By Solvej Schou
November 09, 2012 at 09:25 PM EST
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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.

Johnston said that Field, to completely throw herself into the character of Mary Todd Lincoln, gained weight for the role. A pretty big amount of weight. The dresses cinch to the waist, then puff out, filled underneath the skirt with layers of petticoats in a style popular during the 1860s. They’re vibrant and loud.

“The thing about Mary Todd is she’s very fussy, so you can lay quite a lot on, and it still doesn’t look too much on her,” said Johnston. Field would have two fittings or more with each dress. It could take a week to ten days to construct each one.

Half of them, from a cream dress with black stripes and flower accents, decorated in the middle with a light pink corsage patterned after two of Mary Todd’s dresses fused together, to a gorgeous electric blue one with black stripes lined in black ruffle lace at the top and bottom, have boat necklines, while the other half have high necklines with more conservative beige lace collars. They’re all made out of different silks. Mary Todd Lincoln, apparently, had a soft build, and loved colors such as blues, violets, pinks, creams, her “heartbeat colors,” Johnston said. So she channeled them into clothes for Field, with a big mid-century shape for the dresses.

“Sally is the same height as Mary Todd, but she’s a completely different build. She very sportingly agreed to put on quite a lot of weight. She just ate solidly for several months until we got her to the diameter in the waist that Mary Todd was. She just filled out,” said Johnston. “Sally’s much finer boned. Mary Todd’s arms are much chubbier than Sally’s. She was amazing in this. Like Daniel, she was totally available. I created more fittings with her than probably I’ve ever done with an actress. Getting the look just so, this stuffed silhouette that Mary Todd had, this essence of her, and have it believable. She was a great trouper, putting on weight, wearing corsets. They do give a lovely shape.”

Johnston and her team reached out all the way to the Middle East to get some materials for Field’s dresses. For one dress, they were five yards short for a row of bottom lace.

“We had it copied, and sent a piece to Pakistan, and there are these brilliant embroiders in Pakistan who I work with, and they created the extra piece to fill in where we were short,” Johnston said, who added that she didn’t actually go there. “I sent them a foot wide piece and they copied it.”

As for Mary Todd Lincoln’s lavish blingy jewelry, it would have been too much to re-create everything, so she concentrated on remaking one beautiful set, which is stored in the Library of Congress. It’s a pearl necklace with connected rounded, domed sections, plus matching cuffs and a broach, earrings. For any lover of jewelry (this writer included), the pieces jump out on Field in every scene she wears them. A jewelry designer in England, Martin Adams, re-created the set.

“One day I would love this set to sit alongside the original, in an exhibition,” Johnston said.

NEXT: Johnston on Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln

Daniel Day-Lewis is known for some mighty Method acting, embodying the roles he’s played to the hilt. He dove into playing Abraham Lincoln, and the clothes – from his tall stovepipe hat reproduced in Italy, to his suit made by tailor Sloan – helped.

“The actor in this instance is so amazing. He was putting the pieces together to create the whole. It was small moves, it was complex. It was fascinating. He was completely immersed in it. He wasn’t doing a show at the same time. He was preparing to do the role solely, so his entire attention was within,” said Johnston.

As for Day-Lewis collaborating on the looks, Johnston called it “very collective between the two parties. I help to facilitate, I suppose, in this instance, Abraham Lincoln the man, and Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln. He was very close to Lincoln’s height, and I think it’s within the acting. He does a lofty kind of walk down the corridors, that fabulous weight of the world on his back.”

If Mary Todd Lincoln’s outfits are vibrant, varied, and similar to her personality, then Abraham Lincoln’s clothes are totally muted, understated, and simple by comparison. Abraham Lincoln wasn’t interested in fashion, said Johnston.

“Lincoln, it’s a very iconic look, and everyone knows it. And the hat, super tall. He was famously uncomfortable in his clothes. I loved that, the void between the body and the cloth,” Johnston said. “In photographs, the way his clothes just hung off him, just go into him. A skinny body and a slight looseness to the clothes. I was quite keen to trying to do that. But I also wanted people to feel the man. It’s a fine line. You inch your way forward until it’s right.”

So Day-Lewis’ long Lincoln frock coat, for instance, was made from cream-colored wool manufactured in England and dyed a dark, walnut brown, based off of Lincoln’s real clothing stored in the Smithsonian Museum, Johnston said. His black tie was a copy of an original worn by Lincoln. His dark pants, also wool, made from durable, heavy fabric, with a simple white linen shirt dyed to keep the tone down. The top hat is made out of felt – a rich, textured fabric up close – that’s blocked inside by silk.

The last detail for Day-Lewis’ Lincoln look, a gold watch chain looped through his vest, was also a collaboration with Day-Lewis involved.

“Everyone did a particular thing with their watch chains. Lincoln had a particular style. Between Steven Spielberg and Daniel Day-Lewis, this rope watch chain was the one we decided to re-create,” said Johnston. “This was the way he, Lincoln, wore it. I didn’t want to chop and change with things, with Lincoln. We brought a look, and he pretty much stayed with that look throughout the film.”

Check out this video, below, with Johnston talking about Day-Lewis’ Lincoln look.

For more film news Follow @solvej_schou

Read more:

Joanna Johnston: My Career in Costumes

Joseph Gordon-Levitt on Daniel Day-Lewis’ transformation for ‘Lincoln’: ‘We wouldn’t talk about the Lakers’

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