Period Perfect: Tulip Fever’s Costume Designer Michael O’Connor

Michael O’Connor is known for crafting lavish, imaginative wardrobe rich in uncompromising details. For his latest historical drama, Tulip Fever, starring Alicia Vikander and Christoph Waltz, the Oscar-winning costume designer’s intricate talents played a critical role in capturing the film’s historic ambience. An adaptation of Deborah Moggach’s 1999 novel, the film is set against the backdrop of 17th-century Amsterdam, during the peak of the Dutch tulip mania, and sees Vikander, unhappily married to one of the richest men in the city (Waltz), engage in a passionate love affair with a man commissioned to paint her portrait (Dane DeHaan). Here, O’Connor discusses the films major wardrobe moments.

How did you begin to dream up costumes that captured 17th-century Amsterdam?
“You start by meeting with the production designer and looking at images. The great thing is that this is the Golden Age in Amsterdam, with all the great painters like Frans Hals and Anthony van Dyck. There were thousands of painters painting there, so there is a massive amount of material. We found lots of references and put them on mood boards. Then I sketched something up.”

How did you go about developing Alicia Vikander’s character, Sophia, throughout the film?
“The idea for Sophia was strong looks done in typical Dutch fashion when she goes to be Cornelis’ wife because he and his family are dressing her. As the affair progresses, the clothes become more revealing: her collars and caps start going, and her dresses become less strict and robust. At the end, she’s in a bodice with a simple, more demure costume.”

What were some key elements in the costumes for Christoph Waltz’s character, Cornelis?
“Cornelis and Sophia are rich Protestant merchants. That meant including the colour black and big ruffs. You’d think he was wearing plain black, but it was black silks with textures, and often the fabric was even cut through to show pink lining underneath. There was a class to the fabric, because to dye a fabric black [in those days] showed a sign of wealth. It was a difficult three-step process. For the ruffs, I met with some old colleagues of mine from The School of Historical Dress who were doing classes on ruff making. Ruffs were a huge industry in Amsterdam, keeping them clean and making them stiff involved multiple steps, so you paid people to do it. People were displaying their wealth by wearing them around their necks.”

What types of colours and patterns did you concentrate on and why?
“There’s a scene where Cornelis and Sophia are together wearing these linen nightshirts with tulip embroidery. It was important to do because that was a form of embroidery people used on their linens called blackwork. If you look closely at old portraits, you’ll see linen creeping out from a dress or a doublet with this specific embroidery. I was also interested in pinks and oranges. They seemed to compliment all the black quite well.”

How many costumes did you have to make?
“I never count, but I’m sure we probably made around 50 principal character costumes, 25 nun costumes, and 35 orphan girls. And there would have been probably 500 extras costumes that were hired. We had two-and-half months before we started shooting, and continued to make costumes while filming.”

Tell us about your team.
“I had a couple assistants, a costume supervisor, and a team of 20 to 25 costume dressers. There was a workroom with a cutter who cuts all the patterns, and under her were 8 people. Then there were costume houses that were making things under my designs, and also outworkers around the world making linens for the ruffs, collars, and cuffs. I worked with a dealer in Turkey who supplied a lot of the material for the clothes and jewellery, and shoemakers in Italy. We also hired extras costumes from Spain and Italy. Every day there was a big crowd.”

Michael O’Connor behind the scenes with actor David Harewood.

How does working on a period film differ from working on a contemporary production?
“A lot of work and detail go into historical work. You have to manufacture everything from the colour of the thread to the size of buttonholes, hooks, and bars. You’re constantly feeling the weights of fabrics to see if they’re right for the draping. They’re very time consuming and expensive. In modern films, sometimes the answers are right in a shop.”

What’s it’s like for you to go sit in a theatre and watch a film you’ve worked so hard on?
“You always try for 100 percent, so it’s quite difficult and personal. You’re critical of your own work and think, “Maybe that could have been longer or shorter or less this or less that.” On the whole, it’s exciting, and the rest of the team is genuinely like, “Wow, amazing!” For Tulip Fever, Deborah Moggach was in the film as an extra, and it was great having her look at the costumes and hear her say, “They look wonderful!” I was really pleased about that.”

Do you have any favourite looks from the film?
“I liked doing Holliday Grainger and Jack O’Connell’s characters’ clothes. But my favourite things were the ruffs. They were such a beautiful learning process. We’d send them to the starch room to decide their shape, and they’d come back stiff like a cake. And wearing them, you felt like you were in that time. Doing historical things is part of the pleasure—you’re reliving history a little.”