MOZART’S TAILOR: THE CZECH COSTUME DESIGNER WHO WON THE OSCAR AND LOST HIS COUNTRY
Theodor in his studio, wearing his everyday costume.
Theodor Pištěk, now 80 years old, is a Czech costume designer best known for his work on 1984’s Amadeus, for which he won an Academy Award. During the 1980s, when Czechoslovakia was cut off from the West by the Iron Curtain, Theodor was shut out of the Czech film industry, then a puppet of the Communists. However, he managed to transition into the US market and make films with his friend Miloš Forman, who in 1968 fled Czechoslovakia for the USA. They collaborated on Valmont and The People vs. Larry Flint, but Amadeus was the pair’s biggest success. It took home eight Academy Awards and turned Theodor into an icon among fashion designers.
One could view the victory of a bunch of Czechs at the premier American film awards as one of the signs that the Cold War was ending. But back then, in the mid-80s, the totalitarian regime running the country tended to punish citizens who experienced success abroad, and Theodor became an unlikely target. I asked him about his struggle.
VICE: How did you become a costume designer? Were you appointed by the regime?
Theodor Pištěk: They didn’t appoint me. It was an existential need for me. I loved it. I had no education in the field. The only experience I had was studying at the Academy of Arts, where one only knew costumes from old paintings.
I saw it as creative work. I felt like I was the first person who knew what the film was going to look like. I was always one of the guys who got to see the screenplay first, because that’s where you’d find out that this character was supposed to be a lawyer and such and such. A lot of costume designers just get the general idea of what people wore at the time the story takes place and give their characters a suit, but it’s not really that easy.
Was it difficult to find materials for your costumes back then? I imagine the shopping options in Soviet-era Czechoslovakia were somewhat limited.
That’s where the trouble began. The only thing that saved me was this one particular shop that the wives of top members of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia would visit. Prague’s Barrandov Studios had tremendous power and could arrange for some of their costume designers to shop there for various movies. You could get real quality stuff there. That’s where I was able to meet all the ladies from the Communist Party. I always had to wait until they were done, and then they would let me in. The first movie I worked on without all of these obstructions was Amadeus.
But you ran into different kinds of problems with Amadeus, correct? Every time Miloš Forman came to Czechoslovakia he was surrounded by the secret police.
There were a bunch of directors at Barrandov who were in the Communist Party, and when people started talking about Forman coming to Prague to shoot Amadeus they wrote a letter to the Central Committee saying that they, as conscious filmmakers, protested against Forman shooting here. But because the economy was so bad in the 80s, the party felt it was better to make a few dollars than listen to a bunch of Communists from Barrandov. Although they did set up a meeting with Forman and the producer and make an agreement about how the filming would proceed.
LEFT: A fancy dress costume, complete with a swan mask, that Theodor made for Elizabeth Berridge, who played Mozart’s wife in Amadeus. RIGHT: Tom Hulce, who played Mozart, wore this costume and launched the pink wig trend of the mid-80s.
What was the agreement?
Each of the more significant members of the team had his own cop tailing him, but the truth is that it wound up working out differently. The guy who was supposed to take care of Forman would come in every morning, and for a bribe of 20 bucks, he’d spill all the orders he had, what he was supposed to be taking care of that day, and also what Forman should watch out for. That cop would have taken a bullet for Forman. But Forman kept the agreement with the Communist Party. Because of that, he didn’t go meet with [playwright and dissident] Václav Havel, since he promised he wouldn’t.