The chime of Danny Elfman, the camera panning over Johnny Depp, and the feeling that you’ve just stepped into a stylized dream. You know what you are looking at. Tim Burton strikes again. Inspired by German Expressionism and his experience growing up in suburban California, Burton’s films are full of contrasts between hyperreal suburbia and a darker fantasy world. Once criticized for being too dark and twisted, Burton’s work from the late 20th century is considered groundbreaking. On the surface, they’re grotesque retellings of beloved stories, but if you look a little deeper, you see tortured heroes trying to find their place in an unknown world. The universal experience of feeling alienated at one time or another allows a wide range of audiences to see themselves in Burton’s character, providing comfort and translating the beauty that exists into haunting themes. Besides his use of long shadows and odd angles, the costume design of his films allows him to achieve a unique “Burtonesque” charm. Alongside Colleen Atwood, Burton achieves an integrated look with her vision, serving both the storytelling and style of her films.
“For Edward Scissorhands – as for outsiders – conformity is never the answer”
The haunting but sweet image of snow formed from Johnny Depp’s Frankenstein-monster-esque Edward Scissorhands Ice sculpting as angelic-looking Winona Ryder dances is one of my earliest memories of the unconventional 1990 romance film. worn by Edward Scissorhands is a visual guide to his difference and isolation from the rest of the community. In an attempt to conform to his surroundings, Edward Scissorhands wears a white shirt with black work pants and suspenders. Held in these clothes, he can’t help tearing himself away out of sheer discomfort. For Edward Scissorhands – as for outsiders – conformity is never the answer. Ditch the varsity puffer jacket and inject your personality into your outfits. Contrasting Depp’s punk-rock look, Winona Ryder, portraying Kim, is dressed in soft tones and vintage silhouettes, and seems to be somewhere between the two extremes of basic suburbanism and grotesque fantasy. Perhaps in a category of her own, her costume design makes her appear like a mythical angel.
Alice in Wonderland
“Burton’s stories, which often resemble veiled autobiographies, use costume design to achieve a distinct Burton style”
In 2010, Burton retold the beloved 1951 Alice in Wonderland and was met with descriptions such as “generic and disappointing” by many reviewers. I, for one, pondered its darker take on the fairy tale and was amazed at the stunning visuals. Recognized by the academy, the costume design received an Oscar and that’s understandable. We start the photo with the classic blue Alice dress, a silhouette inspired by Christian Dior’s 1947 collection. As Alice falls down the rabbit hole, entering a strange world, her dress undergoes a significant transformation as it shrinks and grows. The coat alteration can be described as “Burtonization”. Black trim, stripes and contrasting colors are added to achieve the familiar gothic style of much of his work. Coupled with the sharp cheekbones, large eyes, chalky complexion and dark circles under the eyes, these characters are distinct from Burton. Microtrends on TikTok have emerged with people romanticizing this near-sick Victorian child aesthetic, which has led to a surge of people dressing like they’re straight out of a desaturated dream world.
Not only was Alice’s reimagined look significant, but the Mad Hatter (also portrayed by Johnny Depp) received a new image. Atwood worked alongside Depp to make his designs and described Depp’s character as being “a mood ring”. His emotions are very close to the surface.” With a variety of textures and colors, white lace versus tweed and details like thimbles and thread, the chaos of Hatter’s look reflects her inner restlessness. Hatter’s design creativity, with perhaps a shift in parts, can inspire us to think outside the box. Too often I get caught up in my favorite velvet flares with an oversized crew neck. There is a familiarity with wearing uniform-like attire. Ease, comfort. However, getting out of my comfort zone when choosing outfits has helped me evolve my personal style and find pieces that reflect my own character.
Yet another film with Johnny Depp, sleepy hollow is a fusion of horror, fantasy and romance. Set in 1799, Atwood researched this costume design through paintings and books while avoiding being overly demanding on historical accuracy. Depp’s character, Ichabod, has a strictly monochromatic palette, complementing the desaturated nature of the film. However, despite the lack of color, the texture of her costumes is striking. Christina Ricci’s character, Katrina, wears multiple dresses. Her dresses evolve from being soft and light colored, to the finale where she wears her basic black and white striped dress. The detailed embroidery on her dresses makes me yearn for the craftsmanship that seems to be lost with this era of fast fashion and trend cycles.
As much as Burton’s concepts are intriguing and the costume designs extravagant, he’s not immune to valid criticism of his artistic choices. For the amount he commented on how different and isolated he felt in his teenage years, it’s surprising that he continues to be non-inclusive in his casting choices. In the dozens of films he created, his actors were almost all white. Whether this choice was intentional or not, there is no denying that there has been a sort of exclusiveness to the “Burtonesque” aesthetic, where people of color don’t seem to fit the bill. Burton has made a few comments in the past about his lack of inclusivity during casting and they failed to impress. Note on The Brady Group and the introduction of people of color to the show, he mentioned that he felt like it was just a case of forced diversity. However, diversity is only forced if you assume white is the default. Hopefully, we’ll see Burton take back some of the advice surrounding his controversy and avoid instilling the same feelings of isolation and exclusion he felt on the next generation of people of color who watch his films.
Burton’s stories, which often resemble veiled autobiographies, use costume design to achieve a distinct Burton style. This “Burtonesque” magnetism that was extremely prevalent from the late 80s to the 90s has been considerably toned down with his more recent works such as Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children but, pending his release from The Addams Family spin-off show, Wednesday, I, along with many others, hope to see a revival of Tim Burton’s gothic, desaturated style.
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