Costume Designer Holly Waddington has made her way to America to celebrate her work for Yorgos Lanthimos’ celebrated “Poor Things.” And on this particular night, that means the opening of an exhibit of the film’s costumes at the Fashion Institute of Design And Merchandising Museum in downtown Los Angeles. Waddington’s credits include period films such as “Lady Macbeth” and “The Great,” but she describes this particular project as a “very extreme experience.”
“It was a lot of coming up with things. I love that,” Waddington says. “It was like being required to be incredibly creative and work very quickly with a lot of amazing people. It was very potent and rich. And I don’t think, it wasn’t like normal life for me. It took a while to recover. It was during COVID, it was in another country. I had these tiny children that I brought with me. And had them in Hungary. Wearing masks with translators trying to explain how I wanted the costumes to people I’d never worked with before. So, it was a lot of challenge.”
“Poor Things” follows a young woman, Bella Baxter (Emma Stone), as she explores the world after being resurrected by something of a kindly mad scientist, Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe). Eventually, she runs away with a despicable lawyer, Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo), who takes her to the great cities of Europe. The movie is set in a fantastical version of the 19th century with Bella rebelling against the established and constricting norms of Victorian society.
Before Waddington sent into pre-production she realized she was going to need to meet with Stone to truly collaborate on Bella’s journey. That meant a flight from London to Athens, where Stone was staying during part of the pandemic, with about six suitcases full of clothes to try on and experiment with.
“Originally when I got the job I thought this is fine. I can just make a set of clothes and she can wear the same clothes all the way through the film. And then I realized that she couldn’t. The textures, the materials, the qualities would have to shift and grow as [Bella] grew,” Waddington explains. “We met in a hotel and we just had this day of dressing up. And that’s where like these tan pants that she wears, I had probably about 10 different kinds of pairs of knickers to try, like different ideas. And we just dressed up. So she brings lots to it. She brings lots. Like the way that the clothes were put together would often be worked out with her in a fitting room.”
Waddington was kind enough to discuss her creative process for the incredible costumes Bella wears throughout the film while taking a stroll through the FIDM exhibit.
Please note: There are some insinuated spoilers from the movie in the context of this article.
Overall, Waddington says that conceptually, it was really not going to work for Bella to wear a corset because the corset is a form of bondage. “It forces the body into a particular shape, which is that someone else has decided is good. So, it just didn’t seem right for this untetherable, free, new person to be shackled in a corset. And I think the reason that people think these clothes look modern is because there isn’t a corset because the corset is what gives the clothes the sort of period.”
The one exception to the corset rule was the first dress we see Bella in, before her tragic accident. However, even that costume included a slightly different maternity corset (yes, women in the 19th Century were forced to wear corsets while pregnant).
“So the sleeves are based on military armor. It’s a little bit like a suit of armor. That’s what I was thinking. So the person that she was before she died was [married to] an army general,” Waddington notes. “And she was bitterly unhappy, that’s why she chucks herself off a bridge. So, I wanted the clothes to feel very different from the clothes that she wears as Bella Baxter. So there’s this kind of structured, articulated, folded sleeve that, for me, in my mind was a bit like armor.”
This gold colored ensemble is an early look Bella wears while developing under the guise of Dr. Godwin Baxter.
“This is when she goes out for the day. She’s basically incarcerated in the house, she’s not allowed out,” Waddington says. “The house is beautiful, but it’s designed to keep her in there. There were bars on the windows, the walls are padded, so she’s desperate to go out. So, they do take her out for the day. And I like the idea that she would have this quilted suit that’s quite corseting, it’s quite cozy, it’s quite comfy. Almost like a tracksuit if it was a Victorian traveling suit. So, the quilting was a thing. And a lot of the textures in the house are quilted. And then I like the idea of her having these gloves on a string because that’s something you do with children. You put their gloves on a string because they can never keep on top of where their things are.”
