October 9, 2015
When you’re making a movie that’s a supernatural gothic romance, an imbalance in any one element can skew the whole project. With director Guillermo del Toro at the helm, artists are allowed the creative freedom to make the fantastical believable.
In del Toro’s “Crimson Peak,” Costume Designer Kate Hawley built a period wardrobe for protagonist Lucille Sharpe (Jessica Chastain) that fulfilled the practical and creative demands of the role.
Hawley needed to make gowns that reflected the physical and symbolic dimensions that were built into the set, an actual three-and-a-half-story house. Del Toro has described the house as “another character in the film…that almost asphyxiates the characters.”
Hawley said she had to deal with many points of view, including how to create high-production-value clothes on a budget that would compare to the set’s elaborate interiors.
“I’d take photos of the [set] model and play with details and start developing the language of Lucille’s dress from there,” she said. As construction progressed, she used the set like a life-size doll house, posing a mannequin in the massive corridors to fine-tune the sense of scale.
The house is larded with layers of meaning—even the wallpaper has a secret message. Hawley was no less sparing of her details.
“I wanted to develop a language symbolic of characters that Guillermo was exploring and give them enough depth so they didn’t get lost in the house,” she said. Architectural details provided direction, but the script proved most inspiring.
“Lucille, who is absolutely tied to this house, says a line about how she can never leave this house. Looking out at a vine that is dead, she says, ‘Nothing grows here anymore.’ So we started making these leaves.” She and the team also hand-dyed hundreds of long, claw-like acorns—and when the tops separated in the dye solution, re-glued each cap.
She modeled a large, intricate and dimensional garland of leaves from a sample piece of passementerie. It encircles Lucille’s dresses like vine that protects—or strangulates.
A team of six artisans created the leaves from a single length of cording, each frond and vertebrae glued and hand-stitched according to a template. Hawley estimated that each leaf took six hours to create.
“We built it so that we could take the whole thing off and put it on the next dress,” Hawley said. The intensive labor was easier to justify because Lucille wears dresses with the garland for most of the film.
Hawley also extended the utility of the dress by creating three different bustles. “Each one gets longer . . . and functions like an umbilical cord attached to the house,” she said.
On a more practical level, Hawley also had to create clothes that could withstand the shoot’s various tortures. She’d contend with mud, blood, snow and rain, she said, “and with Guillermo, it’s never just a little bit.” She chose velvet partly for its luminosity in the film’s dark atmosphere. “It’s also on old-world fabric that breaks down easily,” she said.
Hawley and her crew apportioned labor hours to stay on budget. She and Assistant Costume Designer Rene Fontana scaled up their workroom to handle peak demand in construction, particularly for the copious amounts of hand-pleating and appliqué construction.
The film is a complex weave of the director’s signature elements, time periods and imagination.
“Del Toro gave a lot of subtext to the visuals,” said Hawley. Every element was considered—color palettes, silhouettes, historical references. Said Hawley: “If you think it is symbolic, it probably is.”
“Crimson Peak” opens in theaters on October 16.