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Journeying Into the Costumes of Into the Woods

Into the Woods opened on Broadway in 1987, with the music and lyrics written by Stephen Sondheim and the book by James Lapine. It is Sondheim’s most performed musical and one of his best known works. The story combines familiar characters from childhood fairy tales such as Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, and the ubiquitous Witch, and explores their journeys to get their wish, as well as the negative consequences of the small dishonesties committed by each character to get what they want. As the witch sings, “Told a little lie/Stole a little gold/Broke a little vow/Did you?/Had to get your prince/Had to get your cow/Had to get your wish/Doesn’t matter how.” As the story unfolds, the traditional dichotomies of good and evil, and our expectations of each character, are shaken.

Fairy tales exist in a world of fantasy, and have been present in cultures across the world for thousands of years. Because of this, the costume designer of Into the Woods has a unique opportunity to create whatever aesthetic they please, building an entirely new world for the audience to be immersed in. The costumes for Rob Marshall’s big screen adaptation of Into the Woods were designed by three-time Academy Award Winner Colleen Atwood, and were nominated for a 2015 Academy Award. Atwood has had a prolific career and is no stranger to creative approaches to costume design, having worked on fantastical films such as Alice in Wonderland, Snow White and the Huntsman, and Edward Scissorhands. She is also a longtime collaborator with director Rob Marshall, having designed the costumes for Chicago, Nine, and Memoirs of a Geisha.

For Into the Woods, Atwood combined the styles of multiple time periods with inventive and modern touches to create a vibrant world of fantasy where it is easy to believe that princes, castles, witches, and wolves can exist. A key element of the Into the Woods aesthetic is the use of intricately layered and customised textiles which provide depth and intrigue to each character and reflect the dimensionality imbued by Sondheim and Lapine in what are normally static characters. Atwood has described this movie as her love letter to textiles and it is easy to see why that is the case. In addition to history, Atwood also took inspiration from Sondheim’s music, saying “When I listened to the music of each [character] I put it in its environment of where in my mind it originated from.” This is particularly appropriate as the complexity of Sondheim’s music provides a source for inspiration and an important part of characterisation. While an analysis of Sondheim’s music in relation to Atwood’s costumes is beyond the scope of this article, keep an eye out for an upcoming article by Katy Werlin in the summer issue of The Sondheim Review which will take a closer look at these musical influences. For now, let us journey through time and explore the different historic time periods that influenced Atwood’s designs (click images to enlarge)…

The Middle Ages:

Into the Woods_The Middle Ages

Center: Image from the Codex Vindobonensis, 1370-1400.

The costume worn by Rapunzel has medieval influences, an aesthetic often associated with fairy tales. She wears a floor length dress made from layers of pink fabric overlayed with pale green chiffon, and shaped around the bodice and sleeves with knotted lengths of pink ribbon. The dress is unstructured with a fitted bodice extending into a full skirt, all elements of dress in the 14th century. And Rapunzel’s dress is also off-the-shoulder, referencing the wide, almost off-the-shoulder necklines of 14th century gowns. This medieval aesthetic suits Rapunzel’s story. Trapped in a tower by her adoptive mother, the Witch, and rescued by a handsome prince, Rapunzel’s story reflects the classic medieval tale of the damsel in distress.

Further details about Rapunzel’s character are revealed by her costume. The pale pink colour and floaty chiffon fabric all emphasize Rapunzel’s innocence. The girly aesthetic of pale pink, soft fabrics, and ribbons all speak to Rapunzel being, at least in the Witch’s eyes, a simple and pure little girl. The overlay of the green chiffon dims the color of the pink fabric, creating an almost ghostlike effect. This reflects the fact that Rapunzel herself is almost like a ghost, trapped in a tower and not truly living life to the fullest. And the knotted lengths of pink ribbon which wind around her torso and arms also reinforces her bondage. The use of ribbons also visually connects Rapunzel to the Witch, as her costume incorporates winding ribbons as well.

The Renaissance:

Into the Woods_The Renaissance

Left: Detail from Testament and Death of Moses by Luca Signorelli, c. 1482. Sistine Chapel, Vatican. Right: Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, c. 1560s. Attributed to Steven van Herwijck.

The costumes of the two handsome princes, played by Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen, are influenced by a Renaissance aesthetic. Both are dressed as the typical handsome prince, well suited for the cover of a romance novel. They wear tight fitting leather trousers, and fitted doublets left open to reveal a thin shirt underneath and a good view of their sculpted chests. The fitted doublet and loose undershirts are both aspects of Renaissance dress (although sculpted chests were not conspicuously on display during this period, and doublets were worn closed). Trousers like the ones worn by the princes are a 20th century invention, but it should be noted that men did wear very short doublets and hose (what we call tights) during a brief period in 15th century Italy.