“This is when she’s in the house,” Waddington says of the next ensemble. “The idea is that she’s often in this state of half dress. She’s being dressed in the morning by Mrs. Prim. She’s got this bodice on, it’s silk. I mean, it’s still really weird, isn’t it? For me, those striations in the silk are a little bit like meat. That’s what I was thinking about.”
Waddington continues, “The folds, the center of it, the way it’s folded is a bit like a vagina. A bit, not very but a bit. That’s what I was thinking. The colors are very bodily. And then she isn’t wearing the skirt. We made a skirt to match it, but I preferred it when she’s in these states of half dress. So this bubbly, weird bustle thing is an underpinning. The sort of thing you would never really see normally. But because she’s like a child, like with my own kids, you get them dressed and they don’t really stay well-dressed for very long.”
“[This is one] half of her traveling costume, the top. But she wears it a lot with knickers,” Waddington says of one of Bella’s Lisbon ensembles. “The logic is that she’s gone off on this trip with her lover. And then they have a siesta. They spend the afternoon having sex, and then she goes back into Lisbon and just doesn’t bother to put the skirt on.”
She explains, “I wanted all of the fabrics or a lot of the fabrics to evoke ideas about the body. So like the textures and the sort of tissue-y textures of the sorts of textures you get in a human body. And for me, that is cellulite.”
“This is one of the rare dresses that is actually a proper dress, the whole thing is there,” Waddington says of the striking gold gown. “And there’s nothing too kind of kooky about how it’s dressed. It just is an evening dress, but it isn’t worn with a corset still.”
It is quite noticeable, however, that the ruffle on the bottom of the gown is made of, yes, plastic. Waddington notes, “I use plastic in all of Bella’s wardrobe from the beginning. So, in the [Doctor’s] house there’s surgery [taking place]. All the surgical scrubs are made of plastic. They’re all made of polyurethane. She has a blouse at the beginning that she wears when she’s at the piano. And it has a kind of plastic, ruffly bib on it. So that it’s the idea that it’s white, clean, it’s practical, it’s a little bit modern. And I wanted to just keep that for this family because they’re all progressive. They’re people of the future. And all the things he’s doing like he’s some mad scientist. So, I just kept the plastics for them really. The trimming on the front here, all of those ruffles, they’re just ruffled plastic.”
As for Ruffalo’s suit, Waddington says the inspiration for his costumes was satirical cartoons of the late 19th century. She notes, “You get all these kind of British establishment men. And they’re really pompous, and they’ve got puffed out chest, and they’ve got sticks and top hats. And they just think they’re brilliant. And they really look stupid. I think they look stupid. They look ridiculous. So, if you look at the trousers, they’re quite puffy and quilted, but they’ve got a kind of puffy texture to them.”
And, as the film makes clear, Bella Baxter isn’t wearing a corset, but her lover is.
“I worked very hard on his body shape,” Waddington says. “Mark Ruffalo wears a corset in the film all the time. He has his waist pulled in. I mean, the mannequins are the mannequins. So this is not really anything to do with his body shape. But for Mark, I padded his chest out to give him that kind of pigeon chest. And I gave him a corset. And I gave him bottom and thigh padding to give him quite a sort of womanly shape. Because in these satirical drawings, the men are like that. And they have these slightly tight ski pants on. And I just wanted to play with that more than anything.”
The final look Waddington discussed was a gown Bella is forced to wear towards the end of the film.
“It’s like a really complex, quite ugly color. It’s got some military motifs, the sailor color, the frogging up the arm, the frog around the waist. So it’s pretty ugly. It’s supposed to be. It’s from her unhappy time,” Waddington says. “This dress would’ve looked better in a corset. But again, she is in this house, she’s trying to escape. And it wouldn’t enter her head because she hasn’t lived through, she hasn’t sort of learned that that’s what you do.”
The costumes from “Poor Things” are on exhibit at the FIDM Museum in Los Angeles until Dec. 15. “Poor Things” opens in limited release on Dec. 9.