How Costume Helped Oprah Winfrey, Mindy Kaling and Reese Witherspoon Turn Into the Fantastical, Magical Mrs. in 'A Wrinkle in Time'

Oscar-nominated costume designer Paco Delgado also discusses dressing newcomer Storm Reid in her breakout role.
By Fawnia Soo Hoo ,

It may have taken 54 years, but Madeleine L'Engle's young adult novel A Wrinkle in Time will finally hit the big screen on Friday, March 9 in an already groundbreaking and history-making way. The epic fantasy sci-fi film is helmed by "Selma" and "13th" director Ava Duvernay with an emphasis on diversity of all levels, led by star-in-the-making Storm Reid as broody, STEM-gifted Meg Murry, who traverses the universe to find her scientist father (Chris "Steve Trevor" Pine). A trifecta of powerhouse multi-hyphenates embody the magical, other-worldly The Mrs., who help Meg along the way: mega-mogul (and the People's President) Oprah Winfrey; writer, producer, director and actress Mindy Kaling; and TV and film producer, actress and Draper James founder Reese Witherspoon.

Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon) and Meg (Storm Reid) on Uriel. Photo: Atsushi Nishijima/Disney

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With such a tall — like Mrs. Which-level tall — order to bring the pages of the magical, science-driven and ultimately empowering childhood classic to life, breathtaking costumes played an integral part of the ambitious storytelling. (Spoiler: They are spectacular.) So Fashionista jumped on the phone with costume designer Paco Delgado, who received Oscar nods for "The Danish Girl" and "Les Misérables," to find out why The Mrs. gowns are essentially haute couture creations, what experimental and surprising materials went into building the costumes and how many people it took to help Winfrey into her sculptural works of art. Here are the highlights. 

Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey) and Meg. Photo: Atsushi Nishijima/Disney

Mrs. Which, played by Winfrey, is the most powerful and she doesn't fully materialize. How did you express her dynamism through her costumes? 

This movie was really different work than I normally do. [I was] working with characters who are not from planet Earth and I had look at them in a very different way. Normally, I would take a lot of references from the real world, like images of powerful women but, in this case, I started in a very abstract way. For Oprah, [the script read] that her character had been a star that was living for very, very many years and then suddenly disintegrated into a supernova. She had been a warrior, supposedly, and she was fighting against the evil forces in the galaxy. I just thought she had to be like pure energy. I was looking at images and abstract ideas, like volcanoes, explosions and the constellations in sky and the way electricity is depicted in images. Then, I thought, she had to be a very metallic character with a lot of reflective materials, reflecting light because she was pure energy. And then we thought about metal and body armor and materials that are not really textiles, but they had to be like crystal and plastics. That was the whole thing: really trying to make a warrior strong silhouette.

Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling) in her feather cape. Photo: Atsushi Nishijima/Disney

I wanted to pause the movie on Mrs. Who (Kaling) to really analyze all the cultural references in her costumes. I noticed the Chinese skirting on her first and the words in different languages ('vida,' 'connaissance,' 'happiness') on another. In what other ways did you incorporate Mrs. Who's cultural knowledge into her costumes?

Mindy's character, Mrs. Who, is always speaking with quotes from books. She's the wisest, in a way, and telling the kids how to think about how they have to behave. I thought that she was the biggest guardian of the culture in the universe and then she became, for me, a super librarian, like a person who has collected all the knowledge that we had in the universe. Then, I thought about books; how the structure of books are, how they take layers of sheets of paper to build to a book. You can feel in the costumes. The constant idea of layers on top of the other. 

I also thought she was so cultured and clever and empathetic, she had to have influences from all the cultures in the world. I drew inspiration from Chinese traditional costumes and materials, from Japanese kimonos, from graffiti street artists, from Colombian embroidery and from African themes. I looked at Ghanaian artist El Anatsui [who creates sculptures out of recycled materials and metals]. We used much more man-made materials, but, at the same time, paper from books. Some of her costumes are made from pieces of paper, [like a multi-colored pannier skirt, while another layered pannier includes denim, wool and metallic textures]. For a cape made with feathers in one of her first costumes (above), I was thinking, in the universe, they don't have feathers. But because she's this sort of librarian, she knows how feathers look. So then we printed and cut feathers on silver foil and applied it.

