How 'Beauty and the Beast' Costume Designer Used Modern Feminist Touches for Belle's Attire

Courtesy of Focus Features(2); Courtesy of Disney; Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

The nominated costume designers explain how they utilized tireless research and creative reinvention to stitch together the memorable looks for their film's characters.

A Victorian queen in India, a British prime minister in World War II, an obsessive couture dressmaker in the 1950s, a mute janitor in Cold War America and an iconic princess ready for a modern makeover: These colorful characters, all from different moments in time, needed the perfect ensembles to bring their stories to life.

To create memorable and distinctive period looks, the five nominated costume designers aimed for historical accuracy but also weren’t afraid to add their own touches and reinventions.

Costume designer Jacqueline Durran, a double nominee for her work on Darkest Hour and Beauty and the Beast, did a little bit of both. To costume one of the world’s most recognizable leaders, Winston Churchill, she studied a wealth of archival footage and photos and found it all boiled down to the key elements: a finely tailored three-piece suit, silk bow tie, a signature homburg hat (Lock & Co.) and a cigar. “We went for key looks in reference photos of that period,” she details. “We got as close as we could to doing a re-creation and wanted to do what we could to serve Gary the best," which included foam and silicone padding to create the famous Churchill figure. “Often the case when you work on period pieces, you need to be led by the drama.”

For Beauty and the Beast’s Belle, a reinterpretation of the character was in order. “From day one, Emma [Watson] wanted to make Belle an active heroine,” says Durran. Modern feminist touches with an 18th century bent included bloomers, boots instead of pumps, a bodice with side ties and gowns made of eco-friendly fabrics.

“Belle would not be wearing a corset, and she had to be comfortable as she needed to be able to move and ride a horse. It was a conundrum incorporating these elements.” Durran even used an 18th century apron she bought while in college for one of Belle’s gowns, while she looked to the animated version for the bold color and design of the iconic yellow ball gown.

Costume designer Consolata Boyle’s period-perfect costumes for Victoria & Abdul were a study in contrasts — dark somber gowns for Queen Victoria and the colorful garments of India as her relationship with an Indian clerk progresses. She visited the archives of the Victoria and Albert Museum and the royal palaces for inspiration, as well as several cities in India.

For Phantom Thread, Mark Bridges’ designs were an integral part of a story where fashion was front and center. He researched the couture creations of such fashion greats as Cristobal Balenciaga, Hubert de Givenchy, Norman Hartnell and Hardy Amies. “We spent an entire day determining the color scheme and textures” of the fashion line designed by Daniel Day-Lewis’ character, says Bridges. “We settled on deep, rich hues and a lot of lace, with juxtaposed textures like velvet and satin in some garments.”

Searching the globe for period-specific garments, he and his team eventually created new pieces, as time and wear are often not kind to vintage clothing. Daniel Day-Lewis’ character, Reynolds, was the beneficiary of bespoke suits made by Savile Row tailors Anderson & Sheppard and shoes by cobbler George Cleverly.

For the fantasy fable The Shape of Water’s ’60s-era clothing, Luis Sequeira says that “historical accuracy was extremely important and almost no contemporary clothing was used. It was important to both [director] Guillermo [del Toro] and I that the historical fit and textiles were maintained for design integrity. This would not only aid the visual accuracy but also help the actors ‘feel’ the fit of the period.”

Designing a wardrobe for the Twilight Zone tone of the film while reflecting the characters was as big a challenge as designing costumes that could withstand water. "Eliza’s [Sally Hawkins] predilection for shoes was a factor in giving us clues to her personality," says Sequeira. “Her guilty pleasure was her shoe collection, some of which we had custom made [inspired by a vintage pair of Ferragamos]. Her timeless elegance needed to sit in the balance between innocence and worldliness. Peter Pan collars and her signature hairband added to the feminine quality embodied by Sally.” As for the water, the designer explains the construction of Eliza’s finale underwater outfit, a red coat and gray dress, "were each cut in two different fabrics — one to work on land, and another lighter and more floating.”

A version of this story first appeared in the Feb. 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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