Johnston said that Field, to completely throw herself into the character of Mary Todd Lincoln, gained weight for the role. A pretty big amount of weight. The dresses cinch to the waist, then puff out, filled underneath the skirt with layers of petticoats in a style popular during the 1860s. They’re vibrant and loud.
“The thing about Mary Todd is she’s very fussy, so you can lay quite a lot on, and it still doesn’t look too much on her,” said Johnston. Field would have two fittings or more with each dress. It could take a week to ten days to construct each one.
Half of them, from a cream dress with black stripes and flower accents, decorated in the middle with a light pink corsage patterned after two of Mary Todd’s dresses fused together, to a gorgeous electric blue one with black stripes lined in black ruffle lace at the top and bottom, have boat necklines, while the other half have high necklines with more conservative beige lace collars. They’re all made out of different silks. Mary Todd Lincoln, apparently, had a soft build, and loved colors such as blues, violets, pinks, creams, her “heartbeat colors,” Johnston said. So she channeled them into clothes for Field, with a big mid-century shape for the dresses.
“Sally is the same height as Mary Todd, but she’s a completely different build. She very sportingly agreed to put on quite a lot of weight. She just ate solidly for several months until we got her to the diameter in the waist that Mary Todd was. She just filled out,” said Johnston. “Sally’s much finer boned. Mary Todd’s arms are much chubbier than Sally’s. She was amazing in this. Like Daniel, she was totally available. I created more fittings with her than probably I’ve ever done with an actress. Getting the look just so, this stuffed silhouette that Mary Todd had, this essence of her, and have it believable. She was a great trouper, putting on weight, wearing corsets. They do give a lovely shape.”
Johnston and her team reached out all the way to the Middle East to get some materials for Field’s dresses. For one dress, they were five yards short for a row of bottom lace.
“We had it copied, and sent a piece to Pakistan, and there are these brilliant embroiders in Pakistan who I work with, and they created the extra piece to fill in where we were short,” Johnston said, who added that she didn’t actually go there. “I sent them a foot wide piece and they copied it.”
As for Mary Todd Lincoln’s lavish blingy jewelry, it would have been too much to re-create everything, so she concentrated on remaking one beautiful set, which is stored in the Library of Congress. It’s a pearl necklace with connected rounded, domed sections, plus matching cuffs and a broach, earrings. For any lover of jewelry (this writer included), the pieces jump out on Field in every scene she wears them. A jewelry designer in England, Martin Adams, re-created the set.
“One day I would love this set to sit alongside the original, in an exhibition,” Johnston said.
NEXT: Johnston on Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln