US ($)
SPEND TO SAVE: UP TO 30% OFF | SHOP NOW

In Conversation with Holly Waddington: Costume Designer Of The New Film ‘Poor Things,’ On Working with Yorgos Lanthimos And The Concept Behind The Captivating Costumes

From filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos and producer Emma Stone comes the incredible tale and fantastical evolution of Bella Baxter (Stone), a young woman brought back to life by the brilliant and unorthodox scientist Dr Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe).

In celebration of the release of POOR THINGS, we took time to acquaint ourselves with the creative force behind the captivating costumes that weave the film’s narrative — Holly Waddington. From her early fascination with dressing up to her journey through art school and immersion in period costume design, Holly’s path has been a unique one of creativity and experimentation. She shares insights into her collaboration with the renowned director Yorgos Lanthimos and actor Emma Stone in this conversation. We also delve into her distinctive approach to designing the costumes for POOR THINGS and the joy of shaping Bella’s alluring character.

Firstly, tell us a bit about yourself and how you got into costume design…

From a young age, I was interested in dressing up. My mum was very arty and always dressed in vintage clothes. I grew up in Lancashire, near North Manchester, and there was a town called Accrington with many vintage shops. I used to spend almost every Saturday there with her. At school in the 90s, when all the other kids were wearing Hacienda and going raving in Manchester, I was wearing a 1950s jacket with a Victorian brooch instead. Later, I went to art school to study fine art; I always made costumes. All my references were fashion, fashion images, or the history of fashion images. My tutor said to me, “Are you sure you don’t want to be a theatre designer?”

At school in the 90s, when all the other kids were wearing Hacienda and going raving in Manchester, I was wearing a 1950s jacket with a Victorian brooch instead.

Like many young people, when I came to London, I didn’t know what to do with myself. I was temping in offices when I saw a job advert in The Guardian at Angels Costume House for graduates looking to be trained. I applied and trained there as a ladies’ period costume designer, learning all about historical clothing. As I progressed, I got to work with brilliant designers like Jacqueline Durran, Sandy Powell, and many fantastic people. I also did a master’s in theatre design. However, I’ve often found it frustrating when periods are recreated exactly as they were, and I’m more interested in the scope to play with ideas.

What inspired you to work on the POOR THINGS project, and how did the concept come about for the costumes?

I am a massive fan of Yorgos Lanthimos, having always admired his interesting, idiosyncratic, and subversive work. My introduction to him came through Tony McNamara while working on the pilot for ‘The Great.’ Despite being unable to continue the project due to having a baby, Tony and I got on well. He later introduced me to Yorgos, allowing me to work with him as a costume designer.

At that point, did you already know the storyline? Have you seen the script?

Not yet. I had this daunting situation where I got a call on Friday afternoon asking if I’d like to meet Yorgos on Monday. It was Christmas and I had parties lined up but I cancelled everything. I read the script twice and I stayed up all night reading – it was like cram revising.

Did you have in mind ideas of how you’d bring the costumes to life? How did the concepts start to come together?

Funnily enough, I always had this very striking imagery of everything being black and white, even before we knew the film would start that way. I read the book very quickly at first, and it’s dense. It’s very unusual, and it’s pretty postmodern. I think if you read it just once, you don’t get the full benefit, but when I first did, I saw a lot of black and white and a lot of Glasgow. I wasn’t designing in my head yet, but I was visualising Bella in a state of half-dress initially. All the colours and more profound ideas came later.

I wasn’t designing in my head yet, but I was visualising Bella in a state of half-dress initially. All the colours and more profound ideas came later.

This leads us well to the next question. Could you share some insight into the creative process behind designing the costumes? How do you normally begin your journey?

The script is always the starting point. You have to listen to the language. Anything that’s there is there because it needs to be, so I always start here. I read it many times, making notes and breaking it down, which is really laborious, but you have to so you can understand it. That gives you a sense of what each character will need in their wardrobe to tell their story. The other part is research, so I started researching the period in which the script is set, and in this case, that was the 1880s. We shifted it a little bit later into the 1890s, and that was because of the sleeves. I gave Yorgos a lot of different imagery of the late 19th century and lots of ideas, and we landed on these oversized sleeves being key. We worked on all this during the pandemic, so the meetings were on Zoom.

The script is always the starting point. You have to really listen to the language. Anything that’s there is there because it needs to be, so I always start here.

Was that the first time you worked virtually in this way?

Yes, I had very young children, so I’d wait until they were in bed to work through the night. It was intense, but my fantastic assistant made it manageable. I’d send her references, and she’d create mood boards for Yorgos as we conceptualised. In the initial stages, we pushed ideas to extremes, embracing Yorgos’s encouragement for a creative storm. Yorgos values the creative process, setting collaborators on a freeing path without restrictions. While the final version was distilled, our initial approach was operatic.

