Wednesday Addams is one of cinema’s most lovable misanthropes, at once the outré patron saint of sadism, but also an intensely relatable character experiencing teen angst like the rest of us. We’ve seen her burn down a summer camp, play with an antenna during a thunderstorm, and even shoot an arrow at an apple in her brother’s mouth—and we love her for it.
We first caught glimpses of Wednesday Addams in the cartoons of famed illustrator Charles Addams in The New Yorker in 1938, and over the next 50 years, the character went through several iterations of film, television, and stage adaptations, culminating in perhaps the most memorable Christina Ricci performance in The Addams Family (1991) and Addams Family Values (1993). That is, until now, when Jenna Ortega takes her turn as the beloved antihero in Netflix’s new adaptation, Wednesday, directed by goth master Tim Burton and premiering on November 23.
It’s been more than 80 years since the world first met Wednesday Addams, and in that time, her look—as severe as her character—has changed surprisingly very little: black hair, often in very straight pigtails, and a perverse black schoolgirl dress with a contrasting white Peter Pan collar. The Wednesday we see in this new Netflix adaptation, however, reaches new levels of complexity and Gen Z style—in no small part because of the work of costume design superstar and Academy Award winner Colleen Atwood, whose credits include Sleepy Hollow (1999), Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007), Into the Woods (2014), Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (2018), and 2023’s forthcoming The Little Mermaid remake with Halle Bailey.
We catch up with Atwood to learn more about her process, how collaborating with Burton over the years has changed the way she sees the color black, and how she gave this new version of Wednesday a sense of levity and relatability in what at first blush appears to be a dark, twisted character.
How did you approach inventing, or perhaps reinventing, this character who we’ve seen so many times?
It all started with the familiar Wednesday that we all know—with the little black dress. We made the collar a little more pointed, but the idea was to do an homage everyone would be familiar with. The series is set against the unusual backdrop of a bright, colorful American school, so she was immediately set apart from that by that look. So when we see her at school, that’s her uniform. But in her downtime, we were able to update her look and go a bit deeper into the character.
What kind of additions did you make?
In one of the early fittings, someone from hair and makeup had the great idea of putting freckles on her. It was this simple, genius thing, and we also did bangs with the braids. It’s a new look for Wednesday—much less cliché in a way. She’s always kind of had braids, but they were very tight, Victorian pigtail things, and we softened and contemporized it with those ideas. It also makes the character more vulnerable in a different way.
There’s a lot of black in these costumes, which can look rather flat onscreen, but the costumes you designed have a great visual depth to them. How did you achieve that?
Finding new blacks is always a tricky thing to do, but that’s the beauty of what we get to do. If you take black and give it a little something so that under the lighting, it becomes this richer black, it won’t go into this dark hole. Morticia’s dress, for instance, is all black. But I was playing around with this technique in all leather, and I twisted the dress so those side things take the solid black shape to another place and give it more life.
And besides using black that was semi-reflective, I used black with white. There’s almost no solid black that’s used. If a character is in a black jacket, for instance, I pair it with a white shirt underneath so you can see the sleeve peek out at the cuff, so it’s not just a blob of black on the screen.
You are a frequent collaborator of Tim Burton’s, and we often see his characters wearing black and white stripes. I’m thinking of The Nightmare Before Christmas, Beetlejuice, Sleepy Hollow. … There are also some great stripes in the show. Are those a challenge to get right?
When you see Tim’s drawings, he is a very graphic person. I think he just gravitates towards a stripe. I always try to play with it instead of just saying, “Oh, God, stripes again,” and instead trying different aspects and playing with different things to put some art into the stripe. For example, Wednesday’s uniform is gray and black stripes. Initially, I was looking for striped fabric, but it was so flat on camera. I like stripes that are irregular, and I notice that stripes look better on film if you shade them a bit so they’re less relentless. I developed a silk screen for the stripes for her that went from a light to a dark gray, so each stripe contained more than one color, which makes it a less flat surface.
What was the hardest look to get right?
The hardest part was the initial look of Wednesday’s family—paying homage but updating it. Morticia’s dress took me a minute. I made it in three or four different fabrics before I ended up. She’s what we call a “one-er,” because she only wears one costume onscreen.
Morticia’s hair is so striking onscreen, but looks quite lifelike. Was that wig a process?
Wigs are always a process. In that case, the wig was pretty close in the first test, but we ended up making it straighter and thinning it out and making it look less wiggy, because in the humidity, the wig kept wanting to expand. The last thing you need in a shot is a big black wig.
How much of the costumes were created, and how much did you source from vintage or from costume houses, so forth?
The principle costumes I created, but I sourced a lot of vintage for the world around Wednesday. I pulled odd pieces from the ’60s and ’70s, more contemporary stuff. I didn’t want it to feel Victorian. My inspiration for Gwendoline Christie’s character was Tippi Hedren in The Birds. She’s just so fabulous that I wanted to do something special—so I decided on this pistachio suit.
What was your favorite costume you “got right” for Wednesday?
There is a party dress that comes later in the season; it’s an Alaïa I found on a mannequin on Bond Street in London. I made my assistant put it on in the store. It’s this fabric that moves and does its job in such a great way, that you usually see on dance costumes. It has these sheer layers that have so much life, so it doesn’t just hang there like a chiffon dress. It moves really beautifully.
Lucky teenager that she gets to wear Alaïa to the prom!
Indeed. That she allegedly buys in a thrift store. That dress came from the Bond Street Alaïa store.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
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