The Invisible Woman opened in limited release on Christmas Day, but the small period drama caught the eye of Academy voters, who recognized costume designer Michael O’Connor with an Oscar nomination.
The Ralph Fiennes directed film, which takes place in Victorian England, tells the story of Charles Dickens (Fiennes) and Nelly Ternan (Felicity Jones), the author’s secret mistress and muse.
“The inspiration came from Victorian art and painters like Frith who did Derby Day. [We also looked to] Charles Dickens — his writing, his life, the stories he wrote, the way he described people,” O’Connor told EW. What was the designer’s reaction to hearing the news that his work had scored him an Oscar nod? “It’s odd. You kind of think, ‘I wonder how?’ But I’m thrilled.”
O’Connor, who had previously worked with Fiennes on the 2008 historical drama The Duchess (for which won the costume Oscar), said that the actor-director was involved in every aspect of Invisible Woman. “Ralph was there at my initial meetings with the other actors to see their responses and how my ideas played,” the designer remembers. “He understands the feelings of the actors and what they may be thinking in that early stage.”
Read on for an exclusive Q&A with O’Connor and see the designer’s Invisible Woman costume sketches.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What kind of direction did Fiennes give you?
Michael O’Connor: We went to the Victoria and Albert Museum and looked at their archives. Ralph would find pictures and ask me to date them to make sure we were on the right track. We’d look at dresses and Ralph would say, “It’s quite decorated. Is it too much?” The more he’d see, the more he became involved. His key phrase was, “You have to embrace this period.”
How much of the wardrobe was custom-made?
All of it. All of the principle actors — Ralph, Felicity, Tom Hollander, Kristin [Scott Thomas] — they were all made. The corsets, the petticoats, their shoes, their bonnets. You can’t [borrow] those things for the type of film [we] were doing. People think they do Victorian films all the time and they do, but they’re all so specific to their own [story]. You have to be able to control the colors and the shapes.
What role did sketching play in your costume design process?
I look for inspiration pieces and I pull pictures and do mood boards, then I get a picture of the actress and I sketch her face. After that, I do drawings. Then I put material on the stand. I drape it and put it into a position that I think is the shape of the dress. I do a rough sketch of what I think it is and I bring it to the maker.
How long does it take to create a costume piece from start to finish?
On average, it takes about two weeks for a dress. All the underpinnings — designing the framed cages, finding the right material, making the corset, the petticoats, the boots — everything has to be drawn [first].
What happened during fittings with the actors?
It is a technical process. They might say, “For this reason, I think we should start with this.” We talk about it. It’s important to engage [the actors] in the process so that they know that we’re thinking about not only shapes and colors, but how they feel in the costume. Kristin [Scott Thomas] was very keen to know why things were a certain color or shape. We had lots of fittings. They were all very serious about the way they looked.
How did the costumes help the actors get into character?
They might say, “Why do I need this?” I’d explain, “You put the corset on and then the dress. It fills the dress out and makes the lines of the dress smooth.” Then I’d put the cage on them and the stockings…. I’d see the woman pulling up their stockings on set between takes. They’d do rehearsals with Ralph where they’d talk about script and the dialogue, but when they actually stood in their costumes, it was a chance for them to feel really involved in their character’s world. Really, properly, physically involved.
What was it like working with Felicity Jones?
Felicity is a smart girl. She thought about her character all the time. The difficulty for Felicity was that she’s the one who had to age a good 60 or 70 years. Jenny Shircore, the woman who did the make-up, I’m sure they did technical things with her, but no prosthetics or anything. Felicity did it with how she held herself, and I gave her dark, stronger, more mature colors [as her character got older]. When you watch the film, even her behavior is different. She was involved in the details of her costumes — the length of her skirt, how far off the ground it should be, how she would feel in it. She would walk in the shoes and say, “It feels better like this.” When it comes to those small details, [I believe] the actors should be allowed to discuss them with you. They’re the ones walking or standing around in the costumes for hours and hours.
Period pieces are expensive to produce. Was it difficult to stay within your budget?
It’s always difficult. The money is never unlimited, which is good because it disciplines you. You think, “We can’t survive without this. We can’t survive without that.” The terrible thing is when you have made extra things and they get cut in the edit, especially if it’s a dress or a costume that you really loved. You don’t know that’s going to happen. You always end up putting something in a budget thinking, “What it really needs is this,” and then the producers say, “All we have is this.” But you work it out.
Where are the costumes now?
I have someone preparing some of them for the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising Museum in Los Angeles.
Will they be exhibited at FIDM?
I think so. That’s what they’re asking for. I don’t know whether they have the space. Some of the dresses and skirts are quite big, but if they want them, they can have them.
How does it feel to be nominated for an Oscar for a third time?
The first time was odd and it is odd. You kind of think, “I wonder how?” But I’m thrilled. It’s nice because the people voting for it are your peers. They know the job, they know how challenging it can be, and they recognize it. There was some great work this year. It’s great to be part of that.
It’s not often that a film that’s still in limited release gets an Oscar nomination.
It is quite incredible. That’s why I didn’t quite understand the nomination. I know that people get screeners and they go to screenings. It hasn’t even opened in the UK yet. I know that all the films get released around that time with that purpose, but a small, period film like ours about an intimate story? It’s not going for massive audiences. There are so many other films around that have seen and could have recognized.
Have you seen the other films that are nominated for the costume designer Oscar?
I’ve seen two of them so far, The Grandmaster and American Hustle, which were both fantastic. You watch them and think, “That’s amazing!” It’s important that the quality and standard of costumes in film is high.
Do you have your tuxedo ready for the show?
People try to offer you something to wear, [but] I have a tuxedo that I had made for me. I don’t get to wear it that often.