The Wardrobe Door Interviews Isis Mussenden

We would like to thank Isis Mussenden for giving us the opportunity to ask some questions about her work as costume designer for The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. She's shared many wonderful insights on the process of designing and creating costumes, her sources of inspiration, and turning that vision into reality.

How did you get involved in costume design?

Ever since I was little I wanted to be a costume designer.  As a young girl my Mother taught me to sew and I began creating clothing.  I went into costume as opposed to fashion because of the love of story.  I also grew up in Hollywood and was constantly surrounded by film and tv shoots. After graduating from Parsons School of Design in New York with a B.F.A. in fashion I began working with costume designers and trained under such wonderful mentors as Jane Greenwood, Ann Roth and Santo Loquasto.

How did you get involved in Narnia?

I worked with Andrew Adamson, the director, on Shrek and Shrek 2.

Had you read the books?

No, I had not read the books.  I had no idea of the following the Chronicles had until I got involved in this project.  So unlike others who had a child's memory of the story my view was fresh and adult.  That said my son was four when we started this project and he provided me with many childlike insights.. The evolution of the White Witch's costumes was inspired by him.

What was your approach to costuming the worlds of Narnia?

Research, research and more research!  From museums, books, periodicals, paintings, textile designs, organic images, mythological illustrations, anatomy studies etc.  To design one needs information first.  Then with that knowledge you can create.

How much did you interact with the text of the book itself for inspiration? Did you draw upon other books in the Chronicles as well?

More than you (or I) can imagine!  I can not tell you how many times I have read it.  Depending on what area of the story we were working on I constantly referred back to the chapters for clues and inspiration.  And yes, the other books were also helpful. Although LWW is the first time in the Chronicles we meet the children, it was helpful to understand where their characters were going.

Can you tell us about the process of designing and creating a single costume?

There is a very long and involved answer to this question.  So instead I
will explain the general process of building the costumes.

I start with character analysis. Who are they, where are they and what are they doing?  Once an actor is chosen for the role then their personality and physicality are taken into account. The research is done and the sketching begins.  Then we begin to gather the textiles and do whatever textile design needs to be done.  Fabric is woven, dyed, embroidered etc.  The cutter/draper works with the sketch to create a mock up of the costume to begin the fittings with the actor.  From there the pattern and the textiles are combined to create the costume.  Several fittings and adjustments are made, the accessories are designed and manufactured.  The final fitting and director approval ensue and with any luck you take it to camera.  Now in the case of an actor who is also a minor, you need to make at least two of everything for the photo double, stunt double etc. We made about 12 blue Lucy "Narnia" dresses.  Although it appears to be a rather simple dress it was frankly very labor intensive.

Which did you prefer - researching and recreating WWII period costumes, or coming up with original fantasy designs for the world of Narnia?  Which was more challenging?

I throughly enjoyed both.  The period costumes were a wonderful way to start - a familiar place to begin, having designed period costumes my whole career.  I spent two weeks in London researching and collecting textile information.  Shirley Greene, an evacuee of WWII,  guided me through London on my quest.  The Museum of Childhood, a subsidiary of the V&A, was the most helpful with hands on research.  Between Shirley and the curator, I viewed dozens of authentic pieces from Liberty bodices to overcoats.  Also very valuable were the stories from these wonderful women on what the time was really like as a child during the war.  The most challenging aspect of period costume today is the proper textiles.  We had all four of the children's woolen overcoats woven in the colors and pattens desired by Rabbit Goody of Thistle Hill in upstate New York.  Some pieces were vintage and others manipulated to our needs. The rubber buttons on Lucy's liberty bodice were vintage, purchased in London.

The fantasy costumes were like entering Narnia . . . a different movie all together.  The research was varied depending on who we were designing.  It was really loads of fun.  There was no time to get bored on LWW.  The White Witch, Ginnarbrick, Father Christmas and all the amazing creatures were all so diverse.  Although all in Narnia, each is unique.

The White Witch was the most challenging by far.  When I came on to the project there had been a year of conceptualizing.  I was handed 97 images that had been illustrated by WETA and several different artist.  Andrew was not sold on any of them . . . if that wasn't daunting I don't know what is.  So I started fresh and with the inspiration of our wonderful Production Designer (Roger Ford) we came up with the ice images.  Always having wanted an ice crown that melted away, I put his images together with my Son's concept of her "evolving" as opposed to "changing" clothing.  She is organic, half witch/half giant not human.  Tilda come into the picture as the perfect canvas and a wonderful collaborator.  Together with my team we created the fabric, used some contemporary design for drama and freshness and Voila . . . the White Witch.  Although I have just simplified the process it was a very satisfying and yes, the most challenging character.

Do you have a personal favorite costume?

Not really.  I love Lucy's first trip into Narnia smocked dress and sweater.  Ginnarbrick and Father Christmas are also favorites of mine.  The White Witch at her camp and four costumes you will not see until you see the movie - the four grown up Kings and Queens of Narnia.

What was it like working with the actors?  Did they have any input on the design process?

I have worked with actors my whole life.  This was a particularly lovely group.  The children were professional, although Skander was a young man on the move - he had a tough time standing still for fittings.  But we loved him anyway.  Their input is always welcomed.  They have to wear the costume and it is my job to make sure they feel right in them.  The costume should always help the actor "feel" the part not hinder them.

What were your sources of inspiration for the children's Narnian clothes?  Did you draw on any specific historical periods, or Pauline Baines's illustrations?

The children's clothes were inspired by the Pre-Raphaelite painting of the turn of the century.  Their beauty, simplicity and romantic characteristics were what the director was drawn to.  Also the fact that the first book The Magicians Nephew takes place in Edwardian times.  In that story Narnia is created.  These painters painted in that time their vision of Medieval times.  It all made sense.  I did not use any of the Pauline Baines illustrations as inspiration.  These illustrations were drawn in the 1950's about the 1940's and have strong 50's influences.  But I will say, Mr. Tumnus' scarf is right out of the book.

Ernie Malik has referred to the "7 transformations" of the White Witch.  Did they all make it to the film?  Have we seen/identified all of them, or are there more to come?

They are all in the film.  As I referred to earlier I think of it more as her evolution. She is a mood ring.   Her crown melts.  She goes from icy white to midnight blue and then chain.  Her silhouette narrows and grows as her sense of power diminishes or is reinstated.  There is no in or out of her garments because she is not human, she is a witch.

A lot of symbolism seems to have gone in to her costumes.  Can you tell us a little more about this?  What went into the construction of her gowns?

The fabric we created for her dress is directly related to the ice images I spoke of earlier.  The first layer is a velvet dyed with resist areas for a modeled look.  The second layer is felted wool and silk.  The raw materials were dyed  and then felted to fit the shape of each dress.  The sheen of the silk is what gave us icy lines and begins to create the depth.  The final layer is the lace.  This is metallic thread and organza pieces, also dyed, sewn onto a burn out fabric.  We would draw the ice crackle from a small scale to a larger scale at the hem of the dress.  This gives us the illusion of height, she is a giant.  Then a seamstress would machine endless amounts of thread over the lines and finally we would burn out the back.  Each panel was made this way for all of the six dresses.  Once the lace was ready we would hand sew it on to the felted dress and then and only then the dress would truly come to life.  Tilda use to comment on how amazing it was when we would lay on that last layer.  It was always a little piece of magic.

We already know you used Stansborough Weavers, N.Z., and Thistle Hill, US, to resource some of your fabrics?  Can you tell us about other fabrics and/or companies you used?

We source fabrics from all over the world.  New Zealand is an island and although they do not have much in stock, we could order anything from anywhere.  Yarn from Scotland, fabric from Italy, France and China.  We purchased from Los Angeles, New York and London.  The two vendors you mentioned  above were houses that wove fabric for us specifically.

Any word on Prince Caspian?

No, your guess is as good as mine.

I hope that you enjoyed some of the  information I have shared.  I would like to thank all of you for your enthusiasm and interest in the costumes from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.  I have seen some of the reproductions online and I am charmed by all of it.  How creative you all are.  I do hope you enjoy the film.  It was a pleasure to bring this beautiful story to the screen.  I hope you have half as much fun watching it as I did making it.

~Posted November 24, 2005