Racked is no longer publishing. Thank you to everyone who read our work over the years. The archives will remain available here; for new stories, head over to Vox.com, where our staff is covering consumer culture for The Goods by Vox. You can also see what we’re up to by signing up here.
There’s a particular scene in Sofia Coppola’s Civil War-set thriller The Beguiled that’s not only funnier than anything the director’s done, but also funnier than most things I’ve seen in theaters this year. In it, the sexually repressed women of Miss Martha Farnsworth's Seminary for Young Ladies — including Nicole Kidman’s Miss Martha, Kirsten Dunst’s Edwina, and Elle Fanning’s Alicia — arrive for dinner with their new, very attractive houseguest, injured soldier John McBurney (Colin Farrell).
In place of their faded, buttoned-up day dresses are fancy taffeta frocks topped with satin bows. Edwina is chastised for her exposed shoulders (cue the pearl-clutching!) and shyly pulls on a shawl. Even before the sequence’s innuendo-laden dialogue really gets rolling, it’s clear that every woman in the room is competing for McBurney’s affections.
“The clothing isn’t the star of that scene — more like the supporting cast,” costume designer Stacey Battat says. “The script provided the real humor; it’s really in the writing and the acting.” Humility aside, it’s a perfect example of how clothing can set the tone for an entire scene, which is something Coppola and Battat know well.
“She cares about clothes,” Battat explains of her longtime friend and collaborator. “And it’s not just about the clothes — it’s the set, the photography, the music. She cares about creating a world.” To that end, one of the first decisions the duo made concerned its typically Coppolian color palette. “Back when we were talking about the overall look of the movie, we talked about using pastels and light, airy colors,” she remembers. “It was a natural choice.”
Still, The Beguiled presented Battat and Coppola with a unique challenge. “It’s the first time we’ve ever done a period movie together, and while it’s not the first time we’ve made costumes from scratch — I mean, we made the looks for the pole dancers in Somewhere and the Rockettes in A Very Murray Christmas — she and I are new to making every costume for an entire film.”
Battat estimates that “about 90 percent” of the film’s costumes were made by hand, although she did incorporate antique accessories and even a modern piece or two — though you’d never be able to pick it out of the frame. “Nicole’s hat was from a designer named Eugenia Kim,” she says, “but of course, I changed the ribbon and altered the shape a bit.” Battat also called on New York-based brand Ten Thousand Things to make the film’s jewelry.
When it came to creating the actual clothes, Battat started with the undergarments. “We made a conscious decision to not use hoop skirts, because these women are no longer ladies of leisure — they have to tend to the garden, do the laundry,” she explains. “But they did all wear corsets, even the younger girls.” Before The Beguiled was even in preproduction, Battat commissioned corsets for Kidman, Dunst, and Fanning from a designer in London — a risky move, considering that a bespoke girdle can easily cost thousands. But according to Battat, it was necessary. “Corsets change the shape of the body,” she says. “So if you’re making clothes to fit, you’re making clothes to fit the body with a corset. If you try to put those clothes on the next day without a corset, they’re not going to fit! You have to fit everything with the undergarments.”
Of course, multiple costume fittings plus long hours on set equals a lot of time not being able to eat, breathe, or sit comfortably — but Battat says the cast were troopers throughout. “You know, sometimes Nicole was like, ‘I’ll wear it through lunch,’ and sometimes she was like, ‘Okay, get it off me!’” Battat laughs. “We did our best to take them out of the corsets when we could. But they’re professionals. I don’t think anyone likes wearing them, but everyone gets that they’re part of the game.”
The designer also used fashion as a way to differentiate the seven different women who call the seminary home. “Nicole’s costumes have this masculine silhouette, very no-frills,” she says of Kidman’s (literally) straitlaced Miss Martha. “You’ll notice, she wears the same outfit for both dinner scenes; that’s her sense of economy. She wouldn’t have two [fancy] dresses, and if she did, she certainly wouldn’t whip out the other one for [McBurney]!” Meanwhile Dunst’s Edwina, the teacher who longs for a better life outside the school with the dashing corporal, dresses in pretty florals and airier fabrics, and Fanning’s coquettish Alicia prefers playful ruffled looks and wears her hair loose.
And while Battat spent hours doing research at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s textile archives and reading up on Civil War-era fashion in preparation for the project, she admits to taking some creative liberties with the costumes. “Historical accuracy was a priority, but it wasn’t the top priority,” she says. She points out that women in 1860s Virginia probably wouldn’t have worn “festive” colors like light lavender and pale pink during a time of war, for instance, and that their formalwear would’ve likely incorporated far more lace and other embellishments.
“But those silhouettes are all ones you would’ve seen in that era,” Battat adds. “It’s the smaller things that weren’t exact, but it’s better that way. I don’t want to make something that’s been made before.”
The Beguiled hits theaters on June 23rd.