This romance-novel-hero look is emphasized in the Prince’s showstopping rendition of the song ‘Agony’. Cinderella’s Prince (Chris Pine) rips open his shirt in frustration, and Rapunzel’s Prince (Billy Magnussen) follows suit, making sure his shirt is slightly more open, revealing slightly more rock-solid abs. It all leads us to believe that these are two perfect, charming, dashing princes. Yet their actions show them to be quite the contrary. Cinderella’s Prince has an affair with the Bakers Wife, and when confronted by Cinderella about his infidelity he simply says, “I was raised to be charming, not sincere.” As Cinderella rightly asks, what sort of king will such an insincere and shallow prince make?

Rapunzel’s Prince seems more sincere, and his storyline ends with him riding off to safety with Rapunzel in tow. But it should be noted that in the stage production, both princes stray to other women—Cinderella’s Prince ultimately ends up with Sleeping Beauty and Rapunzel’s Prince ends up with Snow White.

The 18th Century:

Into the Woods_Anna Kendrick

The visual aesthetic of the world of Cinderella takes inspiration from the eighteenth century. Atwood says, “I thought the campiness of the 18th century, on a good day, you can’t beat! It’s pretty out there, so that’s a good setting for Cinderella.” Indeed, when looking at both the story of Cinderella and how it’s presented in the musical, the eighteenth century is a great fit. The story of Cinderella is relatively lighthearted and revolves around merrymaking and frivolity. After all, Cinderella’s goal is to “go to the festival” and dance with a handsome prince. The 18th century aesthetic is similarly lighthearted and has connotations of excess and frivolity, making it a good fit for Cinderella. And there are elements of the ridiculous in eighteenth-century dress (large hair, for example), making it a fitting aesthetic for Cinderella’s beautiful but wicked stepmother and stepsisters.

Into the Woods_Tight Lacing

Right: Tight Lacing, or, Fashion Before Ease by John Collet, originally published c. 1777. (Note: This is a caricature satirising fashion and not an accurate portrayal of how tightly stays were laced in the 18th century)

Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) has two outfits. Her servant outfit is comprised of a white shirt with three quarter length sleeves and ruffles along the cuffs (a hallmark of 18th century dress), brown eighteenth-century stays (stays are what corsets were called before the nineteenth century), and a skirt made of roughly woven material. Her ballgown is a golden adaptation of her servant outfit, this time featuring a gold pair of stays with a small puff of chiffon on top filling out the neckline and creating short, off-the-shoulder sleeves, a skirt made of matching layers of shimmering gold fabric, and gold heels (“the slippers as pure as gold”). Her ballgown, magically bestowed upon her by the spirit of her mother, certainly transforms Cinderella into a true princess. Yet, as we learn from her soliloquy ‘On The Steps of the Palace’, Cinderella isn’t exactly sure that this magical life is the one for her. She sings, “So then which do you pick:/Where you’re safe, out of sight,/And yourself, but where everything’s wrong?/Or where everything’s right/And you know that you’ll never belong?”

Cinderella’s indecision is an important part of her character (it should be noted that Into the Woods follows the Brothers Grimm version of the Cinderella fairy tale, where she is not bound by a spell breaking at midnight and instead chooses to run away from the ball and return three nights in a row) and is reflected in her costume. Her ballgown is a fancier version of her servant outfit, reinforcing the fact that she is still attached to her old life, however horrible it may be.

The Early 19th Century:

Into the Woods_Early 19th century

The Baker (James Corden) and his Wife (Emily Blunt) are invented fairy tale characters, representing the everyman. As Sondheim has described, “In inventing the story of The Baker and His Wife, James [Lapine] contributed his own cultural fairy tale, an American one. The Baker and his Wife may live in a medieval forest in a fairy-tale medieval time, but they are at heart a contemporary urban American couple who find themselves living among witches and princes and eventually giants.” Their misplacement within the world of the musical is cleverly alluded to in Act II, as the Baker’s Wife sings “I’m in the wrong story!” As imagined characters, their story does not have a history or tradition which conjures up certain aesthetics. In listening to their music, Atwood decided that it had a “Victorian feel” and so used the 19th century as inspiration for their costumes.

Into the Woods_Fashion plate

Center: Fashion plate from L’Élégant: Journal Des Tailleurs. Bibliothèque Nationale de France.

