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The Significance and Perception of the Visual Style of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, a Movie by Tim Burton

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, premiered in 2007 and was directed by Tim Burton. The musical, written by Stephen Sondheim, tells the story of a man who is out for revenge, kills people, then discretely disposes the of bodies by making them into meat pies and selling them on the streets of London. Set in the 19th century, costume designer Colleen Atwood had her work cut out for her. Ms. Atwood was faced with the challenge of combining Tim Burton’s unique flair and darker outlook with the style of period. Combining lots of black and dark colors with Crinoline period garb, the movie has a definite and easily recognizable style.

Crinoline, the period of costume history from 1840-1865, is the time period in which Sweeney Todd is set. One defining feature from this time period is missing from a majority of the movie, the Crinoline. Crinoline’s were the main shift from the time period before, and these under garments held the dresses out to huge, even extreme, sizes. The leading players in the movie do not particularly follow all of the traditional Crinoline styles, but the ensemble members come very close. For example, in the song, “Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir” there are many times that the camera would sweep over the ensemble and they were all dressed according to period. The women had their hair in the traditional twist and bonnets, but the leading females never wore their hair as such nor did they wear bonnets. This movie, while succeeding with the ensembles costumes, does not truly replicate the time period. What one must remember about the movie is that it is stylized and the costumes contain elements from the time period without fully fulfilling the requirement that comes with a realistic period piece.

The Crinoline time period had a very special silhouette, smaller at the top with a large flared out skirt. The overall silhouette looks a bit like a bell. Sweeney Todd, however, does not completely meet this requirement. The female dresses slightly resemble a bell, but are no where near large enough in the skirt, thanks to the lack of the Crinoline. The best example of a bell shape would more than likely be found in the chorus of extras rather than the leading cast, but from the leads the best example would be the blue dress worn by Johanna, played by Jayne Wisener. This dress sits off the shoulder and flares out from the waist, then it falls in large waves down to the floor. This dress gives Johanna the bell silhouette that was desirable during the Crinoline time. The hair on the women in this movie do not help the silhouette what so ever. Both female leads, Johanna and Mrs. Lovett (played by Helena Bonham Carter), wear their hair in styles that match their personality rather than the period. Mrs. Lovett’s hair sits in an odd, yet quirky, up-do that spikes up from the back of her head. Johanna’s long, blonde hair falls loose down her back. Neither hairstyle matches (or even resembles) the twisted bun that rests on the lower half of a woman’s head, held there by a small net called the Snood, the style that was worn at the time. The male silhouette is quite simple during this time period, so it wasn’t too hard to replicate. The male silhouette is easily seen in the leading male characters, with few costume exceptions. Sweeney Todd, portrayed by Johnny Depp, never wears a top hat, not even when outside. Todd also wears a jacket that is worn open and is unfitted, which does not fall in line with the time period. Once again, the males that make up the ensemble wear the proper top hats and jackets.

Regardless of the stylistic choices, the costumes in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street were constructed beautifully. One costume that seems to be constructed accurately is the aforementioned blue dress Johanna wears. The dress rests almost off her shoulders, and on the top hem there is a line of white lace, which was popular during the Crinoline time period. In the torso of this beautiful blue dress, one can clearly see the structural work done with seams and stitching. Also in the torso, one can tell that there is just the hint of a corset underneath. The fabric this dress is made of looks lush and expensive, which would be accurate considering that her adoptive care-giver is a well-known judge. Also, if one looks closely, you can see a small print on the fabric, especially on the bodice. The print would be accurate to the Crinoline time period thanks to the advances from the industrial revolution.

Stylistic choices can make any movie more interesting, unless you’re watching the movie for the purpose of analysis and critique. Some stylization adds to character, some detracts. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street featured costumes that were incredibly styled and different than the Crinoline time period in which the film is supposedly set. The biggest examples of structural changes would be found in the leading characters, Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett. The most prevalent, and honestly surprising, stylistic choice would be the fact that Mr. Todd wears a leather jacket during the movie. During this time period, men wore fitted frock coats, usually with tails. These coats were made from fabric, not leather. When one sits down and truly thinks about why Ms. Colleen Atwood would include this drastic choice, this inconsistency with history can make sense. Sweeney Todd is the hero of the tale, but if this tale were true and we were to read it in a history book, Mr. Todd would be seen as an antagonist. Leather jackets, and automatic assumptions that come with seeing someone wearing a leather jacket, give off a sense of being reckless or tough. Sweeney Todd would definitely be the definition of reckless, and homicidal while we’re on at it, so in a way it makes sense to give him a leather jacket. The leather jacket is part of his character, no matter how completely inaccurate. Otherwise, Mr. Todd wears a nicely fit vest and a white shirt with Leg-O-Mutton resembling sleeves.

Mrs. Lovett’s costumes were more accurate, in some aspects. Her main costume looked some what like a punk Raggedy-Anne doll with slight Crinoline embellishments, such as a corset worn on the outside of her clothing a la Clara Barton. The corset looks like it’s made correctly and nicely, and it’s obviously a fashion corset rather than one that’s supposed to shove all your organs together for the “beautiful” wasp waist effect. Her main costume also includes fingerless, black, netted gloves, which seem to come from the 1980’s and were very obviously out of place. Mrs. Lovett’s main costume also includes combat boots, which, regardless of personality, no woman in this time period would be wearing. Her other costumes are more accurate to the time period while still staying true to character. For example, her final costume is made with more lace and is more fancy (there is some sort of shiny fabric around the bust area and it seems, and makes her seem, more expensive), simply because her business is now picking up and she is earning more money. Her new dress reflects her new social standing and shows that she is gaining wealth and is now “successful.” Underneath her “rich” dress, there is a hint of a Crinoline, which was severely lacking in her original costume. The Crinoline could have been ignored in order to allow Ms. Bonham Carter the ability to move and dance, but considering that this time period is named after this undergarment, I’m not sure it was a wise choice to ignore it to the point of not including it at all.

Overall, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street wasn’t incredibly historically accurate in terms of costuming. There are moments of costume accuracy amongst the many costumes the various leads wear, and many more instances of accuracy in the ensemble. The costume designer, Colleen Atwood, took Tim Burton’s dark themes and color palettes and definitely played with the dark side of Crinoline. The movie is very recognizable because of it’s theme and costumes, which, however odd and slightly out of place, were beautiful.

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