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Sleepy Hollow: A Gothic Tale

One of then first rules of costume design is that it has to feel integrated within the aesthetic choices of the movie. It has to work with the cinematography and the set design. This gets harder when you're working with a director who has a very particular and personal (and weird) vision and look. A director like, let's say, Tim Burton.

Burton has a very particular style and every single element in the frame needs to work towards achieving that style. Perhaps that's why he tends to collaborate repeatedly with specific professionals. Like Colleen Atwood.

Atwood is a heavyweight of costume design in and on itself; having worked in over 50 movies throughout her career. She's been nominated for an Academy Award eleven times, winning three times (2002's Chicago, 2005's Memoirs of a geisha and 2010's Alice in Wonderland). She's also worked in movies like; Wyatt Earp (1994), Little Women (1994), Public Enemies (2009) and the recent Into the Woods (2014). But she's most famous with her collaborations with director Tim Burton, having worked with him in over seven movies. Among those are; Edward Siccorhands (1990), Ed Wood (1994), Mars Attack! (1994) and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007).

But my personal favorite collaboration is, undoubtedly, 1999's Sleepy Hollow. A Hammer-like take on Washington Irving's classic horror tale.

The movie's visual style opts for an almost monochromatic effect designed to enhance the fantasy aspect of the story. This, obviously, affects the costume design. Opting for such cinematography prevents any color from really popping out, and so, the costumes need to focus on texture, shape and pattern, practically casting aside the most important element at play in any design: color.

Another important element is the fact that the movie is set in 1799, making it, theoretically, a period piece. So, how do you do a period piece, taking into account that it's supposed to be fantasy and where you can't really use color?


Sleepy Hollow takes into account the period, but most of the designs are goth-ized, for lack of a better word. It definitely focusses more on the gothic than on history, but it's what the movie needs.

All this basically was a way of saying that I won't focus on accuracy. It's pointless in a movie about a witch who controls a headless man in order to get her husband's fat inheritance.


Ichabod has about three outfits through the movie, and all of them are consistently black and white. Choosing such a monochromatic palette is ideal if you're working with the almost monochrome effect that Burton chose. So it's a logical choice.

The textures are incredible, they feel very real and are used to compensate the lack of color. And it helps to avoid the feeling that they dressed him in a Halloween costume, it makes the dress feel real.

The simplicity of his wardrobe is really what the character needed: it's a stern look because Ichabod is someone who doesn't take things lightly or who is too prone to jokes. The clothes are simple, humble, and austere, because he is not rich, so his designs do not use elaborate fabrics. He's a practical man; logic rules his life. This is underlined by the design, creating a contrast between his simplicity and the richly embroidered clothes of the superstitious villagers.

On top of that, the design needed to give a certain vibe. Ichabod is supposed to be the gothic hero (a very cowardly one, but still), so certain elements of the design were very much needed: the preeminence of black, the high boots... It's all about easy identification.

It's also, in my opinion, a huge homage to the Hammer hero. Burton has repeatedly stated that he is a big fan of Hammer movies and so, this seems only logical.


Dressing the ladies is always way more fun, one must admit. And so is talking about their dresses.

Katrina is supposed to be the daughter of the richest man in Sleepy Hollow and also happens to be a good witch. Perfect ingredients for a fun design; the fact that she's rich allows the designer to play with more elaborate fabrics and as a woman (and a witch) the possibilities just skyrocket.

She has considerably more outfits than Ichabod (without reaching Padme levels, of course).

Katrina is a much romantic character than Ichabod; she reads romance novels and believes in witchcraft. And that is reflected in her costumes. She's mainly dressed in soft colors: pinks, golds and blues, underlining her romanticism.

The soft colors and the round shapes help to underline the damsel in distress feel of the character, and it also helps to create a contrast between her and Ichabod: heart and head. The sweet colors of love with stern colors of logic.

