Designer Kate Hawley Talks The Menacing Beauty of Crimson Peak's Victorian Costumes


Guillermo del Toro is known primarily as an auteur of highly stylized horror and science fiction, but with Crimson Peak, the director has made a film that has captured the imagination of the fashion world. On Tuesday evening, Bergdorf Goodman unveiled a new series of windows inspired by the film, interpreting its elaborate painstaking Victorian dresses with modern high-fashion versions set against backdrops alluding to its plot.

Fashion’s enchantment is fueled by del Toro’s all-encompassing vision for the film, a Victorian-era gothic set in which tells the story of Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), an aspiring novelist who is inspired by her secret ability to see ghosts. Raised by her wealthy father in Buffalo, New York, she’s becoming restless by the expectations put upon her as a woman when in sweeps Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddletson), the dashing baronet of Allerdale, England, along with his cultured older sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain, at her compelling best). He’s seeking money for a contraption he’s invented to mine the crimson clay flowing beneath his estate, the perfect element to make sturdy bricks; but as he dazzles Edith and they seem to fall in love, it becomes apparent that there’s much more to Sharpe’s story than he’s letting on.

Set in Buffalo and Allerdale, the breathtaking completism of Crimson Peak’s visuals almost render the plot moot. Though it’s very good—true as it is to the tone of the historical gothic—and the acting is largely excellent, it’s the visual language that takes precedence in the tale, the palpability of the mood as set by misty nights, vaporous spirits, and creaky old manors. The sets are, largely, inside two cavernous mansions; one, in Buffalo, is cozy and glowing with the burnt orange of warmth, of home. The other, in Allerdale, is a stone-cold cavern, with a gaping hole in the roof allowing autumn leaves to flutter in and, later, icy snow to gather on the crumbling marble tiles.

Fleshing out these intense locales, of course: the costumes, voluminous and luscious with fabric, delicate folds hand-sewn into shirring and intricate details taking the mood into an immersive, fantastical ether. On one gown, worn by Lucille as she plays the piano at a ball, laces with metal darts dangle from her wrists, almost metronomic while her hands whisk across the keys. And Edith’s collection of nightgowns, so wispy and theatrical against her long, wavy hair, seem like the types of pajamas an angel would wear—or, even, a ghost.

Tuesday, on the highest floor of Bergdorf’s at an after-hours dedication ceremony for the windows, Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston and Mia Wasikowska feted the vast accomplishments of del Toro and Kate Hawley, the woman responsible for the film’s elaborate costuming, who has also worked on films like Pacific Rim, The Hobbit and Suicide Squad.

Several floors above the spooky, perfectly Halloween-timed Crimson Peak windows at Bergdorf, in a room lit by candlelight and scented with human-sized arrangements of hundreds of fresh red roses, Jezebel sat down with Hawley among some of her costumes and discussed her painstaking, brilliant approach to her craft.

Jezebel: What was your approach and philosophy to the project?

Kate Hawley: Well, I know the devil that’s Guillermo, and I say that with the utmost love and affection, so I know when he says, “It’s just Victorian,” it’s never just that—it’s a starting point. I start off by drawing the character in the moment, and that’s how I talk with Guillermo—how do I see Edith in that chair in the corridor. I never do a costume drawing, it’s all about the character, but with Guillermo, I always sit down and read the script and you always see the motifs that he brings back.

I can’t say this strongly enough, that Crimson Peak felt like an opera, or a piece of music in that there’s almost two acts, you have the world of Buffalo and the world of Allerdale, and there are two seasons and colors and themes. So I read it and immerse myself in the real period detail, I do honor that. You have to know what you’re dealing with to know what you’re gonna trhow out. Then I went into looking at themes, like symbolist painters. There’s a an early draft of the film where they go to see some of the works of Rodin, the early symbolist painter, and that’s my world too. Guillermo and I have very similar books on our shelves. Sometimes I’ll go down little rabbit holes and borrow from very contemporary things, like in terms of color or, I found a photograph of a dead canary because I’d gone down into coal mines and all of it felt like it was answering many things at once.

