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Last Updated:  Monday, 24 March, 2003, 06:16 GMT
Chicago's costume queen

By BBC News Online's Ian Youngs
in Hollywood

The woman who designed the spectacular costumes for Chicago, Colleen Atwood, won her first Oscar for dressing the film's high-kicking stars.

But she has been nominated for Oscars three times before, and Colleen Atwood had feared she would "always be the bridesmaid" .

She was hotly tipped to win her first award in 2003, having created the characters' clothes for the Oscars favourite Chicago and recently winning the costume industry's own award.

She is now one of the most experienced and reliable designers in the business, having co-ordinated the costumes for films as diverse as The Silence of the Lambs, Mars Attacks and The Planet of the Apes.

Costume designers may not get much of the spotlight in the film world, but Ms Atwood is in no doubt about the role her branch of film-making plays in bringing characters to life.

"Costume, hair and makeup can tell you instantly, or at least give you a larger perception of who a character is," she said.

"It's the first impression that you have of the character before they open their mouth, so it really does establish who they are."

For Chicago's distinctive jazz-era style, she helped create and define the main characters through absorbing the screenplay, doing research into the period and working with the look of the actors, she said.

"Knowing who the actors were as you were designing them helped, with Catherine's beauty and Renee's frailty, they directed me visually just by who they were."

Catherine Zeta Jones' character, the nightclub diva Velma Kelly, was "the kind of girl that would wear a cocktail dress to lunch," Ms Atwood said.

But Renee Zellweger's character, the fame-hungry Roxie Hart, had "much more rawness in the exterior", so her clothes were made to reflect that.

"As she toughened up and became her own fantasy, then her costume became much harder and more protective," she said.

One of Zellweger's costumes, a beaded dress, was created after Ms Atwood found a "totally trashed" original 1930s dress in a film studio. She set about recreating it, even finding vintage beads to give it a similar look.

One of Richard Gere's suits, which he wore in the film, was actually an original suit from the era. "It really set the character for us," she said.

As well as recalling the historical period and looking good, Chicago's stylish and glittering costumes had to be practical when worn for the film's rigorous dance scenes.

"I had to work out that it was something that could move and your arm could go straight over your head, and so could your leg, and all that technical stuff, without having everybody in spray painted leotards," she said. "It was very challenging in that way."

But that was something she learned when she worked on a very different film - The Planet of the Apes.

"Planet of the Apes was a gigantic challenge, but one of the main challenges was making the clothes work so people could to the movement and stunts and action in the clothes. I really learned a lot about that in that movie," she said.

"And because I walked into Chicago knowing that, I knew what the dancers were going to need. So I didn't have to go through a huge process of making something that wasn't going to work."


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