From Hobbits to Elves: The Costumes and
From New Line Cinema press release,
"On a project of this size and scope you
have to design what you believe in, and on this film there wasn't a day in
the 274 days of shooting that the costumes didn't look and feel real."
-Ngila Dickson, costume designer
At the heart of every culture are its
clothing and physical appearance, and Middle-earth is no different. In order
to clothe an entire universe of beings, costume designer Ngila Dickson faced
the challenge of her life. Although she has been creating imaginative,
ancient costumes for "Xena: Warrior Princess" and "Hercules" on television,
Tolkien's universe presented a challenge unlike any other: clothing not just
hundreds of characters, but nine physically and expressively different
cultures. Working with a team of 50 tailors, embroiders, cobblers and
jewelers, Dickson attempted to make each costume life-like, functional and
reflective of each character.
The volume of costumes alone was staggering, an average of 150 costumes for
each of the different cultures. Adding to the sheer numbers was the fact
that many individual character costumes had to be made in two sizes: one for
the actor and the other for the smaller or larger "scale double" used in
Creating the Hobbit costumes was always a priority - and a sticky challenge.
"When you have little fellows running around in frock coats and short
trousers, you have to work hard to make that believable," notes Dickson.
"But Peter was quite clear that he wanted them to look as real as possible."
Dickson did so by highlighting their pastoral nature. She used very natural
fabrics and strong weaves, influenced by ancient European cultures. They
wear waistcoats in harvest colors - greens, yellows and browns -- with brass
buttons. But she also reinforced the playfulness of their stature and way of
life. "I added a lot of quirks, things to jar the eye," she points out.
"Their trouser legs and sleeves are too short, their buttons are too big,
and their collars are out of proportion. I even made their pockets higher
than usual for example, so when they put their hands in their pockets it has
a very distinctive, funny look to us."
For the Elves, Dickson went for sheer elegance, mossy greens, tree-bark
browns, autumn scarlets, an androgynous quality and a touch of antiquity.
"They invoke their environment," she notes, "and they're very light on the
earth, so we searched for very, very fine layers of fabrics for them." Their
costumes were forged from Indian silk brocade, which Dickson washed,
bleached, dyed and sandpapered to give the costumes a shimmering metallic
gleam that looks organic.
The Elves also wear silk-velvet acid-etched with Art Nouveau leaf designs.
Even their sleeves are made in leaf shapes, coiling around the actors' arms.
On their feet are knee-high leather boots that add to their willowy
Another challenging costume was that of the Wizard Gandalf. Dickson toiled
for weeks designing his hat, the ultimate wizard icon. "I wanted something
impressive, ancient and magical but not too overwhelming," says the
designer. "Our first sketches were like great ships on Ian McKellen's head,
but we finally came to something that was perfect, functional and
For the film's female characters, Dickson went for a new ethereal aesthetic.
For the film's two Elven leading ladies, Cate Blanchett and Liv Tyler,
Dickson took their ethereal qualities to create an alluring race who are
"the angels of the story," as Dickson puts it.
Dickson continues, "The Elves are tall, slender and elegant. They have a
floating image to their costumes, using colors and fabric that are light and
Once Dickson created her costumes, she then had to "ruin" them. That is, she
had to age and soil and tear them to make them look like they had gone
through the adventures the creatures of Middle-earth experience. The
Hobbits, for example, start out with clean, white shirts at the beginning of
The Fellowship of the Ring, but soon find them muddied and bloodied in
In the case of Aragorn's rugged, mud-splattered costume, Viggo Mortensen did
the aging himself. "He took his outfit home with him because he wanted to
literally grow into it," says Dickson. "He sweat in it, lived in it, even
repaired it himself, as Aragorn would have. That's the best you can hope for
in making costumes: that the actors will participate and make them their
own, a part of their character."
Working closely with Dickson and Peter Jackson in forging each character's
distinctive, detailed look was the makeup and hair design team of Peter King
and Peter Owen. One of their main challenges was hair, which in The
Fellowship of the Ring ranges from the belly-length beard of Gandalf to the
thinning scraggles on the head of the Orcs to the flaxen locks of Galadriel.
King and Owen had hundreds of wigs made to specifications that make them
essentially invisible to human eyes. In fact, some 300 hand-made knotted
wigs were permed in a giant pressure cooker in WETA's workshops.
The makeup artists also worked closely with the prosthetic artists to
coordinate such features as pointy ears with the overall look. They, too,
had to "enhance" their work with a variety of dirt, blood, scratches and
gashes collected as the journey went on. In fact, the make-up artists
eventually became known on set as "The Mud Men."
No matter the costume, it was essential that every robe, wig and boot in the
film be maximally durable - especially given the fact that actors were
scrambling over cliffs, slogging through streams, crawling underground and
heaving swords at one another. "We tried to get longevity out of each
costume," explains Dickson. "They had to survive a lot."
In the end, Dickson hopes her costumes don't stand out. Instead, she hopes
they become part of the astonishing realistic backdrop for the characters'
incredible journey towards friendship and wisdom. "The less people notice
the details of the costume the better job we did in a sense," she comments,
"because that means the costumes have helped to completely absorb you in the
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