Behind the seams of ''Memoirs of a Geisha'' -- Costume designer Colleen Atwood gives EW a style primer on Rob Marshall's Oscar contender

”Believe me, the art of the kimono is a very complicated form,” says Memoirs of a Geisha costume designer Colleen Atwood, whose previous collaboration with director Rob Marshall (on 2002’s Chicago) earned Atwood her first Oscar. ”What I learned was minuscule compared to what a real expert would know.” With just five months to create hundreds of costumes, Atwood relied on books, museum exhibits, and consultants both in the States and in Japan to verse herself in the secluded world of the geisha. Nearly all of the film’s kimonos were made from luxurious silks with intricate, hand-painted patterns. Each female lead was assigned a specific ”mood” palette: vibrant reds, blues, and greens for Gong Li’s intense, scheming Hatsumomo, for instance, versus the ”peaceful, calm colors” worn by Michelle Yeoh’s maternal Mameha. Ziyi Zhang’s Sayuri, a servant girl who blossoms into Kyoto’s most beloved geisha, undergoes the greatest transformation, which Atwood captured by gradually swapping dark, subdued tones in simple ”gritty-poor” cotton for ”rich, light” hues in elegant silk. Producing the Geisha wardrobe was about as easy as finding a needle in a cherry-blossom-stack, but for Atwood that was the fun of it. ”You go in the front door knowing nothing, and six months later you go out the back having [created] an entire world.”

One of the movie’s most dramatic moments is this dance scene in which, as Zhang explains it, ”Sayuri plays a girl who is dumped by a man and becomes crazy on stage,” twirling wildly under falling snow. To capture the scene’s intensity, Atwood contrasted the silvery-white silk kimono with flowing, 42-inch sleeves, with blood-red peeking out underneath. ”They don’t usually have the red on the sleeve of the under-kimono,” admits Atwood. But she stands by the bold choice. ”Each character has a costume that I like a lot, but I love the dance costume.”

”Formal obis weigh a ton,” Atwood says, referring to the wide, corset-style sashes like the one worn here by Gong Li’s Hatsumomo. ”Geishas all have dressers, guys [who] wrap [the obis] around, pull them, and cinch them in.” Thanks to obis, kimonos are not exactly conducive to bathroom breaks. ”Each time we put them on, it took at least an hour,” says Ziyi Zhang. ”It has to be very tight, and it was hard to drink or go to the toilet, because you don’t want to bother the [dressers] — you know, to take it off, put it back. So we just controlled the water!”

To execute her ”moderne” vision, Atwood customized most of her textiles. ”We did use the base of Japanese fabrics, but we scaled up the patterns and simplified the designs,” she explains. Hatsumomo’s black, chinchilla-collared winter coat is one of Atwood’s favorite experiments in artistic license. ”I took the pattern off a vintage piece I found in London, moved it around, and had it reembroidered on a similar kind of silk, then added the fur and the velvet lining, which is not something they did in Japan then. It’s a very made-up costume — a real geisha would never wear anything that flashy. But it’s good fun, and I just thought it was beautiful.”

Memoirs of a Geisha
  • Movie
  • 144 minutes