Since the 1960s, wannabe wizards and hobbits have been whipping up their own robes and frock coats to play in the world of The Lord of the Rings. But in the early 2000s, one very special group of talented seamstresses, embroiderers, dyers, cutters, and designers made that world real, and not just on screen.
Costume designer Ngila Dickson has offered extensive behind-the-scenes stories on the Lord of the Rings wardrobe secrets that brought thousands of costumes - and an entire fantasy world - to life.
Some Costumes Required As Many As 40 Copies To Fit Different-Sized Performers
When The Lord of the Rings went into production, it was clear that bringing the various races and cultures to life on screen - and in the same frame - would require plenty of camera trickery. That meant body doubles, size doubles, and stunt doubles, all of whom needed costumes.
In the making-of appendices of The Fellowship of the Ring, Dickson describes the process of developing the same costume for all the different performers of each character:
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 Repaired His Own Costumes And Props To Stay In Character
Viggo Mortensen was asked by Wired about his role as Aragorn in The Lord of The Rings, and whether it was true that he "lived in his costume" during filming.
Mortensen clarified the situation for the magazine: "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."
However, Mortensen did have a much larger part to play in the creation of his costume beyond just wearing it for fittings. As he explained:
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.
Mortensen added that the property department and Weta Workshop also allowed the actor to modify his hunting bow, quiver, and other tools.
Ngila Dickson Made Over 150 Costumes For Each Of The Nine Different Cultures
Lots of big numbers get thrown around when it comes to the massive production of The Lord of the Rings, and that includes the incredible output of the costume department. Some sources say the crew made 18,000 costumes; there are claims of 15 copies of Gandalf's cloak alone; and of the nine different cultures seen throughout the trilogy, the average number of unique outfits per culture is 150.
But Ngila Dickson says she's less concerned with the numbers and more focused on how the costumes contribute to the production. "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," she explains. "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."
'It Was Like Organizing WWIII'
Peter Owen has designed hair and makeup for countless Hollywood productions, but even after winning an Oscar for his work on the trilogy, he still considers LOTR an insurmountable challenge.
As he explained to The Telegraph 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 make-up 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 initially asked his "Lord of the Rugs" 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 said. "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."