The Beguiled costume designer on the film's ghostly garments
Between now and the Oscar nominations on Jan. 23, EW will speak to numerous contenders in below-the-line categories about their work and craft. This week, The Beguiled costume designer Stacey Battat dishes on stitching intricate, Civil War-era pieces for Sofia Coppola’s Cannes award-winning drama, about a fierce tribe of forgotten ladies (Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning) who, at the height of the historical conflict, nurse a transfixing, wounded Union soldier (Colin Farrell) back to health.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Where does the process for designing on a film like this begin?
STACEY BATTAT: We all sat down all together: Anne Ross, Philippe Le Sourd, me, and Sofia. We talked about the general color palette. Sofia always mentioned that she wanted these women to feel like ghosts that had been left behind, smoky, mossy, and eerie, but beautiful.
So you crafted the costumes to compliment character and theme as well?
Absolutely, yes! I also think about how something is perceived by the modern eye. It’s historically accurate; it doesn’t take a ton of liberties. The only liberties we took were when the characters wore pastel-colored clothes. Historically, those fabrics were definitely available, but maybe women wouldn’t have worn such festive colors because people were dying. Their brothers and husbands were at war, so that wouldn’t have been the appropriate thing to do, to wear bright, flirty colors, but other than that we were pretty accurate… The most challenging thing was fading the fabrics. We did a lot of enzyme washing and stonewashing. It was trial-and-error, and a ton of fabrics got ruined. You just don’t know how they’re going to react!
With this particular movie, it’s so much about impressing [Colin Farrell’s character], McBurney, so I feel like that added something to the clothes. If someone’s showing more skin or wearing something too fancy just for the sake of impressing him, [those costumes] participate in the scene. In the dinner scenes, for example, they’re all trying so hard, and their corsets are so tight, so there’s definitely something about the clothes that work in those scenes as well.
Did your research change your mind about what you’d initially set out to do?
The research enforced that we were allowed to do what we wanted to do. I did a lot of research, and I was a bit hesitant about using the pastels, because it wasn’t common [at that time], but those fabrics were very much available, so I went to the fabric library at [the MET]. They have a textile center. I looked through probably 50 books of textiles from 1850-1863, both the French ones and the American ones, and looked for the dyeing techniques, and we then used the stuff that would have been available to these characters at that time… obviously I learned other stuff through the research, like silhouettes I didn’t know about or immediately consider, but I couldn’t pinpoint an exact item that [makes it into the film] that wasn’t in our initial offering when we started!
There’s such an evolution of style in this film, from the opening shot of Jane rummaging around in the woods, covered in dirt, to the dinner scene near the end where they’re all dressed to the nines.
They were women that came from means. They weren’t women who were essentially poor; Up until the war, they had people working on the farm, people who cooked for them and served them dinner and did their laundry. But then the war happened, the slaves left, and they were now women who’d lost their means, and they had to take care of themselves. They had to tend to the garden, they had to do the laundry, cook, clean, and do all that stuff that previously wouldn’t have been a requirement of their day. Their day would be sitting around and learning, getting dressed for tea, and each part of the day had different activities meant for ladies of leisure.
In our untold story [prior to the film’s events], before McBurney got there, they’d stopped dressing for dinner because, what was the point? They couldn’t go outside on the street because they’re women, and a war was going on. It wasn’t safe for them to go outside without someone. They were stuck in the house, so they didn’t bother. McBurney came along, so they put on their best.
Elle’s character, Alicia, even though she’s flirtatious, I always imagined her mother bought her clothes for her, so her costumes still have a childish charm.
Miss Martha, I felt like she was always serious; She didn’t have multiple dresses, she had just one. She’s economical. I feel like I pushed all of her clothes in that way. There was an economy to them. I tried to approach crafting her designs with an approach of authority, using masculine fabrics and tailoring, at least modernized masculine tailoring with a particular vest that’s part of her bodice, which was a common silhouette for women during the Civil War.
Kirsten’s character came from the city, so she had the most sophisticated styles. There was an innocence and a romantic quality to her costumes.
Then the little girls, they were all a little bit different, but less defining in terms of their evening dresses than in their day dresses. With Oona Laurence’s character, Amy, we wanted to express elements of the war in her clothes. Hers always felt like they were a little big. That was on purpose, so we could understand that they didn’t have all the food they wanted to eat, and it wasn’t opulent.
How many of the costumes were made specifically for the film?
We made 90 percent. We rented McBurney’s costume, but most of the girls’ costumes, we made. Even down to the nightgowns, because — spoiler alert — they were going to get bloody! [Laughs]. We also didn’t make some of the girls’ pajamas. We even made the corsets, believe it or not!
Were there any specific challenges to maintaining this type of complex clothing on set in the South, where it can get very hot, sweaty and dirty — not great for clothing being worn for hours on end!
We just embraced the fact that they were going to get dirty. We knew from the beginning. When Philippe Le Sourd is lighting your set, it’s ok because it’s going to look so beautiful anyway! But, if you look closely, the bottom of every dress is a little bit brown.