When he set out to make Poor Things, there was one thing that director Yorgos Lanthimos knew for sure. "He definitely did not want a period drama," says costume designer Holly Waddington. "But he didn't want to go full sci-fi." Although the filmmaker knew what he didn't want the movie to be, he left it up to Waddington to decide what it could be. "He opened the whole thing up for my interpretation."

Poor Things is adapted from a 1992 novel by Scottish author Alasdair Gray. The film centers on a young woman in Victorian London who commits suicide, only to be resurrected by a brilliant but unorthodox scientist (Willem Dafoe) using the brain of her unborn baby. Bella Baxter (Best Actress in a Leading Role nominee Emma Stone) learns to navigate the world with the body of an adult woman and the mind of a newborn, embarking on a self-guided odyssey to becoming a fully-formed person.

Waddington's costumes help usher the audience through the many phases of Bella’s journey — as well as the timeless, reality-defying world she inhabits. The designer is well-versed in Victoriana and has created costumes for period projects like such as 2016's Lady Macbeth and the Hulu series, The Great. But on Poor Things, she knew the costumes needed to turn Victorian-era fashion on its head.

"I worked out early on that in order to make this feel not a period drama, we needed to get rid of the hallmarks of the 19th-century dress. The fabrics, the trimmings, the feathers, the beads, the lace, these are all things that feature heavily in Victorian dress," she explains. "They just had to go."

During Sunday's 96th Oscars, Waddington became a first-time Oscar winner for Best Costume Design. "Thank you to Yorgos Lanthimos for taking me on this wild journey. It's been the opportunity of a lifetime," she said of the recognition. "I had the great privilege of working with such a wonderfully talented cast and creative team!"

Holly Waddington and Emma Stone on the set of 'Poor Things.'

A.frame: What were your initial conversations with Yorgos about his sartorial vision for Poor Things?

I was introduced to Yorgos by Tony McNamara. I had worked with Tony on The Great, and we had a very good time collaborating together. The first conversations with Yorgos, I remember taking him a book of Japanese dolls that I'd found. It was this really interesting book of tiny dolls, and they were wearing these outfits that were very homemade, and the fabric looked really thick and disproportionate to the size of the doll. And whilst that was just an initial starting point from when I first met him, there's an essence of that that's in the film. Particularly, it informed the kinds of fabrics that I chose and the clunkiness of the clothes. But the conversations were many. We had many, many chats about the clothes. Everything was discussed. Yorgos has a way of getting his collaborators to be playful and experiment and explore and create their own thing. At the same time, he's gently guiding the whole process and making very clear decisions.

The film ostensibly takes place in the Victorian era, but the costumes take such fun, playful liberties. Were there any parameters put on the costumes, in terms of period or place?

He definitely did not want a period drama. I mean, he was even saying, "If you want to explore setting in another timeframe or mixing periods up, just go for it! Come up with stuff, and show me what it could be." Although the book is set in the 1880s and Tony McNamara's script is set in the same period, we ended up setting it in the 1890s, roughly, but it isn't a period drama. Costume-wise, we were picking and choosing and mixing from different times. But his brief was quite open-ended and very freeing. And it's quite daunting if you've got such an open brief, because you've got to know where to begin.

He did give me this very interesting picture of a pair of inflatable trousers, which really distorted the body, really distorted the shape. That is the only reference he gave to me! But with Yorgos, he's a man of brevity, and so if he says something, you need to pay attention. So, I knew that the fact that he'd given me this one reference meant that I should really investigate this image. For me, it was something about the absurdity of historical clothes. We had this early period where I was working with one assistant and we were bashing out lots of ideas. We went in a completely operatic direction. We came up with all of these concepts that were nothing like what we ended up in the film. They were much more extreme, but I think he wanted me to really go there in order to pull everything back.


Extreme as they may be, did those initial ideas and research bring you to any unexpected places that ultimately did inform the costumes we see in the film?

A big part of the costume design is these textures that are really bodily and organic and porous. Particularly for Bella, I wanted the clothes to feel like they were breathing, that everything has got some sort of life to it. The surface quality was almost like sea anemones, or sea sponges, or urchins — things that live and breathe. I did look at lots of botanical drawings by this German zoologist, Ernst Haeckel, who did these studies of seashells and all sorts of natural forms. When you are doing research, one thing leads to the next thing, leads to the next thing.

I also had this book of 19th century fashion plates, and what was very striking was how heavily laden these 19th century clothes are in terms of texture. There is so much going on, all of this smocking and pulling of fabric and all of these textures and ruffles. Just so much surface texture! I wanted to get that quality and try and communicate something of that, but in a modern way.

What were some of the biggest obstacles that you came across?

An obvious example would've been the wedding dress. That was a dress that needed to feel huge and light as a feather. It was a dress of contradictions. I wanted the sleeves to feel like they were full of helium and almost floating into the sky, but practically doing that is quite hard and caused the team quite a few headaches. That would probably be the best example of that, but also, that blue dress that Bella — before she's Bella — wears to throw herself off the bridge, getting those pleats on the arm right, that was a whole piece of work. There were many challenges to doing the costumes.


Are there any small costuming details that you were particularly proud of that haven't gotten the spotlight they deserve yet?

I could never have imagined that people would be so observant, and I think they've picked up on almost every little thing that I came up with, which has been an amazing thing! I'm actually racking my brains for things that people haven't noticed. I will say that Vincent, the costume supervisor, had found these little smocking machines that pucker up the fabric — you run a stitch through and pucker up the fabric — and we were doing that on everything. We were making ruffles and adding those to everything!

Also, the hands on Madame Swinney's dress — the little hands that are kind of holding her in an embrace — they were a bit of a thing to do. I really wanted to use this symbol of the hand, which is very ubiquitous in Victorian dress, and I love the idea of it being used in a sexual way on the brothel Madame. We went to this flea market in Budapest one afternoon, and there was this brass door knocker shaped like a hand, and that was it. We made the cast from that! But I feel like the most joyful thing for me in this process is that people have actually really picked up on almost everything. It's amazing.

What has it been like to see Poor Things embraced in that way that it has? Including its 11 Oscar nominations.

The response has been massively beyond anything I could have ever imagined. When I'm working, I'm not really basing any decisions on the audience; I'm basing every decision on whether I think it's the right thing to do for the script and for the project, and hoping for the best, and hoping that it's going to turn out all right. Often in the work of costume design, the work is quite invisible, and that can be a very good thing. Sometimes you don't really need to be aware of everything that's going on with the clothes. In this project, almost all of these decisions that I was making and these ideas that I had were to support this story and to say something about Bella's whole attitude to life and her freshness in the world.

I wanted the costumes to be fresh and have a modernity to them and to turn on the head the idea of being trapped in a corset And I've been amazed by the response that I've had, from friends and family, from WhatsApp and Instagram messages, from fashion writers and fashion students, and all sorts of people. I've been really delighted that people are very intelligent, and they see everything. It's been a great thing for me.

By Sara Tardiff

This article was originally published on Feb. 15, 2024.

A.frame, the digital magazine of the Academy, is excited to celebrate and honor the nominees of the 96th Oscars across several branches by spotlighting their nominated films, craftsmanship, and personal stories. For more on this year's nominees, take a look at our Oscars hub.


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