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HomeAwardsPoor Things Costume Designer Holly Waddington Illuminates A Tinder Box of Creativity

Poor Things Costume Designer Holly Waddington Illuminates A Tinder Box of Creativity

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A scene from Poor Things (Credit: Searchlight)

Yorgos LanthimosPoor Things is one of the most celebrated films of 2023, and for good reason. It is an absolute blast for the senses. It is the hyperreal story of a woman who is re-animated by a mad scientist — a story best experienced on the big screen, showcasing the spellbinding emotions and visuals.

The crafts in the film are top-notch notch everything from the production, the art direction, set decor, music, makeup, and especially the unforgettable costumes in the film by Holly Waddington. Since the movie rolled out late last year one could not look at the stunning images from this highly unique film and not be captivated by the otherworldly costumes by Holly Waddington.

At the FIDM Museum in Downtown Los Angeles late last year there was an exhibit showing off all of the amazing work. Below the Line recently caught up with Waddington amid the afterglow of Poor Things 11 Oscar Nominations, including one for Costume Design.

[Note: The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.]

Below the Line: What was your first impression of Poor Things?

Holly Waddington: It is hilarious, idiosyncratic, anarchic, subversive. It’s an assault on the senses. I just desperately wanted to do the job because of Yorgos Lanthimos and Tony McNamara, because I’d already worked with Tony on The Great, which I did the pilot episode of, and I loved working with him, and I love his voice. He has this very singular voice that we haven’t heard before.

The way that he writes and manages to talk about taboo and very serious things with this kind of hilarious light handle. Yorgos, as well, has this amazing ability to deconstruct human behavior and to show us a mirror to how absurd we are with creatures and the way that we live and the way that we go about our lives. 

A scene from Poor Things (photo by Yorgos Lanthimos, courtesy Searchlight Studios)

BTL: What were some of the key inspirations and influences for you?

Waddington: Yorgos had this image of these inflatable trousers that were made by a graduate of one of the fashion schools in London, as you wore them, they inflated and created these curvy linear, distended, distorted, strange body shapes. That was an image that he gave to me but with no explanation as to why he was interested in that. That’s a particular quality of Yorgos that he doesn’t ever feel the need or that it’s necessary to explain everything to everyone. And I think that’s partly why he’s worked so well that he follows a sort of instinct and he’d given me this picture. So that was the main thing. 

BTL: Was everything in the film designed by you or was some of the stuff sourced from places? 

Waddington: Everything that the principal cast wore was designed. Yeah, the background artists, some of those are hired from costume houses, so we couldn’t make absolutely everything. We did make quite a lot of crowd costumes. We made things like hotel uniforms, nurses, and those dancers in the hotel, we made runs of things.

And then if you have people walking about in the streets of Paris, people like that, the costumes were hired from costume houses and often were mixed with things that we’d made in-house. But most of the principles were made in Hungary by the team that I had out there with me. 

A scene from Poor Things (photo by Atsushi Nishijima, courtesy Searchlight)

BTL: What era is the clothing supposed to be from? it looks based on different time periods. 

Waddington: I was trying to frame it in the 1890s. I was able to be playful with that, though, because it isn’t set in reality. For example, when Emma Stone wears those little knickers, as Americans call them tap pants, they’re from the 1930s. I was framing the silhouettes of the 1890s. Those big sleeves are very much from the mid-1890s. The menswear, it’s all following Victorian shapes, but it doesn’t look period. And I think that’s mainly because Emma Stone’s character, Bella, is wearing her outfits in such a deconstructed way. She never wears them properly, ever.

BTL: What were the costume fittings like with Emma Stone? 

Waddington: It was a bit difficult at first, because of the pandemic, but once we got closer to shooting we did loads of fittings with Emma in that period and then because she was just so busy filming, we had to fit lots of things on a fit model and then I would fit them on her. She was very collaborative, very on board, and as long as she agreed with the idea, she was fully on board and invested. Emma Stone would’ve just gone on board and made it work, because I think she could probably have made anything work because of how she is. 

A scene from Poor Things (Atsushi Nishijima/Searchlight)

BTL: In the film, she alternately looks awkward and at the same time, very imposing, and she owns those clothes. It’s kind of just brilliant how she pulls that off. Simultaneous emotions. 

Waddington: I think that she just has this quality, you could put her in anything and she would be able to make it work and what mattered to her, really the only thing that mattered to her was if it worked conceptually, if it worked for her and how she felt about her character, then she’d be like, yeah, I’ll wear that. She didn’t even need to look at herself in the mirror. 

BTL: Was there anything special that didn’t make the cut? 

Waddington: There was one for Willem Dafoe. I made this Inuit-inspired outfit for him; these outfits have inspired many costume designers. I had designed this strange pair of pants for him to wear with his body suit that was all connected to this body apparatus that he wears, that keeps his gastric juices flowing, thinking that in the scene when he reveals this massive, awful cancerous tumor in his body that we would get to see, and when he was dying, we’d get to see this weird grotesque underlay to him. After months of looking, we sourced this fine membrane fabric, which turned out to be some kind of fabric that’s used for sailing so it’s tough to sew with. We finally made this thing and we didn’t use it.

A scene from Poor Things (Credit: Searchlight Pictures)

BTL: Were you given any directions in terms of the color palette? Were there any favorite colors or avoid these colors? 

Waddington: Yorgos has got this very unusually sensitive color palette, sense of color beyond anything I’ve ever come across in my life with anybody else. I’d been talking to him about colors, and he had done so much work with the art department when I started, so they’d already created this vast body of work.

I was pulling together all of these colors for the costumes and he said, “I like the colors of a rotting apple.” I looked it up and the colors that came up were this incredibly vast range of these rotting browns, these white creamy colors, and then these acid yellows and vivid pinks, and that’s what we use for the color palettes. That was what I was working with. 

BTL: What was it like seeing your costumes on set?

Waddington: I think seeing them in the sets was very thrilling. Those sets were extraordinary. Everything was designed to be worn in those spaces. Seeing something in a fitting room to seeing it in the space that it was intended for, it’s just really thrilling and exciting. 

The Academy Award-nominated Poor Things is now playing in theaters. 

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