Designing Woman

Costume maker to discuss her work in film, theater

  • Michael-Keaton-in-the-bat-suit

    Michael Keaton in the bat suit he wore in Tim Burton's 'Batman' was designed by Burnham.

    Warner Bros.

  • Editor's note: This version corrects that The Ballet Theatre of Toledo fund-raiser featuring costume designer Vinilla "Vin" Burnham is Friday at 6:30 p.m. at the Pinnacle in Maumee.

    Michael Keaton in the bat suit he wore in Tim Burton's 'Batman' was designed by Burnham.
    Michael Keaton in the bat suit he wore in Tim Burton's 'Batman' was designed by Burnham.

    Costumes often are key components of a performer’s and production’s success or failure.

    Consider Michael Keaton’s bat suit in Batman. How would we feel about the Caped Crusader had not donned a sculptured suit, revealing bulging muscles and washboard abs? Then there’s Aslan of C.S. Lewis’ enchanting series The Chronicles of Narnia, which was a convincingly real-looking talking lion. And Lady Gaga’s “living dress” with parts that move, including the headdress, body, and train, making her look like a giant dragonfly.

    Each of those costumes is memorable, and they are just a few of the designs by internationally known costume maker Vinilla “Vin” Burnham, who will visit Toledo and other Ohio sites this week. For anyone unfamiliar with those costumes, there are plenty more in Burnham’s vast array of designs that include more fantasy, science fiction, theater, and film and creations for Jack Nicholson, Michelle Pfeiffer, the Muppets, and Monty Python.

    She will discuss her work in film, theater, opera, ballet, and television in a talk at the Toledo Museum of Art today at 2 p.m. On Friday at 6:30 p.m. she will be the highlight of a fund-raising event to benefit the Ballet Theatre of Toledo at the Pinnacle in Maumee.

    Speaking by phone from her home in Sussex, south of London, Burnham said that her talk, “From Covent Garden to Hollywood,” chronicles her career. “It’s about my work and how it evolved, the history of it, and why things I do are like they are,” she said.

    She also is known for her Little Costume Shop for which she designs costumes at the one-quarter the size of the originals. Burnham might bring two of the them along “If I can get them in the case,” she said.

    Burnham worked a while for Jim Henson, the late creator of the Muppets, making costumes for some of his productions, including Labyrinth and Dark Crystal.

    “I got involved in anamatronic costumes,” she said. “I have always done special-effects costumes. After doing Aslan, I was off to make a bat suit for Batman for Warner Bros. for [director] Tim Burton.”

    Both of Burnham’s parents were actors.

    “So the only thing that I knew anything about was the theater,” she said. “I wasn’t a good student at school or at college. I was not really cut out for very much other than working in the theater, and that led from one thing to another. There was no plan — no master plan at all. I just found that when I started making things, I was good at it and people asked me to do it and some wonderful people who of course were inspiring to me, and I learned an enormous amount from wonderful people.”

    She said she’s always seeking a fresh approach.

    “I like to change what I do. I quite like to move from one thing to another so that I don’t really repeat anything. There is always repetition, techniques, and things similar,” she said. “But I do like to do different things for either different mediums or to combine different skills or different techniques so there is always something fresh.”

    Vanilla Burnham created Lady Gaga's 'living dress' with parts that move.
    Vanilla Burnham created Lady Gaga's 'living dress' with parts that move.

    A variety of sources provide her inspiration.

    “I’m very inspired by a lot of fashion design, but can be equally inspired from nature and from flowers and animals, landscapes, architectures, and people in the streets,” she said.

    Burnham makes good use of her smart phone in her work, too.

    “One of the great things ... is that you can photograph [subjects] without them knowing,” she said, noting that people’s dress provides a wealth of inspiration. “I love eccentrics, as long as they are real and not trying to be eccentric. Very often they are putting themselves together without realizing it and make themselves look amazing.”

    While in Ohio, Burnham will visit Ohio Northern University, Ohio State University, Ottawa Hills High School, and the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music.

    The event at the Pinnacle Friday will include a fashion show displaying work by amateur and professional designers from throughout northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan. Individual tickets are $75 while tables to seat eight cost $550. Contact the Sylvania Area Chamber of Commerce for additional information.

    Contact Rose Russell at: or 419-724-6178.