Colleen Atwood has three Oscars to her credit for the fantastical wardrobes in Alice in Wonderland, Memoirs of a Geisha, and Chicago. The L.A.-based costume designer, who will be recognized by the CFDA next week with its inaugural Tribute Award, has spawned entire sartorial worlds for directors such as Rob Marshall, Rupert Sanders, and Tim Burton—a talent with whom she's been working ever since she created Johnny Depp's slice-em-up fingers for the 1990 classic Edward Scissorhands. "Tim's an artist in his own right," says Atwood. "He's an original spirit, and he's fun to be around—most of the time. He lets other people express themselves, and has huge trust in what you'll deliver."
Working odd jobs on film sets in New York, Atwood landed her first costume gig circa 1983. "I started out working on the film division for Saturday Night Live," she recalls. "It was great training. You'd get the script at 5 p.m. on a Friday and have to shoot on Saturday. I shopped at Grand Central and Penn Station, because they were all that was open at 6 a.m."
Charlize Theron's iridescent rooster-feather cloak in Snow White and the Huntsman, Meryl Streep's hand-smocked batiste frock from Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, and the painstakingly embroidered kimonos worn in Memoirs of a Geisha are a far cry from train-station finds. But Atwood, 64, admits there are still challenges—even at the top. "Budgets have definitely gotten smaller. Now, every time you do a movie, you set up in a trailer with a couple of sewing machines and a cutter. It's not glamorous at all," she says. And while costume designers are increasingly finding themselves in the spotlight (see the press frenzy surrounding Catherine Martin's The Great Gatsby looks), Atwood feels they don't always get the respect they deserve. "As much as they may pretend that it's not, the film industry is a man's world. A lot of costume designers are women or gay. We're sort of an unnecessary thorn in their side."
Atwood's work is far from unnecessary—rather, it's integral to the development of the plot. "The duty of the costume is to move the character forward," says Atwood. "If the costumes are distracting, or incorrect, you'll be wondering about the [clothes] rather than the film; they have to enhance—but never be bigger than—the story," she says. "And sometimes, a great costume is a costume that no one notices." When asked if she was ever disappointed by a subdued design getting overlooked, Atwood says, "I don't do costumes to get noticed. I do it because it's fun."