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Getting to know: Costume designer, Holly Waddington

A man gazes at a woman in a beautiful costume
12 Dec 2023

We chatted with costume designer Holly Waddington (The Great, Ginger and Rosa) about developing the outfits for Yorgos Lanthimos' new absurdist black comedy, Poor Things. 

With the costumes, did you start with the world, or with Bella’s (played by Emma Stone) character development?

I started with the development of her character. The development of the world had already begun with the production designers. Yorgos didn’t have me party to what they had created for a little while, so I had space to come up with my own thing, which was really useful. That gave me time to respond to the text and these characters.

What was the most liberating part of the process?

We did away with the corsets. That’s partly what makes the clothes feel so liberated. This is a feminist film; it doesn’t sit very well conceptually if you’re trying to make a feminist film to put your lead in this garment that forces the body into an idealised shape, which is what the corset does. From the outset, Yorgos felt that it would be a ridiculous thing to do. From a physical point of view, there’s no way that she [Emma Stone] could do what she needed to do.

Bella’s movement is like a very young child. It’s unruly and out of control. There’s this whole choreography that [Stone] came up with that couldn’t possibly have worked with the corset, and once you see this character and how she is, she would have just ripped that corset off and thrown it on the floor!

How did you come up with the specific looks?

They’re based on taking a Victorian outfit with all its components, and then stripping quite a few away. We had a lot of fun playing with that language, of how dressed or undressed she would be. Think of a five-year-old dressing up in her mum’s clothes, that messy quality.

You’re talking about sexual awakening: she’s very comfortable in herself, and the clothes amplify that idea. They’re very sensual. There’s lots of fabrics that are silky and light and airy, that was about creating this sense of the organic. She’s an unruly, living, breathing creation.

I was gathering references of things that live under the sea, strange creatures, looking at the tactile surfaces of organisms; giving this sense of everything breathing and living.

And what about Baxter’s (Willem Dafoe) outfits?

Willem’s look is a little bit loosely based on the book’s author [Alasdair Gray]! When we were finding a visual language for his clothes, Yorgos started sending me pictures of Alasdair. He was a little bit thrown-together, in a really artful way, like he’s not even thinking about his clothes. We were trying to channel some of that.

We put in a bit of a Rodchenko/Russian Constructivism as well because Baxter’s super Utilitarian. What I remember most about reading Poor Things is Baxter and his worldview, and I really, really like him. I know that there’s a problematic aspect to what’s going on, but he’s an interesting character.

How was it working with Yorgos Lanthimos (The Favourite, The Lobster)?

He’s very respectful of each collaborator having their own creative process. He wanted us to play, to create and experiment. And I think that’s how he finds his very idiosyncratic language.

It’s a very unusual way to work. And it’s incredibly brave, because you might end up with something that’s awful. But, of course, he’s quietly steering this process.

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