovepipe hat. By comparison, Field’s Mary Todd — a full foot shorter — stuffs her round frame into brightly colored dresses decorated with fringe, lace, and corsages, like a proud peacock on display.
EW visited Johnston at a warehouse in Burbank, Calif., to get an up-close look at screen-worn costumes from the film, including wide-skirted evening gowns by dressmaker Erica Ciaglia and custom-made suits created by tailor Michael Sloan.
“We were like a traveling circus. We did a little bit of work in L.A., but the main thrust of it was in Virginia, where we were filming. We had a shop there with dressmakers and tailors and they were sublime,” said Johnston. “We had actors do fittings on a daily basis. We had to create the likeness of the character. It was very male heavy. I don’t know how many pieces we made, but it was unbelievable. Michael Sloan would churn them out. He could make a whole frock coat in a day. I bought a lot of cloth at the beginning that became my stock. The film changed on an hourly basis, moves with the wind.”
Check out the video below to hear Johnston talk about fitting Field for Mary Todd’s dresses. Keep reading for more on Field and Day-Lewis as Lincoln.