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Lincoln Lady

Costume designer Joanna Johnston on her first Oscar nomination, working with Steven Spielberg, and how she helped bring Abraham Lincoln back to life.

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People have brought up that I should have been nominated before, but that’s hard to comment on,” says Lincoln costume designer Joanna Johnston. Instead of wondering why she’s had to wait so long — more than three decades — to be recognized by the Academy, Johnston muses on her first Oscar nod in much the same way she sums up the art of wardrobe design: ”Everything has a time and place.”

The soft-spoken Brit stumbled into the profession at age 19 when she took a job at Bermans & Nathans, a London wardrobe shop famous for producing historical costumes for stage and screen. ”I was quite shy and nervous,” she recalls. ”I was kind of skinny, and [famed costumer Irene Sharaff] asked me to model some dresses she was making. I was amazed by the fittings.”

Johnston gained experience on feature films like The French Lieutenant’s Woman and Out of Africa before scoring her first gig as head costume designer on the 1987 horror flick Hellraiser. The following year she created the now-infamous red ”dress” worn by animated sexpot Jessica Rabbit in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, which marked the first of many collaborations with director Robert Zemeckis.

Johnston also established a regular working relationship with Steven Spielberg, who hired her when it came time to create the wardrobe for 2012’s Lincoln. ”They’re like an extended family,” she says of Spielberg and his production team. ”I’m incredibly lucky, working with probably the best-known director in the world. I don’t take that for granted.”

Character Study

Johnston worked closely with Daniel Day-Lewis to create more than just a costume. ”Lincoln was famously uncomfortable in his clothes. I loved that idea, the void between the body and the cloth.”

First Lady of Fashion

”She was very fussy, so I could lay quite a lot on,” Johnston says of re-creating many of Mary Todd Lincoln’s dresses, which she decorated with fringe, lace, and other embellishments. ”Sally [Field] was a trouper, putting on weight, wearing corsets.”


”The thrust of it was in Virginia, where we were filming,” the designer says of producing costumes for Gloria Reuben and the rest of the supporting cast. ”We had a shop there with dressmakers and tailors — it was sublime.”

Military Men

Johnston, who also worked on the combat-heavy Spielberg films War Horse and Saving Private Ryan, enlisted costume cutter Michael Sloan to produce a seemingly endless supply of Civil War uniforms. ”He could turn out a whole frock coat in a day,” she marvels.

Creating Costume Drama

From present day to medieval times, Johnston’s work spans almost every era in history — plus a few imaginary realms

Who Framed Roger Rabbit 1988

Johnston designed costumes for both live and animated characters in this hybrid comedy. ”It was too expensive to animate Jessica Rabbit in sequins for the whole movie,” she says of the cartoon siren’s formfitting gowns. ”The [compromise] was that she wear sequins on stage and satin the rest of the time. At my young age, I was really upset that she wasn’t going to be in sequins all the way through.”

Forrest Gump 1994

How did Johnston handle the film’s 30-year time frame? ”By saying where we were [with] very iconic American looks,” explains the costume designer, who also outfitted Tom Hanks for 2000’s Cast Away. Still, ”Forrest always stays the same: the checked shirt, the trousers. He never changes.”

Jack the Giant Slayer 2013

”It’s ‘fancy medieval,’ which is something I said I was never going to do. [But] I did it, and I really liked it,” Johnston says of the looks she created for the nobles, knights, and giants in the fantasy adventure (in theaters March 1). ”It’s sort of glamour, medieval, a bit of storybook, and a bit of a modern edge. It was fun.”