How Johnny Depp Brought To Life Alice In Wonderland’s Mad Hatter

The Top Hat of Hatters and my personal friend Chad Evett is back to share with us another compelling peak through the looking glass. This time, he breaks down Johnny Depp’s iconic Mad Hatter costume (on which he has a Master Milliner’s worth of knowledge) and examines how the famed actor used the attire to embody one of the best known characters in literature.

Of all the characters from Alice in Wonderland, perhaps the most memorable and recognizable is none other than the Mad Hatter. He has been featured on merchandise, been replicated in media, and has been the symbol of High Tea the world over. He’s been a rock singer, a villainous clockmaker, a bodyguard and an assassin. In Lewis Carroll’s original novel, the character is referred to simply as “the Hatter.’’ He’s the only Male Human character Alice meets (all others are either animals or playing cards,) and has a small cameo as a pun in ‘Through the Looking Glass.”

In 2010, director Tim Burton sought to recreate the denizens of wonderland with his own signature style. It was natural that he would offer the role to famed actor Johnny Depp—with whom Burton has collaborated on numerous films from Edward Scissorhands (1990,) Sleepy Hollow (1999) and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005,) and Sweeney Todd: the demon barber of fleet street (2009.) There are more but if you don’t already know what they are google is your friend!

Hatters in the 19th century were victims of the terrible work conditions that existed before unions. As such, the materials and the chemicals that were required in the process of hat making were incredibly toxic. Glue had very high mercury content, the fumes of which caused milliners to acquire “mad hatter syndrome,” the symptoms of which included slurred speech, tremors, irritability, depression, as well as a myriad of other issues. Their eyes would be sunken, and in extreme causes their hair would take on a fried look and the skin on the hand would crack and peel.

Depp as a consummate performer is notorious for coming to the table with research. Famed makeup artist and Oscar winner Ve Neill collaborated with Johnny on characters such as Scissorhands, Jack Sparrow, and Sweeney Todd (among others). “Johnny came in with ideas in his head, thoughts on who these people could be, and he’s a wonder with collaboration,” she said. The Hatter was no different.

“I thought his emotions should be very near the surface, like a human mood ring. I started seeing the guy…” Both Burton and Depp, independently of each other, did watercolors and drawings of who the hatter could be. “We compared our notes,” said Depp, “And they weren’t far off. Tim is halfway around the world doing his own drawings and they weren’t dissimilar.”

Depp’s hatter appears to have the hallmarks of mercury poisoning, but almost as if it’s been put through a Wonderlandian lens. Bleached white skin coupled with fantastically orange hair, frizzed to perfection. His eyes are outlined in corals, blues, pinks and greens—framed with white lashes and punctuated with vibrantly green eyes. “I wanted him to have electrified kind of eyes, as if the mercury—the madness—is coming out of them. We also had one pupil painted ever so slightly off. So, he’s never looking right at you.” Said Depp, “he’s always looking a little further.”

Patti York was the makeup artist tasked with translating the elements if Burton and Depp’s ideas into reality. “After all the pieces come together, and the costume goes on,” she said, “the transformation is complete. He is the Mad Hatter.”

The Mad Hatter’s Combative Blue Coat

Multi Oscar winning costume designer and textile rockstar Colleen Atwood was the magician who redefined the look of a Milliner in war-torn Wonderland. “His coat changes color based on his mood, so we made multiples.” She said, “his coat is made from a silk, with layers of sheer silk on top that we burned away to create a shifting effect.” This particular garment had five iterations in the film, ranging from depressed grey to a bright combative blue. In flashbacks his coat is teal, and when he attends high tea, it sits a deep chocolate brown.

The Mad Hatter’s Chocolate Brown Coat

“His tie is a joke tie, when he frowns it wilts down and when he’s happy it perks up like a butterfly” she says with a cheeky smile. On one side his coat has ribbons that can be pulled to make a hat, he was a bandolier of antique silk spools, chainmailled together, and he’s got a clutch of scissors on his hip. We didn’t want his tools off on a shelf somewhere, so we incorporated them into his costume.  We all know Johnny loves a bit of jewelry, he has a pincushion ring, and thimbles on his fingers.”

In the original novel, the hatter laments that he has had a row with Time himself and has been trapped at tea for ages. The costume Atwood devised had elements that reflected this torturous punishment: “He has embroidery on his pants that he may have done when he got bored, and his boots have words scratched in them. Tim {Burton} likes to draw on his shoes so that’s where that came from.”

The Mad Hatter’s Shoes, inspired by Tim Burton’s habit of drawing on his own footwear

The grand centerpiece (and the most difficult to find) of any hatter costume is his Topper. The symbol of the hatter demands respect, and Atwood came to it with gusto. “The original hat was done before we did the sketches, but it was right.” Deep mottled green leather that has been laser-cut with an elaborate almost paisley design; the hat was then embroidered in patches with bright gold embroidery thread. “We ran a blowtorch over it, which gives it its age but also makes it look like it has survived a catastrophic event.” She is referring to the loss of the Hatters family at the hands of a mad Red Queen and her Targaryen-esq malefice the Jabberwocky.

The Mad Hatter’s Centerpiece Hat

It is this loss that fuels the hatters need to aid Alice in the saving of the soul of Wonderland (called Underland in this version,) which adds an entirely new layer to the interpretation of the character. He’s always been seated at tea with the Hare and the Dormouse, and while in the book he remains a guest who showed up and never left (not like he had any options, thanks Time!) he now becomes a loner who is seeking his tribe. In literary history he’s insulting and ride, but here he seeks Alice as a kindred spirit. “Alice and the hatter complete each other. Like a brother and a sister—She is his sanity, and he is her Muchness.”

Lewis Carroll’s work has such a potential for interpretation, and more importantly reinterpretation. One wonders who will be the next great re-imaginer of this eternal work. Who will be the newest performer to personify the madness and morph into the Mad Hatter?

Perhaps the next great performance will be an embodiment of Hatter Madigan himself, but by whom?

Could Tom Hardy Be The Next Mad Hatter?
Could Tom Hardy be the next Mad Hatter?

About The Author

Chad Evett graduated from Santa Fe University of Art and design with a degree in technical theater, with an emphasis on Costumes. He has designed numerous short films, and has worked as a theater director and production designer. His work has been seen on The View, and he has designed shoes for actress Whoopi Goldberg, and Writer/Producer Bryan Fuller.  He lives in Los Angeles and works as a designer and Consulting storyteller (when he isn’t rubbing shoulders with celebrities like Tim Burton!)