'Jane Eyre': Oscar-nominated costume designer Michael O'Connor talks his process
Each year, the Oscars recognize A-list talent we regularly see on screen, on the red carpet, and in tabloids. But the Academy Awards also reward those who work behind the scenes: the writers, editors, costume designers, and others who help create trophy-worthy movie magic. This Oscars season, we’ll be toasting those off-screen artists by delving into the hidden secrets that helped create the on-screen magic that we — and the Academy — fell in love with. For more access backstage during this Oscars season, click here for EW.com’s Oscars Behind the Scenes coverage.
In a year all about getting Michael Fassbender naked (thank you, Shame, and numerous magazine photo shoots), he couldn’t have been more buttoned up in Cary Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre. Oscar-nominated costume designer Michael O’Connor, who already has an Academy Award for 2008’s The Duchess, spoke to EW about Mr. Rochester’s signature day look and smoldering sleepwear — and the myth that clothing a man in a period film is easier than dressing a woman.
YOUR SEX IS ON FIRE
It’s a pivotal, intimate moment in the film when Jane (Mia Wasikowska) wakes a sleeping Rochester to save him from the flames in his bedroom. “I think there was talk of Michael doing the scene in the nude. But we didn’t know about Shame, at the time,” O’Connor laughs. “I imagine he could have been persuaded.”
Though it looks like Rochester is wearing a male nightgown, it’s actually one of his handmade linen day shirts, which was based on an original Victorian design. “Sometimes gentlemen did sleep in their shirts. The shirts were quite long in those times for specific purposes, to fill out the shapes of their trousers and because they didn’t have underwear,” O’Connor says. Prepare for the best history lesson ever! “It starts coming in. There are linen shorts that some men wore. But most didn’t. The shirt is down nearly to the knee. So before they put their trousers on, they’d tuck their shirt in the front between their legs and in the back between their legs, and fold it in, rather like a diaper or a nappy, and then pull the trousers on top,” he explains. “It helps when you’re looking at old paintings and photographs [to understand why] the men are depicted quite smooth, because they have the length in the shirt that fills out the top and the bottom, so it’s almost like a slight padding, if you like, or another layer of material between the trousers and the skin.”
This is part of the conversation that takes place in an actor’s wardrobe fitting, O’Connor says. “You say, ‘The trousers are high like that because it reveals more of the body, and the shirt fits long because the trousers are bigger, and you’ll see why when you put the shirt on and tuck the shirt in like this, and pull the trousers on like that. Now you see, that’s the shape. And then the coat’s waisted this way to give that flair. They are clever people, those Victorians.’”
But not gratuitous: Was there talk of Fassbender showing more heavage? “The shirts don’t open all the way down. They only open to just under the chest. That’s as low as it could have ever gone,” O’Connor says. “I think those shirts are quite sexy anyway.”
Next: Mr. Rochester’s frock coat — also quite sexy
Is it easier to dress a man in a period film? “No, not at all. It’s very difficult,” O’Connor says. For instance, the type of cloth they had to make men’s frock coats in those days doesn’t exist anymore. “Because the material was so tightly woven, the first problem is finding the right cloth. For Rochester, we used a tight cotton weave, because the wools today are too soft and too shiny and too floppy,” he says. Also, “It’s very difficult to get the cut right on the frock coat because it’s very subtle. Men’s clothing changes very, very subtly, whereas women’s, you can reference paintings and photographs to see how it changes and it’s quite evident,” O’Connor says. “I went to great lengths to make sure the frock coat was the right shape and to try to make it look like it was something that he wears most days — a serviceable day formal frock coat. When he’s in light pants, with a check waist coast, and his frock coat, that’s him at his heart.”
Next: But Mia probably had it tougher than Michael, let’s be honest
SHE’S GOT THE LOOK
O’Connor, pictured on set with Wasikowska, estimates it took a half hour to get her dressed. “Mia wears era-appropriate knickers under her costume, and those stockings are held up with garters, and she wears two petticoats not one. I didn’t know what Cary was going to do, whether he was going to have her sitting down, or running, or running up the stairs, or lifting her skirt. So if Cary decided to have her sitting on the steps with the girl, Adele, teaching her, and the skirts are rising up, the stockings would be knitted as they were at the time, so it didn’t matter how much you saw of her leg,” O’Connor says. “At all times, Mia, being the great sport that she is, wore the whole thing right from the corset to the bum pad. But I think that she found that it helped her. You have to wear the corset to get the shape of the dress on top, so the whole thing makes sense when you’re fully dressed. It makes you stand differently, it makes you behave differently. When you put the corset on, you’re sort of putting some of the character on.”Check out one of the sketches for Jane:
“We know she’s plain Jane, and she doesn’t say very much in the beginning. She’s quite quiet observing everything around her,” O’Connor says. “But at the same time, there’s lovely moments in the film when she comes into the room and you get to see she has a slight style and a slight elegance about her. So choosing the materials for that, and trying to stay faithful to the time without making her frumpy and too dowdy, that was the tricky thing to crack. She doesn’t change that much, so when you choose the material and shape for Jane, you want to make sure it’s the right thing and that you haven’t gone too far up so she looks too upscale and you haven’t gone too far down so that she just looks flat.”
If he’s honored again for striking the right balance, O’Connor knows what to expect this time. “You’re sitting there and the next thing, your name’s called, and part of you is too embarrassed to go, and you think god, I just have to go up there on the stage, and then the rest is all sort of a blur, to be honest,” he recalls of his first win. “Many people say congratulations and people, like Sarah Jessica Parker in particular, are extremely lovely. Backstage, everyone’s very delightful. It’s not a bad experience.”