June 19, 2024

The biggest challenge for “Poor Things” costume designer Holly Waddington was trying to establish a costume arc for Emma Stone’s Bella Baxter.

In the Searchlight film based on Alasdair Gray’s novel of the same name, Bella is a creation of Willem Dafoe’s mad scientist Godwin. He brings Bella back to life after she tries to kill herself, using the brain of an unborn fetus, and Bella ends up a young child trapped in a woman’s body. Director Yorgos Lanthimos used different chapters to punctuate Bella’s discovery of the world, and ultimately her liberation from the world Godwin keeps her within — her home. Waddington turned to knickers, a “condom-coat” and varying stages of undress to reflect this complex creature and her journey into the world.

“When she’s in the house, those costumes are very childlike,” says Waddington of the audience’s first introduction to the character.

She played with the “state of undress” as an idea to reflect her mental infancy. Mrs. Prim (Vicki Pepperdine) would dress her in a proper outfit, but by late morning, that has unraveled. “She’d be wearing the blouse and nothing on the bottom half. Maybe just a pair of knickers,” says Waddington.

Victorian doll outfits also served as an inspiration, as well as the human body. “If you think about tripe, skin tissue, or the delicate textures you might see in meat, I had lots of boards to do with those things and I was trying to get those qualities into her clothes.”

As for the shoulder pads: they “were about empowerment,” says Waddington.

Bella eventually falls in love with Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo). And the two depart for Lisbon, with no Mrs. Prim to dress her.

At that point, her ensembles become even more askew. In one scene, Duncan and Bella take a siesta, but she wanders out on her own wearing her knickers and a big jacket. “She’s a young girl who’s had access to a grown-up wardrobe and it’s just a bit wrong,” Waddington explains. Notably, the blouse she wears in the dance sequence is the wrong way around.

Searchlight Pictures

When Bella and Duncan board a cruise ship, Bella “wears this big yellow cape, it’s very discordant, but it felt right for where she’s at,” Waddington says.

When the ship docks in Alexandria, Bella sees the slum poor. “At that moment, I wanted her to fit in with all of the hoi polloi,” the costume designer says. “There is an oddness to that. It’s almost clown-like and ridiculously blown out with ruffles down the front of it with huge sleeves. And she has this red mouth, she looks like a clown to me.”

Stone didn’t wear a corset underneath, which gives the costumes a modern feel to them.

By the time Bella gets to Paris, Waddington has her in a “condom coat,” which in true Bella-style is unsuitable for the weather; it is snowing and she’s also wearing boots with peep-toes. “The color palette in the brothel was all about skin tone,” the costume designer explains. “I wanted to work against the traditional Victorian brothel palette. The women are all wearing skin-colored latex stockings and Perspex. Their breasts are revealed and it’s a real celebration of the body. I also made knickers for them so you could see their pubic hair. These are things we don’t tend to celebrate in modern sexual culture.”

Yorgos Lanthimos

When Bella decides she wants to become a doctor, Waddington put her in a black beatnik-style jacket so when she goes into medical school with a sea of men, “I wanted her to blend in, but sort of subverted, so when she stands up, she’s got bear legs with pointy boots.”

Yorgos Lanthimos

As for Bella’s wedding dress, Waddington says the design was a metaphor for marriage. “It has cage-like stripes and it’s made of military netting and tulle. Tubes are going around it, and it’s light. Again, she doesn’t wear a corset, she wears nothing but knickers underneath it. The veil was something we thought Bella would wear. Emma grabbed it and wrapped it around her head.”

Waddington chose a largely yellow palette for Bella, thinking “it would be really good on her” given her black hair, but also for the connotations associated with the color. “When I was young, I read in a book that black and yellow are nature’s warning colors,” she notes. “Not that she’s threatening, but she is empowered and not to be ignored.”

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