In May, Sofia Coppola was the first woman to win Best Director in 50 years at the Cannes Film Festival for her latest, The Beguiled. The screenplay, also written by Coppola, is based upon Thomas P. Cullinan’s 1966 novel, A Painted Devil; a feature film starring Clint Eastwood premiered in 1971. The story, set in the South during the Civil War at a ladies’ seminary, focuses on a wounded Yankee soldier who is taken in, fawned over, flirted with, and ultimately, feared, by a tightly knit group of restless and wistful young women. While the plot remains largely in tact, suffice it to say that any misogyny or melodrama from the book and original film adaptation have vanished.
The writer-director’s female gaze, which lingers deliciously and yes, exploitatively, on Colin Farrell’s handsome soldier, McBurney, is unmistakable. This being Sofia Coppola, it’s also an exquisitely stylized perspective that extends from lighting to music to costuming. Stacey Battat, who created the clothing for the film and also worked with Coppola on both Somewhere and The Bling Ring, tells CR that the two of them, along with production designer Anne Ross, essentially have their girl code down by now. “We definitely have a shorthand, a language that we all kind of understand, and by that I mean a shared visual lexicon,” she explains. “If someone says, I want a striped sweater or a curtain that’s diaphanous or whatever, I feel like we all see that thing in the same way.”
Though Battat concedes that the women would have likely been garbed in mourning-black or brown, having lost husbands, fathers, and brothers during the war, she clothed them instead largely in pale neutral hues and pastels. And there’s a reason for that. “The great thing about working in movies is that there’s always a justification for why,” Battat says. “The story that I told myself about where the clothes came from, where the fabrics came from, was that they were left over from 1859 before the war,” she adds. Purchased when times were relatively flush, and subsequently grown out of, the older clothes remained in the house—worn out of necessity when buying new simply wasn’t an option.
The personalities of each of the three main characters—Nicole Kidman’s Miss Martha, Kirsten Dunst’s Edwina, and Elle Fanning’s Alicia—are reflected in their respective wardrobes. As the de facto head-of-household, Kidman’s Miss Martha wields a wary authority and endeavors to keep her charges in line. “There wasn’t frivolity in her costumes—it was very economical,” Battat says. “I also tried to appeal to what we would see in a modern context of maybe more masculine.” A buttoned-up, vest-like silhouette on her dress hits the mark perfectly.
Battat considers Dunst’s Edwina the most romantic character. Despite her serious school marm role, she’s also yearning to escape the seminary—perhaps with McBurney, her love interest. Unlike Miss Martha’s strict silhouettes, “hers are much more billowy and there’s a softness to them, like light passes through them,” Battat offers. Fanning’s Alicia, meanwhile, might be described as a bit of a minx, by turns both precocious and naïve. Battat characterizes her as young and flirty, but also someone whose “mother bought her clothes for her still”—hence Alicia’s bows, ruffles, and delicately trimmed skirts.
Creating these garments literally required a very hands-on approach. To wit, three female tailors in New Orleans and Los Angeles helped craft the film’s most laborious garments, Martha and Edwina’s lace nightgowns. Authenticity was key, hence the use of cotton-and-silk lace rather than the polyester variety, or actual 1860s-era buttons taken from old clothes. Inspiration-wise, Battat found the Met’s dreamy textiles department invaluable. She also learned a few things. Noting the presence of little pads at the sides of the bust on one antique garment, Battat recalled her surprise, likening them to today’s cleavage-enhancing gel inserts. Were women really looking for a push-up bra, even then? “I guess it’s not shocking because they wore corsets and they were already altering the shape of their bodies,” Battat allows. “But even then, there was a need to change what nature gave us. It’s not unique to us in modern times.”END
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