The Lord of the Rings world is enormous and thought out in great detail. It must have been incredibly difficult for the writer to think of so many different cultures, characters, names, and interactions.
It was even harder to bring all that detail on screen, especially because the production team wanted to represent the books truthfully. Costume designer Ngila Dickson shared some behind-the-scenes stories and the wardrobe secrets that brought the LOTR world to life.
And the fantastic thing about the LOTR world is that even the actors wanted to get involved in wardrobe design or repair. That tells us how wonderful the books we all grew up with are.
It was clear from the start that bringing the various cultures and races on-screen would involve a lot of camera trickery. That meant size doubles, stunt doubles, and body doubles - and they all needed outfits.
Dickson illustrates the process: “The very first thing that you have to do is you've got to break out that script and work out how many costumes are going to be required."
"So that meant that we had to make the lead actor's costume ten times, and then we had to make the body double's costume ten times, and then we had to make the mini-me costume ten times, and then we had to make the stunt double's costumes. So there are about 40 costumes of that one design”
Viggo Mortensen spoke to Wired about his role in The Lord of The Rings, and about the rumors that he "lived in his costume" during filming. He explained: "I did go fishing in costume during lunch breaks when we were in more remote areas during the shoot and did tramp around in the forest a little, but I did not live in the woods in costume as some have reported."
But he did have a much larger part to play in the creation of his outfit. As he described: "I was permitted by costume designer Ngila Dickson to keep the costume during the start of filming just to break it in, and later helped break in bits of subsequent costumes."
"Not that unusual a thing, really, providing the actor is responsible, and the designer feels comfortable with that. The costume department also allowed me to do some mending of the costume from time to time, as Strider himself would have done."
The massive The Lord of the Rings production also implies the fantastic output of the costume division. Some sources say the team produced 18,000 costumes; there are rumors of 15 copies of Gandalf's cloak.
Of the nine different civilizations we see in the trilogy, the average number of unique garments per each culture is about 150. Ngila Dickson says: "On a project of this size and scope you have to design what you believe in, and on this film, there wasn't a day in the 274 days of shooting that the costumes didn't look and feel real."
"The less people notice the details of the costume, the better job we did, in a sense because that means the costumes have helped to completely absorb you in the story."
Peter Owen worked on hair and makeup for numerous Hollywood productions, but he still considers LOTR as his greatest challenge. As he stated in 2002:
"If they rang me up now to say, "Will you do Lord of the Rings?" I would say, "No, we are not capable of doing it." But we did it."
"It was like organizing World War III. They were shooting in never less than three places simultaneously."
"We had six weeks to prepare everything, which was ridiculous. We had to design the makeup and create more than 100 new wigs and teach everyone how to put them on."
"[But] there was no time for panic. We had to make quick decisions and give the director what he wanted." Peter Jackson wanted to give Gandalf a 3-foot-long beard.
"I told him that it would be unworkable, that Ian would not be able to act freely or move about without getting tangled up," Owen stated. "Eventually he saw that and I just cut a foot or more of it off. The beard had to be part of Ian's character, not a caricature."
Dickson talked about their process: "When we developed the Smeagol outfit, both Andy and I kept working on ideas, which was fabulous because you actually get to understand who he is, and it gave Andy the chance to think it through."
"There is something about him that is slightly vain, that little neckerchief that he wears... it comes back to starting to let the audience know beforehand that there is something about Smeagol that isn't as endearing as a hobbit."
Serkis adds, "Given that his family were a fishing culture, we worked out that he'd have little bits of shells and fish hooks and things that meant something to him, and bits of things he'd found and dug up. But again, trying to retain the status of the character, I was trying to find ways of making him slightly more wealthy looking."
"[The neckerchief] it was kind of slightly spotted and it sort of dandified him in some way."
Regarding the wizard gowns of Saruman and Gandalf, Ngila Dickson describes how her crew made them look genuinely lived-in: "We've really aged this costume down."
"It's quite extreme at times that we've actually sort of put quite a bit of life into that breakdown. You can see it's starting to get ever so slightly threadbare in places and, again, looking for elements that we're going to create that sense of age."
"He's been a wizard for a long time... The idea was that [Gandalf] needed to look like he never took this costume off. He liked that idea of bits of twig and leaf caught up in it."
Ian McKellen agreed: "I was always concerned that there should be mud on the fringes of the long robe, and if he'd been riding that there should be splattered mud further up the costume," the actor explains.
His sorcerer co-star Christoper Lee approves. "[Saruman's robe] wouldn't be brilliant glowing white; it couldn't be after thousands of years, or hundreds of years," he says."
"So they were very clever there. They said it must look not exactly shabby but worn."
After making hundreds of wizard robes, hobbit pants, and ragged ranger clothes, it's not hard to see why crew members longed for more female roles for Dickson to create for. "I think she liked having a chance to dress the girls," Otto said.
Dickson's explains: "Yes, it was very much the relief for the wardrobe department to make some very beautiful dresses... The girls in the wardrobe department have actually hand stitched all of [the] embroidery, hours and hours and hours of work and these huge sleeves they just drop right back so [Arwen's] arm will suddenly appear quite naked on screen and it's incredibly sensual."