The Baker wears a brown leather jacket with subtle punched leather details. There are small sleeve caps, similar to those on the Renaissance-inspired doublets worn by the Princes, which help to connect the disparate aesthetics. But unlike the princes, the Baker’s jacket also has a wide pointed collar, bringing the aesthetic into the 19th century. Underneath his jacket he wears a short waistcoat and a plain shirt, all elements of early 19th century men’s fashion. Around his neck is a yellow scarf tied like a cravat, another nod to 19th century men’s fashion. Finally, he wears loose, brown, striped trousers. 1830s and 1840s, striped trousers were fashionable for men. The Baker also wears a mixture of colours, another subtle nod to the 1830s and 1840s when men often mixed a variety of colors and patterns. Overall the Baker’s costume looks dull, worn, and slightly schlumpy, a fitting look for the character. And while still rich in detail, it is less fantastical than the other male costumes in the movie, emphasizing the role of the Baker as a stand-in for the audience and not quite of this fairy tale world.

Into the Woods_Ackermans Repository

Right: Fashion plate from Ackerman’s Repository, August 1823.

The Baker’s Wife has a few different costumes, but all follow a similar colour palate and silhouette. She is first seen in a simple white shirt (similar to that worn by Cinderella) and dull coloured skirt, with a grey apron worn on top. The apron has a slightly raised waistline, creating a silhouette similar to that of the 1820s. This same grey apron reappears later in the film, this time worn over a crimson red dress.

Into the Woods_Bakers wife

The costume worn by the Baker’s Wife for most of the film, and the costume showcased on all of the posters, is a patchwork bodice and skirt. Like her grey apron, the bodice has a slightly raised waistline. This silhouette in particular was chosen because Emily Blunt was, ironically, pregnant during the time of filming and her costumes needed to accommodate her pregnant belly. The bodice is made of strips of red and blue fabrics creating vertical stripes of various widths. The mix of textures, colours, and the varying thickness of the strips all give the bodice a home-made feel. The skirt is a similar patchwork of different colours and patterns, giving an overall frenetic and eccentric, yet strong, look to the Baker’s Wife. This high energy befits such a strong character. The Baker’s Wife is slightly eccentric, and certainly frantic in her quest “to get the things” for the Witch so she can have a baby. But she’s also strong, brave, and in control, refusing to sit at home and do nothing.

Into the Woods_19th century influence

Jack’s costume also has a 19th century influence. Jack (Daniel Huddleston) starts the musical living in poverty, but is clearly an adventurous and imaginative little boy, as well as slightly precocious. He seems of the same ilk as the Artful Dodger, the street urchin from Oliver Twist, and the aesthetics of his costume reflects that. He wears a striped, knitted sweater. Stripes have a history of being associated with mischievousness (or even evil), which befits the mischievousness of the character. The width of the stripes varies, making the sweater look slightly unbalanced. This reflects both the poverty of the character (the sweater was clearly homemade and not well finished) and his off-kilter personality. On his head he wears a flat cap, similar to those worn by young boys during the 19th century. Like the Baker, Jack also wears loose, striped trousers. However Jack’s are more intricate and layered, with patches worn and missing, once again reflecting his extreme poverty.

The 1890s:

Into the Woods_Witch

The Witch, played brilliantly as ever by Meryl Streep, has an aesthetic inspired by the Victorian gothic. Her Act I costume, when she is an ugly old crone, is a gnarled and knotted black mass of fabric, a grizzled and stopped version of her Act II costume. When she transforms into her younger, glamorous self, her costume transforms into a sweeping gown created by winding black and teal ribbons. As Atwood describes, “It’s ribbons sewn onto organdy along with the leather cording that was incorporated in the earlier costume.” Both costumes take their cues from an 1890s aesthetic, with big puffy leg-o-mutton sleeves, a fitted bodice, and an S-shaped silhouette. The choice of a late Victorian aesthetic for a gothic character like the witch is fitting, as the Victorian period is associated with a fascination and exploration of the gothic.

Into the Woods_Jules Hanriot

Right: Fashion plate from L’Art et la Mode, 1893. Engraving by Jules Hanriot.

Once again, the character of the witch influences her costume. The Witch is very connected to the earth. She is extremely proud and protective of her garden, and it is the contents of her garden that set in motion much of the plot. And during her demise she is sucked into the earth itself, becoming a bubbling tar pit. This earthy aesthetic is reflected in her costumes. The gnarled fabric of her first costume, created from layers of cracked leather, resembles tree bark, while the twisting ribbons of her second costume look like winding vines in her garden or the dark silhouette of twisting tree branches in the woods. The twisting ribbons of her costumes also reflect her twisted morality. In traditional fairy tales the witch is the bad guy, but in Into the Woods the Witch is not purely good or evil. She curses the Baker and his wife, is ready to sacrifice Jack to the giant, and locks Rapunzel in a tower, but she also loves Rapunzel deeply, acts with practicality, and tells the truth (even when no one wants to hear it).

