The Look Of “Lincoln”: Portrait Of The President As A Vulnerable Man

How costume designer Joanna Johnston and production designer Rick Carter worked separately but harmoniously to bring the face on the penny to life onscreen.


Abraham Lincoln was a tall man–six-foot-four. And that’s without his top hat.


While he could be imposing he also had a brittle vulnerability, both of which come through in Daniel Day-Lewis’ acclaimed portrayal in Lincoln (which opened in more cities last weekend). The actor’s performance was aided by the talents of costume designer Joanna Johnston, who became obsessed with the details–from the texture of his top hat to the sheen of his pocket watch–that can make history feel authentic and alive onscreen. The veteran designer says she was inspired to delve deep by the arc of movies she has worked on with Stephen Spielberg: Saving Private Ryan, War of the Worlds, Munich, and War Horse were, in her words, “War, war, war, war.”

So rather than going back to the same well again, Johnson got specific about the Civil War and its colors and textures. Rich shades of brown, black and, of course, blue and gray, drove the design of costumes for scores of men who were fighting and governing at the end of the War Between the States. And what gave the concept shape was a keen attention to silhouettes. Even the poster for the movie shows Lincoln as we have long seen him, in profile. But it’s not only in close-up that moviegoers witness the contours of his figure again and again, sometimes through drapes that partly obscure him, and often shrouded in a blanket-like shawl that was, Johnston says, true to the real man. “Lincoln did wear a shawl,” she reports, citing the president’s modest background. “He was often dressed inappropriately: He didn’t have a topcoat, he wasn’t interested in clothes, he wasn’t a particularly well man.”

Reinforcing Lincoln’s vulnerability, the character cloaks himself in these shawls at moments of deep thought and inner turmoil. “Daniel did a wrappy style with the shawl that had nothing to do with me,” Johnston says, “and it was rather brilliant.”

Of course, costumes exist on a set and the drapes found in recessed windows were used as a framing device that was dressed by the production design team, led by Rick Carter, another Spielberg veteran who has worked often with Johnston, including on films directed by Robert Zemeckis. “We joke that we don’t talk,” says Carter of his colleague. “I know that I messed her up once.” He proceeds to explain a scene in Death Becomes Her, in which he realized at the last moment that the set “looked awful,” so he changed the color of the walls. But he didn’t inform the costume designer. “I had this purplish gray background; she had this peach-colored uniform,” he says of a scene involving characters played by Meryl Streep and Isabella Rossellini. “It wasn’t terrible,” he hedges.

Johnston chimes in: “It was absurd.”


“You’d think that would lead to us talking more,” says Carter, who’s obviously fond of Johnston. “We never talk, but I know to make sure that Jim the set decorator knows what Joanna is doing.”

“Rick is a rudder for me,” says Johnston. “I was quite tired from War Horse and another film when I came onto Lincoln, and I was just concerned with getting the whole thing done.” So she turned to her friend. “Rick is a steadying force for me. We’d sit for an hour and he’d say, Just focus on what matters.”

“Sometimes history is broad,” Carter explains, referring perhaps to War Horse. “It’s horizontal, more of a landscape. In this case,” he says of Lincoln, “it’s a portrait.”

Essential to that portrait is one of the few significant female characters in the film, Mary Todd Lincoln, played by Sally Field. In an emotionally significant scene (no spoilers here), Mrs. Lincoln is wearing a cream-colored silk gown with green and purple print trimmed with lace. It’s based on two dresses the real First Lady wore. Johnston came upon them while poring over historical photos of period dresses at the Chicago History Museum. “It’s very feminine, but it’s got these dark stripes,” says Johnston, who thought of the dress as an echo of the quality of her character. “She’s got such internal strength, she’s so resolute.”

“That’s how her brain works,” Carter says of Johnston. “She picked those two points of reference and brought them together [in one dress].”


Together these two designers take into account various interpretations that drive their decisions in nearly every scene. In fact, Carter sees symbolism and echoes of Lincoln’s character in his shawls: “The shawl makes him Gandhi.” Though the Indian leader came later, it’s a reference that moviegoers know, even unconsciously, from the Academy Award-winning 1982 biopic. It might even spawn a trend. At the end of the interview, this writer mentions to Carter and Johnston that a Facebook friend saw Lincoln and posted that she was “ready to rock the blanket-as-coat look.”

Johnston smiles. “I like that,” she says.

[Images Courtesy of Dreamworks]

About the author

Ari Karpel is a frequent contributor to Fast Company and Co.Create and an instructor at UCLA Extension. His writing about culture, creativity and celebrity has also appeared in The New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, Men's Health, The Advocate and Tablet.