Dickson constantly tributes the movie's costumers: "The amount of people that have worked on every dress from cutter to dyer to embroiderers [to nights] at four o'clock in the morning when there would be five people stitching each corner of a dress in order to get it finished in time... I just can't imagine just how much everyone has given in to it..."
While creating the outfit for Denethor, the guardian of Gondor, Dickson's main issue was how to make him "menacing" and "heading to the edge of sanity." She explains the process:
"We wanted to make him vain and expensive. To make him look like he is wearing the most luscious of fur pelts and velvets and embroidery and just making it as grandiose as I possibly could, without resorting to color."
"And then, of course, adding in the chainmail... The vanity of the man that he imagined himself as a soldier of any kind that was what fascinated me the most about that character."
John Noble, who depicted Denethor in the movie, says: "Putting it on was a weight but then after a while you'd forget about it, but then when I took it off in the evening it would be floaty, that was how heavy it was."
The costume department had a difficult task of making the Elves tangible, but also otherworldly. Ngila Dickson discusses the process:
“With the elves, I wanted the Rivendell elves to feel different to the Lothlorien elves. How we went about that was a slight color shift; there's a bit more color around the Rivendell elves than the Lothlorien elves..."
"What I was looking for was the sense that these people were not of this Earth, this Middle-earth. We wanted the sense that these people sort of floated through the landscape."
"So I hung all the elf costumes off the tops of their bodies, giving them as much length as I possibly could to accentuate this idea that these elves were much taller than man..."
Galadriel is the "the ultimate elf." In explaining the outfit choices for Cate Blanchett, the artist who plays Galadriel, Dickson explains:
“She is our most white, our most beautiful, our most elegant, and most of Cate's dresses have this very, very slight drape around the neckline and again these really huge sleeves. [A] lack of jewelry other than what are considered important pieces to the story. [We] use the most glorious beaded fabrics that we could get our hands on.”
Saruman the White is portrayed in the books as having magnificent white robes that feature a prism of all the colors shining a white light. Of course, on camera that would appear like disco clothes form the '70s.
"The concept behind this costume was to give it as many textures as we possibly could because when you've got a character who's called Saruman the White and he's going to be in white robes [you need] to get some sense of definition happening to that costume," Dickson explains.
"So the way we went about it was to use different textures in the fabrics themselves. So whether it's the linens and this underneath piece, the incredible brocades... We went to a silk which has got quite a lot of pattern in it..."
Hobbits are farmers, gardeners, brewers, and bakers - and their clothes were made to reflect their dedication to the land and the Shire.
Still, the hobbit clothing was not without eccentricities: "I added a lot of quirks, things to jar the eye," the designer explains. "Their trouser legs and sleeves are too short, their buttons are too big, and their collars are out of proportion. "
"I even made their pockets higher than usual for example, so when they put their hands in their pockets it has a very distinctive, funny look to us."
“What we wanted was a much more virile Gandalf, and it was certainly how Ian McKellen viewed the character in this guise. [He] wanted to be able to fight, he wanted to be able to move."
"What we didn't want was the volume in the costume that we had had in Gandalf the Grey. The other thing that I wanted to do was to impart a little more elven quality, so that we had a sense of him being part one foot in another world. "
"We used some very beautiful fabrics in this... again, they're quite subtle, and the immediate version to the eye of this is just a cream costume, but it has a lot more happening than that.”
In an interview, Ian McKellen said he was amazed by the detail and work that went into his robe. "This remarkably embroidered gown can never be seen! There's no point in doing it other than making me believe as I put them on that they're real clothes, which I do."
One of the trickiest things for the wardrobe division was keeping up with the busy schedule throughout several locations while continuous rewrites were made, generating new characters and clothes to be created. Miranda Otto, who played Eowyn, couldn’t believe how efficient they were.
"Ngila [Dickson] would be whipping things up in about three days and [they] actually turned into gorgeous frocks!" she says in the behind-the-scenes features. "I don't know how she does it."
But even with the furious schedule and endless adjustments, Dickson remembers it whit a smile on her face: “We had already filmed a scene of Eowyn in the eggshell blue coat with the big fur collar, and then Peter wanted to shoot a scene earlier, so we needed to show the dress that was underneath this cloak..."
"It was a chance to try a very different medieval design style that has a sort of separate embroidered front piece. That turned out to be a really beautiful and very delicate dress, and I remember the premiere and I remember thinking as that scene came up,"
"Oh my god, this is classic Peter; it's just a head shot." No point in having any ego when it comes to these things.”
The coronation scene at the end of the trilogy gave the wardrobe crew the opportunity to finally make gorgeous dresses and jewelry. Dickson said: “I had done this portrait of Liv wearing the coronation crown, which was based on the idea of a butterfly, and [I] had to have the hanging jewels."
And my reason for that was that I wanted to frame her ears. [It] was all about highlighting those fabulous little elfen ears."
" [Writer and producer Fran Walsh] said that her and Peter would really like Arwen to be in green at the coronation, and so the mission of my dye house was to keep dying me up pieces of fabric in every possible shade of green until I fell in love with one of them."
[Finally] we found that green [and] it did all the things that I needed it to. It had enough blue in it to bring out the blue in Liv's eyes; it had enough yellow in it to ensure that it was still going to be green; [and] it was soft enough to allow me to believe in it as a coronation gown.”