In a world where we see the same fairy tales and folk tales retold on a regular basis, it can be hard to imagine fresh takes on the familiar stories are still possible. Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine managed it with their musical Into the Woods. The production debuted in 1986 and has been performed countless times since on different stages and with different casts, and last year, Disney released a theatrical film adaptation of the musical. As with any adaptation, concessions had to be made but overall, it was enchanting. One aspect that especially stood out to me was the costumes designed by the Oscar winner Colleen Atwood (Alice in Wonderland). The overall looks caught my eye, but I was especially obsessed with the weight and movement of fabrics. The Witch’s (Meryl Streep) transformation sequence was like a dream.
Gif via Streep Daily
Luckily, the release of the Into the Woods Blu-ray and DVD on March 24th gave me the opportunity to watch the film again and take note of some of the costume details I missed and the chance to speak with Atwood about her work on the film. The challenges were not insignificant. Fans of the musical were used to seeing the characters and their costumes portrayed on stage for decades, and many hold onto the images from the show’s 1987-1989 run on Broadway–the one starring Bernadette Peters and Joanna Gleason. It’s a complex story weaving in Brothers Grimm characters such as Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy), Jack (Daniel Huttlestone), The Witch, Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), and the Baker and his Wife (James Corden and Emily Blunt). Each character is searching for his or her happily ever after, and in the end, some happy endings aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.
The musical primarily takes place in the dark and moody setting of the woods. Costumes had to be designed to stand out against the deep blues and greens of the woods. Atwood explained how she accomplished such a feat: “I used materials that captured light. I used fine silk with a lighter layer over a darker layer. So when it’s lit from a side light or a low light it bounces back some light which really helps when something’s in a wooded area. I did what’s called patch dyeing on the materials so I had light and dark. The color came and went; it had its own shadow and light built into it but it still registered as a color. I knew that the lighting would be on the dark side and so as I went along designing the costumes I anticipated that and incorporated it into the colors that I used.”
One example of how Atwood used lighter material can be seen in The Witch’s first costume. It’s dark, but it doesn’t turn into a black blob of fabric against the woods. Atwood said, “There’s a silver metallic material underneath that’s mixed with leather that’s actually in fragments. That’s what you’re seeing. The silver underneath makes the black not just go flat, you know?”
And the way the costumes and fabric moved contributed to making those lighter fabrics stand out and also to the characters’ personalities. Again, The Witch comes to mind. Atwood said the way Streep wanted to make The Witch move almost like a spider affected the costume. Because of rehearsals, Atwood had time to figure out how her costume and others would work. She said, “Luckily on a case like Into the Woods, there’s a rehearsal period so I see the movements that the characters are going to have. With the Witch’s character in Into the Woods we had a rehearsal time and Meryl would come in. We were going to do a hump for her back in the beginning when she was that witch and she came in and she was like, ‘I’m going to walk this way now and I have my shoulder up like that so I don’t really need the hump.’ So because of the collaborative period in pre-production we were able to troubleshoot ahead of time so the movement and the costumes work together.”
With so many different fairy tales colliding in one world, it had to be a challenge to make the characters look as though they were living in the same universe. You can definitely see common threads tying the costumes together but also differences. I noticed it was almost like Atwood based the costumes for each fairy tale on various periods, and she said, “I did in some ways, yes. In Rapunzel and the Prince it was more Renaissance. The Witch was more Victorian. The Baker and the Baker’s Wife was more classic ’30s fairy tale with Little Red Riding Hood. The Wolf was in that ’30s era. I was all over the place with that. I didn’t try to nail it down in any one way. I used a lot of woodcuts reference and illustrations from the ’20s and ’30s which references that sort of style a lot in fairy tales. So it wasn’t really a conscious thing. I just set the mood with where I thought the music was going.”
Though these aren’t from the right time period, Andrea Dezsö created woodcut illustrations for The Original Folk & Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm released in 2014 that give you an idea of the aesthetic:
For the most part, characters in Into the Woods wear one or two costumes rather than going through a wardrobe of costume changes. It not only fits the story—running around in the woods doesn’t really leave time to run back home to get another shirt or skirt—it helps center the storytelling. You’re more focused on the character rather than obsessing about which outfit was your favorite (for example, I think Padmé Amidala had way too many clothes). When we see people wear different outfits, it correlates to a transformation that goes beyond the superficial.
The Witch’s powerful transformation from an insect-like elderly woman to a radiant and younger beauty comes to mind, obviously, but so does Cinderella’s. Her mother turns her clothing into a breathtaking earthy gold ball gown. Because of Disney’s popular animated take on Cinderella, many of us are used to seeing Cinderella in a blue ball gown. However, Atwood went back to the character’s origins. She said, “Cinderella’s costume in this came from the original Grimm story. Her slippers were gold, not glass. That’s something that happened later. Her dress came from her mother the tree who transformed her into Cinderella. There was no bibbidi-bobbidi-boo like the other Disney one. She came of the forest, she was a reluctant princess. She wasn’t dying to wear the biggest dress in the room. She wasn’t sure she should be the princess. I put the blue on the Prince instead and let Cinderella be more like her mother the Willow Tree, so I used willow colors and that was my influence on that. I used gold in her costume because it was a lot of night work and I wanted her to flutter in the woods and look like a butterfly wing when she ran. I had this gold lamé fabric that I used for her costume that did that with the low light. That was my take on what we were doing with Cinderella in the film.”
You can tell Cinderella is never quite at home with herself in the gown. Royal life didn’t end up being the ultimate dream for her. She becomes more comfortable and seemingly more happy when she goes back to her peasant attire. She learns all that glitters is not gold.
I could go on and on about The Witch and Cinderella’s costumes, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the Baker’s Wife’s gorgeous patchwork dress. The rich maroons, blues, and golds blend right into overall palette of the woods while also standing out. The velvet on the bodice and sleeves reflects the light just so and adds to the characters inner glow and optimism (though said glow could have been the fact that Blunt was pregnant during filming). While the dress has touch of fanciness about it, the design also matches the Baker’s Wife peasant status.
Which costume in Into the Woods is your favorite? What films or television series would you like to see discussed in a future installment of Behind the Costumes? Head to the comments and tell me all the things comments or give me a shout on Twitter.