The Story Behind The Sweet (and Sinister) Costumes In Sofia Coppola's 'The Beguiled'

The Beguiled Still Nicole Kidman - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

Costume designer Stacey Battat breaks down the Civil War-era looks created with the modern eye in mind.

Sofia Coppola’s steamy Southern Gothic thriller The Beguiled, set to hit theaters June 23, explores the wonderful and the wicked aspects of the female character. The remake takes place during the Civil War in a Southern all-girl’s boarding school whose sheltered inhabitants take in a wounded Union soldier, leading to a war of another sort with its own dangerous rivalries and sexual tensions. Nicole Kidman plays the school mistress Miss Martha, Kirsten Dunst the romantic lead Edwina, Elle Fanning the flirtatious troublemaker Alicia and Colin Farrell the soldier Corporal McBurney.

The Beguiled also makes a highly stylized impression — from the distinctly female pastel color palette to the Greek Revival Madewood mansion outside of New Orleans where filming took place to the vintage silverware sourced and tarnished for the shoot — that’s in line with Coppola’s other films, including Marie Antoinette and Lost in Translation.

The film's costume designer Stacey Battat, who has worked with Coppola before on A Very Murray Christmas, The Bling Ring and Somewhere, started her career in fashion, working for the director’s pal Marc Jacobs, then becoming a fashion stylist. So it’s no surprise that even though her designs for The Beguiled are of the time period, they are also pleasing to the contemporary eye — so much so, in fact, that they left us thinking about adding pastels and petticoats to our wardrobe.

The Hollywood Reporter chatted with Battat to talk about The Beguiled’s sugary palette, her historical research and her sources for the pic.

Where did you start in terms of the overall look of the film?

We all sat down — [director of photography] Philippe Le Sourd, [production designer] Anne Ross, Sofia and myself  — and talked about the idea of the film having an ethereal quality and being diaphanous with light passing through the trees and the fabric and there being a certain softness and eerie quality.

Did you do a lot of period research?

I did a ton of research on the Civil War era at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, especially their fabric archives and some of the clothes in the bowels of the museum they were so kind to let us see. As a sidebar, the archivists are so amazing because they wear white coats like doctors.

Was there anything that particularly impressed you about the clothes from the time that you saw?

One piece had little pads sewn into the bust, so at that point, women were already trying to enhance their busts.

You made the conscious decision to leave hoop skirts out of the film — was that correct for the time period?

It is more correct for women of their stature to wear the hoops, but at that point they’re really no longer women of their stature. The men are gone, so they have to work and tend to the fields, and the hoop became impractical. Since there was no one to dress up for anymore, they did the minimum, which was two petticoats and bloomers.

Yeah, the minimum! The color palette was very striking, almost sugary. What was the thinking behind that?

In that time period, a lot of women didn’t wear pastels because they were in mourning; their husbands and brothers were at war and they weren’t coming home. Things were quite somber, so people didn’t run around in lavender and pink, but we went with the palette because it was pretty and it fit our visual storyline.

Tell me about the fabrics.

All of the fabrics are cotton, which is what they would have had at the time. Weathering them was an ordeal with lots of trial and error; they got enzyme-washed and stone-washed. Some fabrics when you put them in an enzyme they looked great, others they look orange, so there are a lot of tests. We didn’t have time to put them in the sun — we only had about five or six weeks of prep time — so we pretended they would have been out in the sun!

Did you build all the costumes?

We built about 90 percent. There are seven girls and each of them had four to five costumes.

Did all of the women wear corsets?

Yes, and we made those as well to get the proportions right for the smaller girls.  

How did you make the characters come to life?

Alicia (Fanning) is the only one who has ruffles, a cream shirt with ruffles and the lavender outfit with ruffles. There is something flirty about that, just like she would sometimes have her shirt unbuttoned, too. With Miss Martha (Kidman), we wanted her to feel like she’s in charge, the stern figure. To accomplish that, she didn’t wear a lot of color and had a more streamlined silhouette. It's very subtle but it’s less billowy, and there’s that black-and-white pinstripe dress with a bodice shaped kind of like a vest, which was very traditional for the time. We only put it on her. To a modern eye, it seems masculine and authoritative. There’s a strictness about it.

Edwina (Dunst) seems to be more cosmopolitan.

On top of that, she was also the most romantic, with billowy sleeves and a lot of light fabrics that float when she walks — flower prints and that sort of thing.

Do you have a favorite piece from the film?

Nicole’s black-and-white polka dots and Elle’s lavender situation.

As the story unfolds, all the girls seemed to step up their look to impress the man in the house — piling on jewelry, wearing off-the-shoulder styles and bows. Was that conscious?

Yes, it was. They finally had someone to impress!

Was it period jewelry?

Some was antique Victorian, some made for us by Ten Thousand Things. I’ve known David Rees for a long time, and when I couldn’t find something I was looking for, he offered to make us a few things.

Was the Corporal’s (Farrell) style very true to the period or was there more than meets the eye?

When we meet him, he’s in the traditional uniform — a replica, but what they are supposed to look like. When he starts to live in their world, he starts to take on their color palette. And at the time, he really probably would have had his shirts buttoned up more.

What was the biggest challenge?

Timing — we had a few different people making clothes for us because we couldn’t do it all. I had everything made in Los Angeles. All of the artisans are there and they understand the period. We had American Costume make some stuff for us, Bill Hargate Costumes made some stuff for us, and we also had an in-house tailor, Margaret Guerrero in L.A. and Patty Spinale in New Orleans. They made those nightgowns, including Nicole’s bloody nightgown. I wish I could sew that well, but it was Patty.

How do you feel about costumes influencing fashion?

I think it’s great, if you are a visual person, then you are always going to take inspiration from multiple things. It also makes me feel good.