For her new film, The Beguiled, a Southern Gothic set during the Civil War, Sofia Coppola reunited with costume designer Stacey Battat, a longtime collaborator (and close friend), to create the wardrobe for her mostly female cast. The film, which is a remake of a 1971 Clint Eastwood classic, takes place at an isolated southern girls’ boarding school—Nicole Kidman plays the headmistress Miss Martha, Kirsten Dunst is Edwina, a teacher, while Elle Fanning is a brooding, rebellious teenager, Alicia—and examines the rarely-depicted female experience during wartime.
Coppola’s version is a lush and gorgeously-wrought thriller that’s already received major accolades, including the Best Director Prize when it debuted at the Cannes Film Festival in May. The film's visual riches are all the more impressive given its modest $10.5 million dollar budget and tight 26-day production schedule.
As with most of Coppola’s films, the characters’ costumery was an early and central consideration. In the case of The Beguiled, Battat’s pastel-hued collection of day dresses in muted plaids, stripes, and calico prints—most of which were handmade, along with custom corsets—transport the audience to a sheltered, feminine enclave that is suddenly upended by the appearance of a wounded Union soldier (Colin Farrell). For Battat, who worked with Coppola on A Very Murray Christmas, The Bling Ring, and Somewhere, The Beguiled was the costume designer’s first period film project.
“It was a big leap for her, but I knew she could do it,” Coppola said. “She did a lot of research, and it was important that it was accurate, but Stacey is so good at contemporary clothes—I wanted the edit of what we picked from history to appeal to a modern eye.”
Aside from the absence of hoop skirts—“There was no one to dress up for and [the women] also had to work in the garden," Battat explained—the soft, diaphanous fabrics, waist-cinching silhouettes, and long skirts with their subtle swishes, coupled with braided hairstyles and face-framing updos by veteran stylist Odile Gilbert, lend an unexpected allure to the women’s outfits.
While The Beguiled’s official prep time between budget approval and the start of production was only six weeks, Battat had begun immersing herself in research materials several years before the film was actually green-lit. “We knew we wanted to make this movie—and believed it was hopefully going to happen,” she said. “It was always somewhere on my mind, even if on the periphery.”
She and Coppola met and became friends while Battat was working for Marc Jacobs at his shop on Mercer Street in New York nearly two decades ago. From there, Battat went on to styling (occasionally collaborating with Coppola in that capacity), and eventually landed in costume design.
In addition to reading the quotidian lives of women during the Civil War and the etiquette of the era, Battat went deep into the archives of the Metropolitan Museum to view actual garments from the 1860s. Battat and her team found contemporary cotton fabrics that bore similarities to archival prints she researched at the Met’s textile center and reference library, which she and Julia Gombert, an expert fabric ager/dyer, faded by stone-washing and enzyme-dying.
Each character had two or three day outfits, and one or two dressier outfits for candlelit evening scenes. Battat gave her team all the credit for the complexity and intricate measurements required in making the corsets alone. “Once we put them in their corsets to develop the foundation, then we made the clothes based on these unnatural body types, because we’ve already nipped in their waists,” she added.
Along with production designer Anne Ross, and cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd, Coppola and Battat established a softly ethereal palette, inspired in part by natural daylight (there no electricity at the time) and the nuances of its movements through the school’s interior over the course of the day. “I definitely had this very faded and pastel-y world in mind, and Stacey was able to make the costumes part of that,” Coppola said. “When I first thought about it, it reminded me of Virgin Suicides and the prom dresses that they wore. The pastels that they wore all related to one another."
While there was a sartorial through line between all the characters, The Beguiled's costumery also reflected each one's personality. “Miss Martha, for the most part, doesn’t wear a lot of color. She has a sternness to her, while Edwina was a more romantic character—she wore Swiss dots and floral prints. And Alicia sometimes wore her shirts undone a button or two; she was more wild. Her hair was loose, which wasn’t really common,” noted Battat.
It was also important to Battat to convey a sense of temporality. She added panels to the insides of one of the younger girls’ costumes, to imply that she’d grown—and given the scarcity of those times, a need for resourceful tailoring. “They never talk about it in the film, but that’s why Jane’s clothes have panels, and another student’s are a little too big,” she said.
Speaking of scarcity, there was the reality of limited time during the film’s production. Coppola’s and Battat’s close relationship was invaluable to optimizing the tight shooting schedule. “We work really well together because we’ve known each other for so long,” Battat said. “There’s a language that we’ve developed.”
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