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.
Hollywood seems to have trouble capturing historical details accurately if the movie isn’t set in America. They always seem to get some things so obviously wrong.
They have tremendous problems with that. When the main production designer flew in for a meeting, he was mixing up Romanesque with Roman culture. But they wanted to truthfully capture the atmosphere of Mozart’s time so they wanted to hire someone from Prague, which is connected with Mozart. That’s why Forman asked me.
How was it, as a Czech, to experience the influx of offers you must have received after winning the highest film award in the US?
I had all these chances, but I just couldn’t imagine staying there because I had a family back in Czechoslovakia. For instance—I’m no fashion designer, but Nina Hyde, a fashion editor for the Washington Post, seemed to have fallen in love with me. I was there during the 1984 spring and summer fashion shows, and Nina would drag me through all the famous salons across Fashion Avenue in New York. We always had front-row seats, and I was doing commentaries for each of those shows for the Washington Post. Amadeus had such an effect on America you can’t even imagine it today. The film made an impact on fashion and helped get all these classical elements onto the streets. I felt like I was meeting people wearing my costumes outside when I went for a walk.
The 18th-century fashion influence exploded in the 1980s. I mean, “Rock Me Amadeus”? Who would’ve thought that could have possibly existed?
I couldn’t believe my eyes when I met a guy on the street in white stockings and a frill. Two days before I got on my flight home [after Amadeus wrapped], I received an offer from an American brand to make their next collection. I am old so I don’t remember the brand, but it was like the American Dior or something... I was trying to persuade the consulate to prolong my visa, but they wouldn’t, even though I had the support of the Washington Post. Forman would always say, “Enjoy it, you assholes. It doesn’t last long.” But those moments, for a European’s mind, are just too much.
Another of Theodor’s creations for Amadeus, evocative of a simpler time when upper-class women had nothing to do all day but get dressed.
How did your homeland respond to your success?
Nobody would talk to me. There was only my wife and kids at the airport.
You weren’t even on the news?
No, but my wife was doing direction at Barrandov Studios, and [Miroslav] Müller, the Communist secretary of culture, came over to ask her how much money I made. That was the only official reaction. And then of course the Barrandov’s directors rejected me and the film and excluded me from the local film scene.
The directors at Barrandov decided that no one would even talk about Amadeus or me. They just felt that I wasn’t one of theirs. [Ludvík] Toman, head of dramaturgy at Barrandov Studios, was a big influence on the things that were happening then. He was connected to the state police and probably the Russian KGB and issued this half-official statement that the directors should not approach me.
Did you have any reason to believe the secret police wiretapped your phone because you had so many contacts in the US?
No, they couldn’t really get to me because they pocketed a few million bucks for a movie a bunch of Americans shot in Czechoslovakia. They were kind of capitalists when it came to this; they couldn’t persecute people who made them money. It would also cause international inconvenience.
Still, you must have had some troubles.
Voice of America aired a thorough [radio] spot about my exhibition at the same time a collective exhibition of a bunch of artists, including me, was happening here—and the day after I found out that all my paintings were taken down and turned to face the wall. It just wasn’t fashionable to be successful.
Quite the contrast to the celebrity you experienced in America. You must have felt bipolar.
Not even a dog would bark at me. Can you imagine such a shock? One minute you’re totally famous, and the other you’re absolutely damned. After the Oscars, there would be these lobster parties where people would pay to get in so they could sit with me at a table and eat a lobster. Then some girl invited me up to Dallas. I show up, and she keeps treating me like royalty. She took me into her garden behind her huge house and kept showing me all these rhododendron bushes. She had screens installed in each one that played a loop from Amadeus. To be specific, only the part where it said “Costume designer: Theodor Pištěk” in the credits, and blip, there it would go again. And then suddenly 150 people started applauding me in the garden.
I have many stories like that. I felt like I was taking part in something that wasn’t really happening, although I got famous in America in a way nobody else ever did. On Oscar night, I was standing in the same line with Kirk Douglas and Diana Ross. Kirk turned to me and said, “You know what? Why don’t you stand in the front today?”