Oscar-winning costume designer Michael O’ Connor (“The Duchess”) may be an expert at period pieces, but he was a Charles Dickens novice along with actor-director Ralph Fiennes before making “The Invisible Woman.” And in this year’s battle of the period pieces (“American Hustle,” “The Great Gatsby,” “The Grandmaster,” “12 Years a Slave”), O’Connor is somewhat of a surprise nominee for this biopic about the secret affair between the middle-aged Dickens (Ralph Fiennes) and a teenage actress, Nelly Ternan (Felicity Jones).
“Ralph wanted to be like Dickens’ world and embrace the period and not shy away from some of the more eccentric and decorated elements in terms of the costumes and an extreme shape for women, especially,” explains O’ Connor. “Normally, people set their movies later in the 1870s when things became more elegant and sophisticated, but we focus on the 1850s, aside from the 1880s, as a framing device.”
In addition to combing the London museums (particularly the Victorian and Albert) and studying “The Darby Day” painting by William Powell Frifth, O’Connor headed straight for “The Pickwick Papers,” “Oliver Twist,” and “David Copperfield” in search of historical inspiration, of which there was plenty in the legendary author’s descriptive prose. Historians presume, in fact, that Ternan inspired Lucie and Estella from “A Tale of Two Cities” and “Great Expectations.”
“You pick out a character like Flora [Finching from ‘Little Dorrit’] and you think Dickens was rather conventional in the way he viewed women at that time,” O’ Connor continues. “He liked them pretty, he liked them small, and he liked them in pastel colors. So I thought when Dickens first encounters Nelly, he wants her to be one of those girls that he writes about as a romantic ideal.
“What was important for Nelly was to go for subtle colors and gray, mousy working dresses that make her more vulnerable. And slowly as she became more influential with Dickens and their relationship grew, her clothes were more ornate. She has pretty dresses at the races, a pink dress at her birthday party. As an older woman, [haunted by her memories] she wears darker, heavier colors and more restrictive clothing. It was about taking the character from one space to another. And there are contrasts with her two sisters and her mother, who is darker and more dramatic-looking.”
As for Dickens, Fiennes would send the costume designer photographs of men from the period and ask him to provide dates so they could stay historically accurate. Many of the photographs they liked, though, were either too early (when Dickens dressed like a proper dandy) or after Dickens and Ternan parted.
“I’d tell Ralph we should go for this type of hat and waistcoat and sometimes he’d ask if the feeling was right in a particular scene. I had discussions with Ralph about a frock coat for quite a long time. It needed to be just above the knee, and if was any longer, he’d look a bit strange in it. Or I would say, let’s put something flashier in when there’s a theatrical moment going on. But it’s very difficult for that period because you don’t want him to be Barnum or Willy Wonka.”
Indeed, according to O’Connor, Victorian men started wearing more sober-looking suits in the 1850s. And so he had a suit made for Fiennes that became a favorite that he wore at the tea party, and he wore casual jackets with check trousers. “It was more like creating a wardrobe for Ralph. And we had diary entries where Dickens would describe what he was wearing. He’d put something on like these big, yellow, check trousers with a big, green coat, and we’d see if it would work for that moment because you don’t want it to detract from what the scene’s about. You want to give the essence of Dickens.”
“The pleasure is seeing the difference between the 1850s and the 1880s and the theatrical moments putting on the play together. It’s nice when they feel the costumes working for them because we had to make all of these costumes with all the layers and have them fit tightly. And it was about the restrictions they were under.”