Born in Northern Italy, she began her studies in Genoa and finished in London, England, where she studied art and costume design. While there, she met several people from the film industry, including directors Hugh Hudson and Stanley Kubrick. Kubrick offered Canonero her first job as the costume designer for a feature film for his A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971). His trust was justified when she created the witty, shattering, futuristic clothes for his film.
Kubrick's next project was Thackeray's 18th century epic novel Barry Lyndon. Showcasing the lyrical candlelit cinematography of John Alcott and beautiful locations and sets designed by Ken Adam, Canonero collaborated with Ulla-Britt Söderlund to create period costumes that are widely recognized as the penultimate in the state of the art and craft. For this achievement she and Söderlund were honored with Academy Awards for Best Costume Design for 1975.
Hugh Hudson called on Canonero to design CHARIOTS OF FIRE, a modest story of two English athletes set in the early 1920's. Her brilliant costume work helped this film transcend the ordinary. In 1982, she was awarded her second Oscar® for Costume Design.
She has been nominated six more times for an Academy Award. Each film carries Canonero's inimitable signature, inventive artistry, sharp intelligence and an unwillingness to settle for less than perfection on every level. Her costume designs for Francis Ford Coppola's THE COTTON CLUB (1984) and Sydney Pollack's OUT OF AFRICA (1985) inspired enduring world fashion trends. Canonero bravely and effectively used wild primary comic strip color to pop Warren Beatty's DICK TRACY (1990) off the screen. And, she displayed her mastery of period and style in Coppola's TUCKER: THE MAN AND HIS DREAM (1988), Julie Taymor's TITUS (1999), Charles Shyer's THE AFFAIR OF THE NECKLACE (2001), and Sofia Coppola's MARIE ANTOINETTE (2006, Academy Award). All these films allowed Canonero to employ her powerful ability to create tremendous style and substance for both leading and supporting characters.
Other notable film credits include Alan Parker's MIDNIGHT EXPRESS (1978), Kubrick's THE SHINING (1980), THE HUNGER (1983), BARFLY (1987), REVERSAL OF FORTUNE (costume consultant) and Coppola's THE GODFATHER: PART III (both 1990), SINGLE WHITE FEMALE and DAMAGE (both 1992), ONLY YOU, LOVE AFFAIR and DEATH AND THE MAIDEN (all 1994), BULWORTH (1998), SOLARIS (2002), THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU and OCEAN'S TWELVE (both 2004), BELLE TOUJOURS (2006), and VICERÉ and THE DARJEELING LIMITED (both 2007).
Canonero has been married for many years to actor Marshall Bell and lives in Los Angeles. She has also designed costumes for opera and theatre productions, and she was awarded the 2001 Career Achievement Award in Film by the Costume Designers Guild.