The 1940s and 1950s:

Into the Woods_The 1940s and 1950s

The two costumes with the most modern aesthetics are worn by Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) and the Wolf (Johnny Depp). The wolf presents a challenge for a costume designer; he’s a humanoid creature who eats people and howls like a wolf, while at the same time walking on two legs and talking and singing like a human. Different costume designers have taken the character in different directions. The original production of Into the Woods had the Wolf actor dressed in a full on wolf costume, with a prosthetic wolf face and, famously, a large swinging penis on prominent display. The 2012 Shakespeare in the Park revival, on the other hand, dressed the character as a modern-day rockstar, the only visual reference to the character being an animal being a sleeveless fur coat.

Into the Woods_Zoot suits

Left and Right: Photographs of men in zoot suits, 1940s.

For this cinematic version of Into the Woods, the Wolf takes on a combination of human and animal characteristics. He has a wolf’s ears, nose, feet, and tail, but the rest of the body is clearly human. The Wolf is dressed in a grey 1940s zoot suit, with subtle grey embroidery in the pattern of animal fur. This embroidered fur ads depth and texture to the suit, as well as heightening the animalistic qualities of the character. The zoot suit evolved during the early 1940s during World War II. Initially associated with minorities groups, African Americans, Hispanics, and Italian Americans, the zoot became a symbol of rebellion and subculture. Today, we often associate the zoot suit with the aesthetics of classic mobsters and gangsters. In Into the Woods, the Wolf is a dangerous predator, making the zoot suit a fitting choice of garment.

On the Wolf’s head is a matching wide-brimmed fedora with holes on top to allow his wolf ears to stick out, once again combining both the human and animal qualities of the character. The Wolf has wolf feet, so he doesn’t wear shoes, but he does wear grey spats. Little details help to convey the Wolf as a sinister predator. The claws on his feet and extending from his gloved hands are made from layered plates of metal, giving an appearance reminiscent of armour and signaling danger. In his pocket there is a bright red handkerchief — the only spot of colour in his entire ensemble. Red often symbolizes danger, power, and sexuality, making it an appropriate colour choice for the character (the story of Little Red and the Wolf is filled with sexual undertones and metaphors for lost innocence).

Into the Woods_Dishwasher ad

Center: Dishwasher advertisement from the 1950s.

Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) looks the picture of childhood innocence. She is dressed as a sweet little girl, in a light blue dress with puffy sleeves and a full skirt, and dainty smocking across the bodice. Her face is framed with two little braids, and atop it all she wears her traditional red cape (“the cape as red as blood”), tied around her neck with a dainty red satin bow. She could easily step into an advertisement from the 1950s showing an idealized suburban family. Yet this picture of childhood innocence masks a rather bloodthirsty and fierce personality. Little Red finds the danger presented by the predatory Wolf both terrifying and exciting. She sings that he “made me feel excited/Well, excited and scared.” Even as she is about to be devoured, she recalls: “Once his teeth were bared,/Though, I really got scared/ Well, excited and scared.” And in Act II (in the movie Act II begins as the royal wedding is interrupted by the destruction of the giant) she brags to Jack about the “beautiful knife” her grandmother gave her for protection.

With such a wide range of aesthetic influences, it would be easy for the Into the Woods costumes to look like a jumbled mess. But through subtle details such as the layered and intricately worked textiles, the wacky patterns and shapes, and a unified colour palate, Atwood creates a cohesive aesthetic that both serves the narrative of the movie and looks beautiful. The costumes of Into the Woods are truly works of art.

Words and images by Katy Werlin

For more Into the Woods costume analysis, look for an article by Katy Werlin in the summer issue of The Sondheim Review.

Author’s Note:

I grew up listening to Stephen Sondheim. I know every word and every note of all his major works and most of his lesser known ones. So experiencing anything related to Sondheim is always a deeply personal and emotional experience for me. If you liked this movie I highly recommend seeking out both the original cast soundtrack of Into the Woods and Sondheim’s many other wonderful musicals. The exquisite details and intricacies of his music and lyrics are too numerous to fully explore here, so I urge you all to listen to his works for yourself. It’s been over twenty years and I’m still discovering new things.

© 2015, Lord Christopher Laverty.