Saturday, December 8, 2012

Bringing Mary Todd Lincoln to Life: The First Lady's Costumes in "Lincoln"

Last weekend, I finally got to see "Lincoln," which I've been eagerly anticipating and reading about for months and months.  The film did not disappoint; all of the hype and praise being lavished on it is very well-deserved and I highly recommend it.  It sounds like a cliche, but the movie truly is very much a monument to the almost super-human accomplishments of one of our most honored presidents.  Daniel Day-Lewis does an unbelievable job at representing the intelligence, the quirkiness, and the heart of the enigma that was Abraham Lincoln, and the film is beautifully filmed with incredible details that will make your heart stop.

In this brief interview, the production designer, Rick Carter, discusses how he created a calendar of the last weeks of Lincoln's life to ensure that what emerged on screen would be as accurate as it was possible to make it.  Because so much documentation exists about what absorbed the president both personally and politically, and about what the spaces and furniture and artifacts of the rooms of Lincoln White House looked like, the production team was able to recreate what would have been in certain rooms on certain days, from the letters and books on a table, to the maps on the wall.  Even the sound of the ticking watch that emerges at moments throughout the film is accurate to the most minute degree: Spielberg had Lincoln's own pocket watch taken out of museum storage so that its own unique sound could be used in the movie.  I don't think any movie has quite captured and conveyed so completely an immersion into a historical period as this one does.  It really is quite an achievement.

Of course, being a period film, you know where much of my visual attention was drawn!  Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln worked well with Day-Lewis's impression of the president, and I was very pleasantly surprised at how much she looked the part.  "Lincoln"'s costume designer, Joanna Johnston, describes in this video how Field strategically gained weight to achieve the exact waistline and body shape of the First Lady she would portray, much to Johnston's delight because it meant the original proportions of Mary Todd Lincoln's gowns could be maintained in the recreations.  Some of the gowns you see in the film were almost exactly reproduced from extant pieces.

Joanna Johnston with two of the gowns she designed for
Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field) for the film.
Photo linked from

In this previous post that I did after a visit to the Mary Todd Lincoln House Museum, I mentioned the handful of clothing items and accessories that are currently in the museum's collection.  I inquired whether any additional clothes were known to exist, and the docent pointed me to the Smithsonian inauguration gown, but said she didn't know of any more.  I've since discovered a handful of other gowns held in various museums (I feel a new post coming on...!), and Johnston says she inspected many of them - in addition to the numerous photographic and artistic representations of Mary Todd Lincoln, and contemporary fashion plates - in preparation for designing and creating Mary's look for the film.

One of the extant dresses owned and worn by Mary Todd Lincoln (right).
It was one of the inspirations for the film gown below.

It is evident from Mary's gowns, visible in both extant items and in images, and by the (borderline politicized) controversy that raged throughout Lincoln's presidency over his wife's more than extravagant clothing expenditures, that the First Lady delighted in stretching fashion to its limits and was defined by a very unique sense of style.  She loved to display her shoulders (much to the chagrin of Washington society because of her age) and to indulge in bright colors (fuchsia, anyone?), heavy trims, and elaborate decorative elements.

Costume sketches from "Lincoln," by Richard Merritt.
Images linked from SAA Illustration Hub.

One particular dress (shown above and below), Johnston explains in this very interesting video overview of the costumes, is a combination of two of Mary Todd Lincoln's dresses.  Johnston had a French striped silk satin fabric overprinted with the floral design to meld the look of the two original gowns together.  The source for the floral sprays is pictured in the original gown above.  Period antique lace and a typical Mary Todd-sized corsage completes the stunning visual and historical effect of the ensemble.

Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln.
Photo linked from

Another fantastic video interview with costume designer Joanna Johnston can be found here.  And here's a link to another article with a close up of another one of Mary Todd Lincoln's movie dresses, complete with bonnet.


Caroline said...

Ooo what pretty dresses. I still haven't gotten to the theater to see it. Must go!

I have seen one of Mrs. Lincoln's dresses at the American history museum in DC. Very cool.

Rachel said...

MMMM, thanks for the delicious info and pictures!

vintagevisions27 said...

Great post. I can't wait to see this movie! I'm going to check out those interviews after work today.

vintagevisions27 said...

Finally got to see this movie! Fantastic!!