Dressing Bella Baxter: From dependance to empowerment

Oscar-winning designer Holly Waddington talks to Kathimerini about the iconic character played by Emma Stone in ‘Poor Things’

Dressing Bella Baxter: From dependance to empowerment

The costumes created by Oscar-winning designer Holly Waddington for Yorgos Lanthimos’ film “Poor Things” follow the journey of Bella Baxter – the main character played by Emma Stone – from childhood to adulthood and witness the transition from the heroine’s complete dependence on men to her complete empowerment. Lanthimos had given his British collaborator, whom we first met as a costume designer’s assistant for the 2007 film “Atonement,” only one direction: He did not want his film to look like a period drama in terms of costumes. But he failed to tell her exactly what he had in mind. She had to figure that out on her own.

Bella Baxter would not have been etched in our memories if she did not wear these mismatched outfits, reminiscent of nothing in particular but drawn from many periods, from 1890s satirical illustrations and dress patterns, to Otto Dix paintings and Victorian photography. Her choices are reminiscent of various periods in fashion history but also today’s trend where any style can be worn at the same time. “For this film I was thinking about the game throughout the process of designing and making the costumes,” she told Kathimerini on the occasion of the exhibition of the film’s costumes at the Benaki Museum.

dressing-bella-baxter-from-dependance-to-empowerment0The costumes were integrated into a very loaded visual ensemble. Was it a challenge to design something that stands out, serves the story, but also doesn’t clash with other things?

The design aspect was enjoyable and fun to work out and I got to be playful, to throw different periods in time together, work with a myriad of different materials and to collaborate with wonderful people, so “Poor Things” was a dream design job for me. The challenges were more practical. I wasn’t always totally sure if the choices would land as I hoped but I was trusting Yorgos as he was closely keeping an eye on the whole process and weaving it all together and we had many conversations in the buildup to actually making everything.

How did you approach the task of creating costumes that reflected the transformations of Bella Baxter?

I was always trying to get inside the head and imagine the physicality of Bella at the stage that she was at in the film. At the beginning, Bella is a very young child, and the idea is that she’s dressed by the housemaid Mrs Prim [Vicki Pepperdine] each morning. Whenever we see Bella at this stage, she’s in a state of half dress, often fully dressed on top and with very little on the bottom half (a combination of clothing that might appear as a nightmare in one of my own dreams). This was based on my observations of my own young children and how they tend to lose clothes very easily when pottering and playing around the house (no trousers, pretty naked from the waist down and fully clothed on top). Once Bella leaves home and goes to Portugal, she no longer has help getting dressed and so I was imagining how a 5-year-old might dress up in their mother’s wardrobe, with everything a bit ill-fitting and combined in odd ways. For example, she is dressed by Mrs Prim in a pale blue traveling suit to go to Lisbon but once she is alone in another country, she wears only the top half with only her knickers and her boots on the bottom. The look is incongruous against the sartorial correctness of everyone else in the scene. She wears only a petticoat with a sleeveless blouse to go out for dinner in the hotel (the dance sequence) with her hair always around her shoulders. And on the ship, she wafts around in a chiffon dressing gown and underwear when the rest of the passengers are wearing traditional late Victorian cruise attire. All of these choices were to describe a person who hasn’t experienced any social brainwashing so every sartorial rule is thrown out. Hair was always worn up in Victorian times, women didn’t show their naked legs or arms and they didn’t wear boots with their toes showing so all of these details were playing with ideas of how to describe this lack of social conditioning, to describe a woman liberated from these social norms. 

As she evolves, the fabric choices become more serious and substantial. In Paris, Bella gets herself a tailored black suit, cut from a strong wool cloth which charts her transition from childhood into adulthood and a massive leap in cognitive development as she is now going to medical school. And by the end of the film, her clothes are less conspicuous and more pragmatic.

What were your sources of inspiration when designing the costumes for the film? Did you reference specific historical periods, artworks or fashion designers? For instance, a friend of mine who had seen the movie before I did told me that the wedding dress reminded him of the Guggenheim Museum in New York. I remembered his words when I saw it. Could it be architecture then or something else?

‘I like the way that we can transform through our clothes and image and I’m mostly interested in how clothes can shape a story and character’ 

I love that connection with the Guggenheim and it makes total sense with the horizontal curvilinear lines. The wedding dress was inspired by the Honeycomb Dress by French fashion designer Madeleine Vionnet made at a very similar time. I was looking at all sorts for “Poor Things,” though not so much architecture for me specifically. Here are some key influences: 1890s fashion plates, the paintings of John Singer Sargent, satirical illustrations from Victorian magazines such as Punch, Victorian photography, early 20th century fashion, especially Elsa Schiaparelli and Madeleine Vionnet, and futurist fashion designer Thayaht, who inspired Baxter’s unison suits, 1960s sci-fi fashion designers, especially Andre Courreges, whose work inspired the shoes that Bella wears and the use of plastic in her clothes, a book of Japanese dolls – can’t remember the name of the photographer – German expressionist painters, especially Otto Dix for colors, 1950s children’s wear catalogues for Bella’s nightwear, 1890s book of dress patterns, the botanic illustrations of [German zoologist and naturalist] Ernst Haeckel for texture…

Do oversized, puffy sleeves have a particular symbolism? As Baxter grows and evolves, I feel that they lose volume. Is that true?

They symbolize empowerment. They allow the wearer to take up more space and feel bold and heroic to wear. In the history of dress, there are several moments when sleeves have been huge and greatly adorned with elaborate embroidery and decoration. Sometimes they were made to be removed and added to other dresses – such was their great value. I think that the vastness of the sleeves possibly correlates to women’s (improved) status in those periods in history, which is interesting to me: examples being the Elizabethan age when sleeves were packed full of “bombasting” (horse hair), the 1890s (the loose time-frame that “Poor Things” is set), in the 1940s women’s sleeves were sharp and wide, and again the 1980s, when the shoulders and sleeves were padded to mirror those of their tailored male counterparts. For most of the film, Bella’s sleeves are lightweight and air-filled and they mimic the organic shape of lungs, and so in my mind made a symbolic choice for a reanimated person. It’s true that towards the end of the film they become less amorphous and lightweight. Not necessarily less huge as the wedding dress sleeves are the biggest of all, but the materials become heavier, more serious, more practical and grown up as Bella evolves. In the final scene of the film, she wears a very inconspicuous and pragmatic knitted jumper with a modest sleeve size.

Many women remember that dressing dolls was a fundamental part of believing the story we created in our minds as kids. Does becoming a costume designer mean that you never really leave your childhood behind?

For this film, it was important to get inside the head of a young, spirited child and to imagine what it would feel like to be dressed in formal ladies’ Victorian clothes – silk bodices, long petticoats, bustle cages etc – whilst moving and playing as a toddler. I was thinking about dolls very early on in the research for “Poor Things,” in that I came across a book of Japanese dolls and was quite interested in how the fabrics are designed for adult humans and when put on tiny dolls, they look thick and clunky. I was trying to communicate that strangeness in some of the fabric choices. I think it’s important to be playful as a designer and that is an aspect of childhood which we tend to lose the aptitude for as we grow up and become adults. 

So, why did you choose your profession?

I like the way that we can transform through our clothes and image and I’m mostly interested in how clothes can shape a story and character, whether that be in a film or piece of theater, opera or dance. I’m very interested in the meaning of clothes and fashion and their history, and in the making of imagery, and being a costume designer draws together many of the things that I love to do. 

The exhibition “Poor Things: The Costumes” will be on display at the Benaki Museum (1 Koumbari & Vasilisis Sofias, Athens) through September 29.

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