Mrs. Whatsit's bed sheet dress. Photo: Atsushi Nishijima/Disney

Mrs. Whatsit (Witherspoon) is the youngest of the Mrs. and she has very imaginative looks, like the ruched bed sheet-inspired dress on Earth and the orange and blue gown she wears to transform into the flying creature on Uriel. Where did you pull  inspiration for her?

For Whatsit, she was the most empathetic with the kids. She was very playful and funny. In beginning, she's supposed to be stealing bed linens from the houses and instead of wrapping a piece of bed linen around her, I just thought to make it much more sculptural. For all the ruching, I was thinking a lot of Balenciaga dresses and how we were draping things on mannequin to see how the shapes would wear. Also, she comes from a planet called Uriel, which is a real ecological paradise, like green prairies with flowers and butterflies and all that. I was thinking of all these elements, like butterflies, flowers, plants, even birds. I also looked at tails of goldfishes, how they move into the water, and trying to incorporate theses movements into her clothes.

Meg's outfit for the majority of the movie is quintessential American teenager. How do her pink sneakers, jeans and t-shirt tell her story?

I think this movie has two different levels: One level is a reality and how people live on Earth and how we dress ourselves in everyday situations. We just wanted to dress her in a normal daily situation. I think the whole strength in the story is that she is a normal girl that encounters particular problems. At the same time she has to be a quintessential, normal girl, she also has to journey into another world; getting strength from herself and believing in herself. That was the whole idea behind Meg's look, just to dress her in a normal set of clothes to get a contrast with this fantastical world with The Mrs. and the other characters that were populating the universe.

From left to right: Mrs. Who, Calvin (Levi Miller), Mrs. Which, the Happy Medium (Zach Galifianakis), Meg, Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe) and Mrs. Whatsit. Photo: Atsushi Nishijima/Disney

What were the biggest challenges in creating the costumes for The Mrs. out of so many interesting and unexpected materials?

I really have enjoyed working on this project because the biggest opportunity —  especially, obviously, with The Mrs. — was to find so many different people to work for us [to create the costumes], like, people embroidering, hand-painting on the clothes, creating the fabrics and the pleating. It was a really amazing process and, in a way, I feel we were doing couture dresses, like couture quality. We had these Armenian ladies, for example, embroidering and beading on the fabric. We found this pleater who was making all these amazing pleats for some of Oprah's costumes, and then we found people who were laser-cutting fabric. It was many different people from all sort of different backgrounds. It was a very interesting process because we were experimenting a lot [with techniques] we hadn't done before. It was like great, like finding people [specializing in] 3D printing — almost like minerals embroidered on a skirt for Oprah. It was amazing — really, really amazing. Happens once in your life.

'And you get a tesseract!' Photo: Photo: Atsushi Nishijima/Disney

What was it like for you to work with Oprah and dress her in these incredibly ornate and couture-level gowns?

The thing is, at the beginning, when you work with people like Oprah, they have such magnetic and important personas. Before I met her, I was thinking 'Oh my god, that's so scary to meet somebody like her and if I show her [the costumes], maybe she won't like anything and then, my god, I will get, like, depressed.' But then, I met her and she is such an amazing person. At the end of the day, she loved everything. She had to endure so many [inconveniences] because those costumes were heavy and difficult to wear. It was difficult to get dressed. Sometimes you have to have four people at the same time dressing her. Sometimes she couldn't sit properly when she had the costume on. The three of them were were really, really amazing. They were very, very pro the costumes. Never, ever — not even a hint that they would complain. It was great. They really are amazing professionals in everything.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

'A Wrinkle in Time' opens in theaters on Friday, March 9. 

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