At that point, were you working alongside the set designers and did you have any idea of how the locations would look?

That came later, and they had been working for a while before I got involved. They had produced this incredible document, which was like a Bible. It’s huge, massive. I can’t remember how many pages, 200 pages, maybe more. Once I had my concept, they let me see what they’ve been doing. That was jaw-dropping because they were pulling from Georgian architecture, brutalist architecture, art nouveau, 1930s Deco and smashing it all together.

We pushed ideas to extremes, embracing Yorgos’s encouragement for a creative storm. Yorgos values the creative process, setting collaborators on a freeing path without restrictions.

Can you tell us more about the cultural and historical influences that played a role in shaping the costumes? And how did you go about researching?

We had a lot of talks about whether to set in the late 19th century. We interrogated this, and I felt that it was necessary because of the issues that we were tackling—specifically, the extreme patriarchy and women’s roles during that period. Wealthy women were not working and dressed like dolls; their clothes were impractical. They were corseted. While corsets are beautiful, and I appreciate them, they force the body into a particular shape. They’re entirely imbued with ideas of control, dictating a way of looking, walking and maintaining a posture that’s predetermined by somebody else. I was firmly in favour of keeping the film set in the late Victorian period, but knowing we could play with it was freeing.

We made a bold decision, which came from Yorgos, to eliminate the corset. I come from a background of period dramas and costumes, so taking the corset away was a massive decision for me. It wouldn’t work for us conceptually because of its association with control. Bella is unbridled and uncontainable. She’s free. She can’t be moulded and hasn’t been shaped by societal norms; having her in a corset would have felt wrong. This is also what gives the costumes a modern feel.

Bella is unbridled and uncontainable. She’s free. She can’t be moulded and hasn’t been shaped by societal norms; having her in a corset would have felt wrong.

That leads us on to the next question. As you say, the costumes are influenced by historical fashion and design but they do feel modern too. Were you inspired by modern trends and fashion – can you talk a bit more about this?

The main thing that makes it feel modern is having no corset. Another thing is that the hair is mostly worn down. It feels pretty 70s because, in the 70s, women were often referencing the Victorian period, but they’d have this long flowing hair and completely different energy and quality. The clothes are also often incomplete. She’s often in a state of deconstruction, so she’s usually wearing the bodice but just with a pair of pants, socks, stockings, bare feet, and so on. This is not how we typically imagine women dressing from that period.

How did you change her costumes as the film progressed to show her character’s development?

The biggest thing for me when working on POOR THINGS was to find a way to change the costumes and make sure they go on their journey with Bella. In the beginning, Mrs Prim dresses Bella in childlike, grand clothes, and we see lots of underwear and nightwear. When she leaves, Mrs Prim packs her suitcase, and then it’s about how Bella puts outfits together on her own. It’s discombobulated, like a child dressing from a parent’s wardrobe. She wears things like sheer petticoats as outerwear or a bodice and knickers with a jacket from earlier scenes—which feels like a modern way to dress, right? It quickly became apparent that the costumes would need their own evolution throughout.

My favourite costume is when she steps out in Lisbon in the yellow knickers and the oversized blue sleeves. I love that statement. I love the way Emma Stone moves in that costume, too.

My favourite costume is when she steps out in Lisbon in the yellow knickers and the oversized blue sleeves. I love that statement. I love the way Emma Stone moves in that costume, too.

What do you want viewers to take away from POOR THINGS and Bella’s character and costumes?

There’s a freshness to Bella. She’s full of joy for the world and open to everything. She also really doesn’t care. She’s out in the world with the wide-eyed, open innocence of a child.

Children are endlessly inspiring because of that, and at some point when we grow, we become less interesting, and the world can dull us. I’d love for viewers to be inspired by that sense of freedom and be more open and curious in the world.

I’d love for viewers to be inspired by Bella’s sense of freedom and to be more open in the world and curious.

POOR THINGS is in cinemas now, watch the full trailer here.

The Barbican is also now showing an exhibition presenting the costumes designed by Holly Waddington in collaboration with director Yorgos Lanthimos, as worn in the film by Emma Stone and Willem Dafoe.

Images by StillMoving for Searchlight Pictures and Searchlight Pictures

Arts & Culture

12 Of The Best Desert Island Discs Interviews

With over 3,000 distinguished guests having appeared on BBC Radio 4’s most-loved Desert Island Discs, we’ve narrowed down some of ...read more
Arts & Culture

6 Modern Coming-Of-Age Movies To Inspire Nostalgia

With a plethora of titles to choose from, we’ve rounded up a selection of modern coming of age films ...read more
Arts & Culture

10 London-Based Independent Wine Stores To Add To Your Radar

Whether a hearty Primitivo or a sun-kissed bottle of orange wine is more your flavour, here’s where to buy ...read more