Sar­to­rial Power

Cos­tume de­signer MICHAEL O’CON­NOR on bring­ing TULIP FEVER’s char­ac­ters to life with pe­riod-per­fect looks.


Michael O’Con­nor is known for craft­ing lav­ish, imag­i­na­tive wardrobe rich in un­com­pro­mis­ing de­tails. For his lat­est his­tor­i­cal drama, Tulip Fever, star­ring Ali­cia Vikan­der and Christoph Waltz, the Os­car-win­ning cos­tume de­signer’s in­tri­cate tal­ents played a crit­i­cal role in cap­tur­ing the film’s historic am­bi­ence. An adap­ta­tion of Deb­o­rah Mog­gach’s 1999 novel, the film is set against the back­drop of 17th-cen­tury Am­s­ter­dam, dur­ing the peak of the Dutch tulip ma­nia, and sees Vikan­der, un­hap­pily mar­ried to one of the rich­est men in the city (Waltz), en­gage in a pas­sion­ate love af­fair with a man com­mis­sioned to paint her por­trait (Dane DeHaan). Here, O’Con­nor dis­cusses the films ma­jor wardrobe mo­ments.

How did you be­gin to dream up cos­tumes that cap­tured 17th-cen­tury Am­s­ter­dam? “

You start by meet­ing with the pro­duc­tion de­signer and look­ing at images. The great thing is that this is the Golden Age in Am­s­ter­dam, with all the great pain­ters like Frans Hals and An­thony van Dyck. There were thou­sands of pain­ters paint­ing there, so there is a mas­sive amount of ma­te­rial. We found lots of ref­er­ences and put them on mood boards. Then I sketched some­thing up.”

How did you go about de­vel­op­ing Ali­cia Vikan­der’s char­ac­ter, Sophia, through­out the film?

“The idea for Sophia was strong looks done in typ­i­cal Dutch fash­ion when she goes to be Cor­nelis’ wife be­cause he and his fam­ily are dress­ing her. As the af­fair pro­gresses, the clothes be­come more revealing: her col­lars and caps start go­ing, and her dresses be­come less strict and ro­bust. At the end, she’s in a bodice with a sim­ple, more de­mure cos­tume.”

What were some key el­e­ments in the cos­tumes for Christoph Waltz’s char­ac­ter, Cor­nelis?

“Cor­nelis and Sophia are rich Protes­tant mer­chants. That meant in­clud­ing the colour black and big ruffs. You’d think he was wear­ing plain black, but it was black silks with tex­tures, and of­ten the fab­ric was even cut through to show pink lin­ing un­der­neath. There was a class to the fab­ric, be­cause to dye a fab­ric black [in those days] showed a sign of wealth. It was a dif­fi­cult three-step process. For the ruffs, I met with some old col­leagues of mine from The School of His­tor­i­cal Dress who were do­ing classes on ruff mak­ing. Ruffs were a huge in­dus­try in Am­s­ter­dam, be­cause keep­ing them clean and mak­ing them stiff in­volved mul­ti­ple steps, so you paid peo­ple to do it. Peo­ple were dis­play­ing their wealth by wear­ing them around their necks.”

What types of colours and pat­terns did you con­cen­trate on and why?

“There’s a scene where Cor­nelis and Sophia are to­gether wear­ing th­ese linen night­shirts with tulip em­broi­dery. It was im­por­tant to do be­cause that was a form of em­broi­dery peo­ple used on their linens called black­work. If you look closely at old por­traits, you’ll see linen creep­ing out from a dress or a dou­blet with this spe­cific em­broi­dery. I was also in­ter­ested in pinks and or­anges. They seemed to com­pli­ment all the black quite well.”

How many cos­tumes did you have to make?

“I never count, but I’m sure we prob­a­bly made around 50 prin­ci­pal char­ac­ter cos­tumes, 25 nun cos­tumes, and 35 or­phan girls. And there would have been prob­a­bly 500 ex­tras cos­tumes that were hired. We had twoand-half months be­fore we started shoot­ing, and con­tin­ued to make cos­tumes while filming.”

Tell us about your team.

“I had a cou­ple as­sis­tants, a cos­tume su­per­vi­sor, and a team of 20 to 25 cos­tume dressers. There was a work­room with a cut­ter who cuts all the pat­terns, and un­der her were 8 peo­ple. Then there were cos­tume houses that were mak­ing things un­der my de­signs, and also out­work­ers around the world mak­ing linens for the ruffs, col­lars, and cuffs. I worked with a dealer in Turkey who sup­plied a lot of the ma­te­rial for the clothes and jew­ellery, and shoe­mak­ers in Italy. We also hired ex­tras cos­tumes from Spain and Italy. Every day there was a big crowd.”

How does work­ing on a pe­riod film dif­fer from work­ing on a con­tem­po­rary pro­duc­tion?

“A lot of work and de­tail go into his­tor­i­cal work. You have to man­u­fac­ture every­thing from the colour of the thread to the size of but­ton­holes, hooks, and bars. You’re con­stantly feel­ing the weights of fab­rics to see if they’re right for the drap­ing. They’re very time con­sum­ing and ex­pen­sive. In mod­ern films, some­times the answers are right in a shop.”

What’s its like for you to go sit in a theatre and watch a film you’ve worked so hard on?

“You al­ways try for 100 per­cent, so it’s quite dif­fi­cult and per­sonal. You’re crit­i­cal of your own work and think, “Maybe that could have been longer or shorter or less this or less that.” On the whole, it’s ex­cit­ing, and the rest of the team is gen­uinely like, “Wow, amaz­ing!” For Tulip Fever, Deb­o­rah Mog­gach was in the film as an ex­tra, and it was great hav­ing her look at the cos­tumes and hear her say, “They look won­der­ful!” I was re­ally pleased about that.”

Do you have any favourite looks from the film?

“I liked do­ing Hol­l­i­day Grainger and Jack O’Con­nell’s char­ac­ters’ clothes. But my favourite things were the ruffs. They were such a beau­ti­ful learn­ing process. We’d send them to the starch room to de­cide their shape, and they’d come back stiff like a cake. And wear­ing them, you felt like you were in that time. Do­ing his­tor­i­cal things is part of the plea­sure—you’re re­liv­ing history a lit­tle.”

Clock­wise from left: Ali­cia Vikan­der. Christoph Waltz and Ali­cia Vikan­der. Michael O’Con­nor be­hind the scenes with ac­tor David Hare­wood.

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