The Beguiled is a movie about many things: the Civil War, women of the 19th century, mourning, lust, betrayal, revenge, and plenty more that will make your heart race like you’ve been doing sprints. (This editor can attest to that.) But as with any period piece, as well as other movies by the director and style star, Sofia Coppola, fashion plays its own role in the must-see film that’s debuting this week. And to fully understand it, we went right to Stacey Battat, The Beguiled’s costume designer and a go-to Coppola collaborator.
As expected, transforming a cast of seven actresses into Confederate ladies circa 1864 is no easy task—assumedly, neither is getting into the five or so layers of clothing that were customary for women of the time—but it's definitely one that the stylist-turned–costume designer pulled off with aplomb. It included everything from the corsets that made the leading actresses, Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, and Elle Fanning, walk in a specific manner, as well as the subtle touches of bows and jewelry that accented the ladies' looks and became tools to impress the mysterious stranger, Colin Farrell, who becomes stranded at an all-girls school. As expected, that’s were all the drama begins.
Below, Battat walked us through how she went about creating 90% of what you’ll see on screen, what she learned in the process, and which trends are still just as relevant today. Believe it: Even us fashion editors are already charmed by every ruffled top and gingham print.
Scroll down to learn more before you step into the movie theater on Friday, June 23.
WHO WHAT WEAR: How does the process of researching a project like this start?
Stacey Battat: The first thing that we do is we sit down all together—Sofia, Anne Ross, who is the production designer, and Philippe Le Sourd, who is the director of photography—and talk about the world that we want to create. I knew from our conversations that we wanted to have light passing through the trees and an airy quality to everything. Then obviously there’s real history research, so I read about the Civil War and what people wore and how they dressed at that time. I went to the textile department of the Met and I looked at all the textile books from 1850 through 1862 to 1864, and then lots of vintage shopping.
One thing I did learn was that they generally didn’t wear pastel colors because they were in mourning—people’s fathers, brothers, and husbands were at war. They weren’t necessarily festive in that same way that our girls [in the movie] were.
WWW: There are so many facets of fashion from the 19th century that are so foreign to us, like corsets. What elements of the costumes were important authentic touches that the audience might not be able to see?
SB: That’s the main thing. The corset changes the shape of the body. It affects your posture—you can’t slouch in a corset because it has bones in it, so you have to sit up straight. There was a way that [the actresses] walked. You have to sit in a certain way, you even have to breathe in a certain way. The foundation [of the costumes] is really important. Even just the petticoat that they wear underneath their clothes because they give volume to the bottom half of what they’re wearing.
WWW: So how many layers would be customary for these women?
SB: They would have bloomers, then a camisole. Then they’d put on their petticoat, then they’d have the corset over, and they would usually have one or two petticoats and, if you were using them [Ed note: the cast didn’t], they’d have a hoop [skirt] as well, and then the clothes go over that. Sometimes they would even wear a corset cover that you could conceal the bust of the corset underneath the clothes.
WWW: Wow. How long did it take for the actresses to get into wardrobe?
SB: About 15 minutes. I mean, we helped them—they can’t get into it by themselves. In 1860, you had to have someone help you put your corset on.
WWW: Was there anything that you learned about style in particular that women today might benefit from?
SB: I did think that standing up straight does make you look better. There’s something nice about seeing a bunch of women that aren’t slouching and all standing tall.
WWW: So many of the women in the cast are already recognized as people that we look to and admire for their personal style. How was it collaborating with these women who have such a strong sense of style?
SB: Well they’re all such pros. They didn’t really get to give too much feedback into what they were going to wear because we made the clothes, so there wasn’t time for them to pipe in so much. But Nicole [Kidman] knows a lot about fit and she knows what looks good on her. Same with Kirsten [Dunst]. I think they do all have such a great sense of style and they’re all really professional but it was mostly the fit that we worked on with them. And they liked their costumes. Like I don’t think Nicole would wear it if she didn’t.
WWW: Are there styles from what the actresses wore in the film that you feel are still relevant right now? Something we can include in our own wardrobes?
SB: Sure. The high necks are really lovely, and I think they’re very fitting for this time period, too. And the ruffles feel very now, as well. What else? They changed all their collars and cuffs, and that’s how they changed their looks. That is something that they did in the Civil War: They only had a few clothes and then they changed the cuffs and the collars so that they didn’t have to wash their clothes so much. There’s something nice about that—that there was an economy to the way that they dressed. It’s nice if we have a little bit more respect for our environment and find ways to make the things that we have feel more appealing. Go to the tailor and take a sleeve off a dress or add a collar…