Peach gown

Another notable element of the design is its monochromatic element. Although she is dressed in various colors, most of her designs never mix palettes. The peach dress (seen above) is constructed in a varying palette of peach, but it has no other color. The blue dress (seen below) is constructed in only blues.

Blue, striped gown

These monochromatic palettes help the cinematography to achieve the look and feel that Burton wants for the movie. It makes it easier to desaturate and still look good.

It's only on rare occasions that a design breaks this rule, and these exceptions are only made when the color in question is red.

Blue cape

Here, the red in the roses shine through the blue. Why's that? Because red is the key color of the movie. I've you watch it again, notice that the only color that doesn't feel like it's almost black and white is the crimson red of the blood. This color is the only element that it's allowed to shine through the monochromatic effect. And that is, again, a nod to Hammer Horror films.

The blood used in these movies was very unique, because it was very intense, very fake, for lack of a better word. And it was the only color that shone through their movies. Burton does the same here, and Atwood finds a way to work the same idea into her designs.

Last but not least, is the progression of the designs. As Katrina gets closer to Ichabod and they both start (slowly) to see eye to eye, her designs start to move away from that softness and romanticism. The main element used for that is the patterns of the clothes she wears.

First, her default patterns are more flowery, softer and nature related. For the peach dress (the one she's introduced in) they used embroidered flowers and stems. And for the pink dress (see picture below), they embroidered little pink flowers and soft curves.

Pink gown

But as the plot moves forward and she starts to get closer to Ichabod, more artificial patterns start to show up. Basically, flowers and soft lines are replaced by stripes (a much more Burtonesque element).

Her final gown, the one she wears as she moves to New York with Ichabod is the radical opposite of her initial peach dress; it's a black and white-stripe dress. She is closer to him, and that's how it's visualized.

Black and white striped dress

Compare this final image of the two, with the first time we see them together.

The designs start being completely opposite and end up in perfect symbiosis. It's the best way to show visually that the two characters have come together.


Dressing the villain is almost as fun as dressing the ladies. And so, when the villain is a fabulous lady villain, the possibilities are endless.

Katrina's stepmother is also a witch, but not the good king of witch. More like the vengeful witch type. Hers is a rag to riches story, having lived with her twin sister in the woods as a child, she became a maid at the Van Tassel's home, and when Katrina's mother died, she found her way into her father's bed. All those elements are weaved one way or another into the costumes.

It's important to remark that, even though none of the designs of the movie is exactly accurate (historically speaking), her designs are the most anachronistic. But this is done in order to accentuate her character and her role in the movie, so it doesn't really bother me. Her whole look is meant to look over the top.

Her designs tend to be grander than life; bigger shapes, brighter colors... Just look at the neckline in the dress shown above. It's theatrical.

This also helps accentuate the sense that she wasn't born to riches; the designs are tackier, bolder, something a wealthy woman (like Katrina) would never wear. It's based on the need to show off how rich you are.

Her dresses tend to integrate black with more vivid colors, creating patterns like those of a spider-web and creating an aura of strangeness around her. It's like the web of darkness and deceit that she is casting over the town.

This is taken to the extreme with her final gown; the black and white gown.

This is not a historical dress, at all. It's, in spirit, a very romantic design: it's fluffy, and big and so over the top... But that's what the character needs, it's her big reveal as the movie's villain, it had to be memorable. It had to be unique.

The design isn't based on Georgian fashion (as it should, according to the time period) but around the paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites.

Sidonia Von Bork (1860, Edward
Vanity (1907, Frank Cadogan) 

The design takes the web idea and carries it to the extreme: the black net becomes this all surrounding web of darkness that ends up eating her alive (much the same way that the horseman ends up dragging her to hell).


In the end, the most important element of the designs of this movie is the gothic element, so characteristic of Burton's work. And so that's the only guideline that really matters; not historical accuracy.

Everything in the frame needs to be according to the gothic vision of the director, and so the costume design focuses solely to work in that direction.


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  1. Thank you so much, for such an amazing blog. I enjoyed every single part of it.


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