Colleen Atwood, a three-time Oscar-winning costume designer, offers a behind-the-seams look at her singular career

By Sara Vilkomerson
July 05, 2012 at 04:00 AM EDT

Growing up in Yakima, Wash., Colleen Atwood dreamed of becoming a painter. But she found a different medium for her artistry in fabric, designing costumes for more than 50 films — ranging from The Silence of the Lambs to Little Women, Mission: Impossible III to Cabin Boy — and picking up three Oscars (and six other nominations) along the way. For Snow White and the Huntsman (out June 1) Atwood made almost 2,000 costumes. The detail on each one is extraordinary — she says she trimmed one of the dresses worn by Charlize Theron’s evil-queen character in real beetle wings (”They’re from Thailand and are the kind people eat”) and constructed a cape entirely out of feathers. ”It’s exciting when you put the clothes on the actors and you see them start to feel the characters,” says the designer, who lives in Pacific Palisades, Calif. ”It’s something you’ve done together. It’s a good journey.” Here Atwood shares the stories behind some of her most memorable looks.

Snow White and the Huntsman (2012)

Atwood says she incorporated ”elements of death” into each costume she made for Charlize Theron’s evil Queen Ravenna. ”This dress has a front that’s made out of chains that are all twisted and manipulated like snakes, which we attached to the corset. And it’s surrounded by tiny bird skulls,” she says of the outfit. ”We had this idea to drape those chains off her crown, like she’s trying to cover up her neck wrinkles [even though Theron herself doesn’t have any]. It gave it another creepy edge that we liked.”

Married to the Mob (1988)

”We had a ball making this movie. It was a great time to be in New York. It was the crazy ’80s and we were in the East Village,” says Atwood, who roamed the entire city to get a feel for costumes that might be worn by characters like the mobster’s widow played by Michelle Pfeiffer. ”The smock is one from a beauty salon,” says Atwood, ”and everything else is downtown garb you used to be able to buy on the street for cheap.”

The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

”I didn’t know it would become an iconic piece,” Atwood says of the chilling mask Anthony Hopkins wears as Hannibal Lecter in the Oscar-winning thriller. ”We knew we wanted some kind of hockey mask, that kind of shape, with bars over the mouth. We sent a sketch out and got the prototype back from the manufacturer in New Jersey, and they hadn’t painted it yet and it looked kind of like skin. Thank God they didn’t paint it. It was a happy mistake.” To design Jodie Foster’s look as Agent Starling, Atwood went to FBI headquarters to see how real agents dressed. ”[Starling] came from a poor background but went to school in [Washington] D.C. with a very East Coast, tweedy feeling,” she says. ”It’s just something that’s classic and timeless. She was barely out of school, so we dressed her like a well-dressed student.”

Edward Scissorhands (1990)

For a scene in which Johnny Depp’s Edward snips off a white dress shirt while running in the dark, Atwood managed to figure out a way to piece together fabric so it would come apart easily during the take. ”It was the biggest, sweatiest night of my life,” she says. ”It looked good in the movie, but it was awfully low-tech.” As for the inspiration for Depp’s unruly hairdo, Atwood says only, ”It looks like Tim Burton’s hair in that period of history.”

Best Costume Winner: Chicago (2002)

Atwood earned her first Oscar for Rob Marshall’s Roaring ’20s musical, which required costumes that accentuated the stars’ dancing. Consider Catherine Zeta-Jones’ sheer arm coverings. ”It’s fun to break up the body that way, get something onto the sleeves, so when you dance you’ll see the arms more,” says Atwood, who took the job immediately after working on a very different sort of film, Tim Burton’s remake of Planet of the Apes. ”I really had learned the action aspects of costumes [on Planet of the Apes],” she says. ”After making it work on monkey arms, I could make it work on these pretty-girly things.”

Best Costume Winner: Memoirs of a Geisha (2005)

Atwood traveled to Japan to educate herself about geisha culture for Rob Marshall’s drama, which unfolds between 1929 and the mid-’40s. ”I found a collection of vintage kimonos from that period in Kyoto,” says Atwood, though her discoveries served mostly as inspirations, since the film’s stars were ”much taller” than any of the clothes she unearthed. For Gong Li’s ensemble at right, Atwood’s team embroidered a coat based on a tiny piece of vintage fabric with a snow motif, then paired it with a chinchilla collar. ”To be honest, it’s a bit of a cheat for a geisha because they weren’t that showy,” she says, ”but this character was over-the-top, so we pushed it that way.” Atwood’s dedication paid off: She won her second Oscar for the film.

Beloved (1998)

Jonathan Demme’s adaptation of Toni Morrison’s acclaimed novel was a box office dud, but Atwood says she has a soft spot for it. To research the project, she read Langston Hughes’ A Pictorial History of the Negro in America and scoured rare photographs from just after the Civil War. In the picture below, she says, ”Kimberly Elise’s shawl is a real shawl from that time period and Oprah Winfrey is dressed in [her character’s] dressiest dress.”

Best Costume Winner: Alice in Wonderland (2010)

”Johnny [Depp] just knows how to make a costume work and make it look natural,” says Atwood. For his character in Disney’s blockbuster fantasy, she tied ribbons and scraps of fabric to his coat. ”After all, he was called the Mad Hatter because he made hats.” The film marked Atwood’s third Oscar win and her eighth collaboration with Tim Burton (this month’s is No. 9). ”It’s great when you have a relationship with a director, especially one like Tim, who is an amazing force and has an amazing vision.” Atwood’s own vision extended to the tiniest aspect of her outrageous costume for Helena Bonham Carter’s Red Queen. ”We had a ball with her shoes,” says the designer. ”There’s a big heart on the soles that you can see when she puts her feet up.”

Snow White Hits The Home Shopping Network

She changed Johnny Depp into a Mad Hatter and Charlize Theron into an evil queen. Now Colleen Atwood wants to work her magic on you. The veteran costumer has teamed up with the Home Shopping Network to create her first ready-to-wear line — a 12-piece collection of tops, dresses, skirts, and caftans — inspired by her designs for Snow White and the Huntsman. ”My goal was to evoke a simple, fun way of looking, inspired from that movie,” says Atwood, who translated the medieval ensembles she made for Theron and Kristen Stewart into modern, wearable items such as a brown-and-black ponte knit dress (above top, $79.90) and a smocked peasant dress (above bottom, $149.90). Atwood says she signed up for the project to challenge herself creatively, though she may have to cast a relaxing spell on herself before presenting the clothes on air May 30. ”I’m terrified,” she says. ”It’s not my thing.” —Nuzhat Naoreen