With such heavy subject matter, there was no room for costume drama on the set of ''12 Years a Slave,'' so the producers called on one of Hollywood's most experienced designers

By Stephan Lee
November 15, 2013 at 05:00 AM EST
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At 82 years old, Patricia Norris is picky about her projects, but the five-time Oscar nominee had no trouble saying yes when asked to design the wardrobe for 12 Years a Slave. “It’s set in the 1840s and ’50s, which I hadn’t done before,” she says. Another pro: a director who stayed out of her way. “Steve McQueen is great. He leaves you alone because he thinks you know what you’re doing.” Still, despite all her efforts — doing extensive research, hunting down authentic fabrics, creating original pieces, and enduring the stifling heat on location in Louisiana — Norris hopes her work doesn’t stand out. “If you don’t notice the costumes, they’re good.”

Cast of Hundreds
Dressing the more than 100 actors with speaking parts was a task made more challenging by a tight shooting schedule. “Sometimes they’d come in the day before,” says the designer, who sourced fabrics like taffeta and linen from Europe for everything from dresses and hats to period undergarments. With no time for a proper fitting, “you just guess what sizes they are and start making the clothes.”

Character Study
“I worked with Chiwetel [Ejiofor] for a long time to figure out the reasoning behind his clothes,” Norris says of collaborating with the actor, who plays Solomon Northup, a free man abducted and sold into slavery. “His look changes dramatically. We made a lot of his clothes because they didn’t exist.”

Southern Realism
Though Michael Fassbender plays a vicious slave owner, “we wanted him to look romantic,” Norris says of sketching out the actor’s wardrobe with director Steve McQueen. A textile artist was on hand to help make the clothes look weathered, but the sweat stains were authentic. “The heat there was miserable. We had a washer and dryer, thank God.”

A Career in Design
Patricia Norris, who’s spent more than 12 Years in costume and production design, looks back

Scarface (1983)
“Michelle Pfeiffer was only 20-some years old, so she wasn’t terribly opinionated. And she looked pretty in the clothes, so what more can you ask for?” the designer says of dressing the actress for the crime drama.

Blue Velvet (1986)
“It’s easier to make [costumes] instead of running around looking for them,” says Norris — who has worked with director David Lynch on several projects — of designing Isabella Rossellini’s ’30s-inspired wardrobe for the neo-noir Blue Velvet.

Twin Peaks (1990)
Norris won an Emmy for her work on the pilot, another collaboration with Lynch. “It’s a throwback…. David likes a ’50s look [as seen on Sherilyn Fenn]. We understood what each other was talking about; it was terrific.”

The Assassination of Jesse James (2007)
Norris’ first fitting with Brad Pitt didn’t go as planned. “Just before [filming], he arrived to try on the clothes, and he had failed to inform me that he had lost 20 pounds. That was not the best fitting known to man…. Fortunately, he likes what I do.”

Killing Them Softly (2012)
Norris and Pitt reteamed for the thriller, for which she was also production designer. “You think with two different minds,” she says of pulling double duty. Still, she admits, “the costumes come more naturally to me.”

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