Beautiful, Not Beastly

The Movie: “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.”

The Setup: The renowned horror story of Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Kenneth Branagh, pictured, who also directs) and his Creature (Robert De Niro), set in late 19th-Century Europe.

The Costume Designer: James Acheson, who won Academy Awards for his work on “The Last Emperor” and “Dangerous Liaisons.”

The Look: With operatic flourish, Acheson masterfully devises Frankenstein’s world of striking beauty and airy refinement: His persimmon-colored chateau contrasts with the sooty squalor of cholera-infested town folk, and, of course, the Creature.


The good doctor’s dress code includes the most delicate creamy brocades imaginable, under which flutter extravagant ruffled lace shirts. His love, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter, pictured), matches him thread for thread for jaw-dropping luxe. Against this backdrop comes the Big Grunge--the Creature, sporting a sweeping double-breasted and caped overcoat with monklike resonance. By movie’s end, the coat is so organically grimy that it sprouts hairs. Next to this version of the Creature, Boris Karloff’s “Frankenstein” archetype, a monster in a neat business suit, albeit two sizes too small, looks virtually corporate.

Quoted: “The shadow of (Karloff’s) image, which is so universally well known, is very difficult to compete with, even though it was contemporized for the 1930s,” Acheson said. “I also envisioned the Creature would be very fast, not lumbering like Karloff, but like a spider who would crawl over rooftops. We knew there was always going to be a coat, but over a period of two months I did about 40 drawings for De Niro and made little models to decide on things like different heights of collar, different coat lengths, textures.”

Trivia: The Creature’s one and only costume--a coat made of washed gray moleskin--was actually six coats made to look not only increasingly weathered but also more and more like a second skin.

Seeing Red?: Dr. Frankenstein, Elizabeth and Frankenstein’s brother, William (Ryan Smith), all sport blood-red garments. In some instances, the color is meant to convey a positive life force.


Sources: Principals’ costumes were custom-made in England, sometimes from antique fabrics. New fabrics are from India, France, Germany, Turkey and England.