Guillermo wants everything at the highest standards, so we took it from an emotional view of the characters and we put some of the etiquette with certain modes of dress. But we didn’t try and overdo it. For instance, we intentionally had Lucille wear essentially one dress in Buffalo when we see her through the eyes of Edith—they’re romanticized like they skipped out of a book. And then we go to the world of Allerdale, we take the glasses off and we see the reality of the world that they’re in, and everything becomes heightened. I look at it like the Magic Flute, and it’s sun and moon, night and day, winter and summer, polar opposites.

What you notice is Edith takes on the gothic qualities of the house. Another thing about working with working with Guillermo is he understands how important it is for his designers to be involved early on in the process; he values us. The house really dictated how to approach the costumes, from a sculptural point of view, to give them extra depth, to give them a painterly quality. I didn’t want to get myself caught up in detail that didn’t feel like it meant anything, like generic lace or decoration. So all the details we made and they all came from the symbolism of the characters or the house itself. The leaves on Lucille’s dress were constructed by hand, with a single piece of cording. And for Edith, the motifs of the flowers, she blooms. It was about trying to create an atmosphere.

I wanted to ask about some of the detailing. The first really striking thing I noticed: in the scene where Lucille is playing the piano in the elaborate crimson silk dress, she has silver-tipped darts dangling from her wrists that give her a slightly menacing quality.

That was a pretty full-on dress, one of the last that we did. Guillermo and Jessica decided that we needed another dress and we had like, two weeks. The blue dress was like six weeks to build after prototyping! It was trying to get the right reds and the detail, the lacing, was about trying to feel like her spine; I was looking at pictures of starvation in the world of Allerdale. And Jessica’s a beautifully curvy woman if you see her in person, she’s actually quite voluptuous in a petite way, but I wanted to get that sense of bones so we did that with colors. We wanted to bring in the Jacobian, tragedy world of the house to the costumes.

I’m saying this, but I haven’t seen it yet.

You haven’t seen Crimson Peak yet?

I haven’t! It’s all in my head.

Well, you’ll love it! I wanted to ask you about several scenes when Edith is lying in bed and wakes up with a start, you’ve given her these nightgowns with huge, cottony shoulders that taper down, a leg-of-mutton sleeve. The way that it’s shot with the moonlight behind her shining through the puffs at the shoulder, it’s quite diaphanous and delicate.

She’s like a chrysalis at that point. She’s very fragile, so the butterfly is dying and becoming this little husk. And, you know, I’ve never done so many nighties and nightgowns! It’s all about running around in night dresses through long corridors. That also blended to the fabric. When Guillermo said to me, “It’s about a house that breathes,” that’s why we chose the lightest fabric, just a little thing to try and help the storytelling with the idea of the house.

But we had amazing actresses, no?

Absolutely! How much of it was textbook Victorian versus imagined?

So, the silhouette is absolutely Victorian. None of what I’ve done is not real. Once you have the silhouette and hold true to them, then it’s in the other details that we can play around with things and fit them into the whole Guillermo world that he’s trying to create. With Sharpe and Lucille, we took some liberties, but I actually gave them a whole row of silhouettes over so many decades. We made conscious decisions between the worlds of Allerdale and Buffalo, where with the clothes in Buffalo we used sewing machines on the men’s clothes and hand finishing, but all the clothes are hand-stitched, especially with Jessica’s clothes, because it really sits against the body in a completely different way. No one will notice it but it really makes a difference in the construction. And things like the types of corsets we chose, the underpinnings which would define the outer structure, they’re all true to the period.

And we haven’t even gotten into the shoes! We had silk shoes, a particular beautiful pair of 1880s shoes that were very fetishistically buckled all the way up the leg, so we’d do that, when she wasn’t wearing stripper shoes to increase her height!

I think in the end I’ll always look at things with a fucked up eye because I work with Guillermo, right? I just have a darker perspective. If you ask me to do a straight-up thing I find that hard to do. I will always go, what else can it be. You find a certain language.

Contact the author at [email protected].

Images by Julianne Escobedo Shepherd

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