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Old Look, New Reality The Movie: “Little Women”

The Setup: Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 classic about the four chin-up March sisters, including aspiring writer Jo (Winona Ryder), and their proud, modern-thinking mother, Marmee (Susan Sarandon).

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The Costume Designer: Colleen Atwood, whose credits include “Wyatt Earp,” “Philadelphia,” “Ed Wood,” “Edward Scissorhands,” “Silence of the Lambs” and “Married to the Mob.”

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Quoted: “I approached this from a mutual decision (with director Gillian Armstrong) to be more realistic than the two earlier versions of the movie, which were much more Hollywood,” Atwood says of the 1933 interpretation starring Katharine Hepburn and the 1949 rendition with June Allyson and Elizabeth Taylor. Of the latter, she adds, “It was a real ‘40s palette--a world of pastels. Their hair was definitely ‘40s, and they wore serious makeup.”

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The Look: Shabby but not chic. Drab dresses in either rough wools or summer cottons, often with visible repairs. In many cases, including the white cotton nightgowns, the patches and darning came about honestly. But even the new dresses were subjected to mending. “We made little holes that we mended in some things, like a glove or a collar, and then repaired them,” Atwood explains.

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Inspiration: The paintings and drawings of Winslow Homer and James McNeill Whistler--"the really American artists,” Atwood says.

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Sources: Antique clothing came from dealers around the country, including the Helen Larson Collection in Whittier. Crochet and knit gloves, vests and shawls and Marmee’s snood were hand-made in New York. “Antique gloves, even when I found them, were way too small. . . . People were small then.”

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Good Hair Day: All those center-parted manes are so lovely that it’s hard to believe they’re wigs. Except for Trini Alvarado (Meg) and Kirsten Dunst (young Amy), the female stars sported utterly convincing long-haired wigs made by Peter Owen (“Dangerous Liaisons,” “Philadelphia” and “Wolf”). Employing strictly human hair, Owen says, he banned modern hairdressing techniques, such as using rollers and back-combing, “which can give the game away.”

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Trivia: Getting in costume meant about a half-hour with a dresser. Layers included true-to-the-period corset, camisole, bloomers, silk or cotton stockings, hoop and/or petticoats. Tiny little buttons up the back replaced zippers. “Everyone wanted to wait to the last minute to dress because the corsets were so uncomfortable,” Atwood recalls.


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