Talk Film Summer Camp: Costume Design - Crimson Peak (2015)
Hey, campers! Glad you could join us for this inaugural Talk Film Summer Camp, where we here at Talk Film Society take a film per day, and dive into what makes each one a great example of one aspect of filmmaking. What we’re hoping to do here is spark a deeper appreciation for film and filmmaking in readers who may want to know more about each facet, so they can approach cinema with a deeper understanding of the invisible work casts and crews put in to tell a story.
Costume design is an aspect of moviemaking that often gets overlooked when we talk about the merits of films we enjoy. It’s a shame, because good costume design is artistry, truly. Sometimes a film comes along that makes such extraordinarily good use of their costume designer, that we can’t help but stand up and take notice. Guillermo del Toro’s 2015 gothic horror film, Crimson Peak, is one such film.
Del Toro called on the talent of costume designer Kate Hawley to design and execute the larger-than-life Victorian period costumes of Crimson Peak. Hawley had worked with Del Toro on Pacific Rim (2013) and had also achieved accolades for 2014’s Edge of Tomorrow. While Hawley was mostly known for her work on science fiction films, she had been a part of the costume team for Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy, so period work was not out of her comfort zone. Hawley most certainly brought all she had and more to the dressing of Crimson Peak’s stellar actors, using personalized color schemes and sparing no small detail when it came to the hand-sewn garments for the film. It was reported that the beading and embroidery work on Jessica Chastain’s blue gown took weeks for a team of costumers to complete. Add on top of that, the blood and gore in Crimson Peak required duplicates of each of the intricate gowns that Chastain and her co-star, Mia Wasikowska, wore on set. Hawley, in essence, played the part of costume designer and prop-fabricator, inventing clever ways to layer and pin the gowns so that pieces that got too bloody during filming could be taken off and replaced easily.
What stands out the strongest for me in terms of costume design in Crimson Peak, is Hawley’s use of color to communicate details about each character to the audience. It’s a trick that was used prominently in classic films and on stage, but it has dropped to the wayside in recent years. The vibrancy and assertiveness of its use in Crimson Peak is a visual delight for viewers, and an opportunity for costume nerds to collectively lose their minds. So, for the rest of this article, I ask that you indulge me as we do brief character studies of each of the four main characters in the film in terms of their respective color schemes.
Edith (Mia Wasikowska)
The determined and strong-willed main character, Edith Cushing, is costumed in tones of gold, mimicking her glossy hair for the entire film. Her airy gowns are constructed with light, moveable fabrics and feature impossibly rotund sleeves. Not only does this ensure she stands in sharp contrast to the dark and dreary manor on Crimson Peak, but it also reveals her character strengths and flaws.
Miss Edith Cushing is a strong and capable young woman, but she is also entirely naïve. Lost in her fantasies and her novels, Edith purposely shields herself from social realities, preferring to believe that fairytales could exist. The almost outlandishly full sleeves and high necks of her gowns work to diminish her small frame, making her more childlike than womanly. Mr. Thomas Sharpe, in a moment of uncharacteristic honesty in the first act of the film, points out her naïve notions about love and relationships when he is prompted by her father to “thoroughly break her heart.”
Naiveté is Edith’s greatest weakness and the reason she is deceived and taken advantage of, but her unbreakable dreamer’s spirit is also her greatest strength. Her kindness and warmth breaks the macabre bond between Thomas and Lucille Sharpe enough to allow our plucky heroine to ultimately win the day, and free Thomas Sharpe from his cycle of horrors.
Thomas (Tom Hiddleston)
Mr. Thomas Sharpe, a Baronet and morose heartthrob is decked in shades of deep green and black throughout the film. The designers also were careful to age his wardrobe, so that he has the same decaying, molding look of the house itself. As he introduces Edith to her new home, his dusty, green jacket mimics the molding, failing walls of the entry way.
Thomas and his sister, Lucille sometimes match each other in color profile, save for Lucille’s penchant for crimson gowns in flawless satins. This small detail uncovers their relationships for what it is eventually revealed to be. Thomas is not a strong and capable man of the house, but a cowardly and compliant tool used by his hateful sister. Thomas is a decaying human being. By the time he meets his fate, he is entirely spent. The viewer is not to believe there is any hope for Thomas Sharpe’s reformation, any more than they are to believe the rotten orange in the back of their fridge is a salvageable food item. Yet another victim of his sister’s homicidal tendencies, Thomas escapes the cycle only by the grace of Edith’s pure and forgiving heart.
Lucille (Jessica Chastain)
The dastardly and beautiful Lucille Sharpe is a well-dressed lady. Her intricate and overly-tailored gowns are form fitting and evocative of classic animated villainesses like Cinderella’s step-mother, the Evil Queen, and Maleficent. As mentioned above, Edith’s favored statement color is crimson, the color of the clay on which her moldering mansion sits. When in Buffalo, acquiring yet another unwitting young bride for her brother, Edith makes her debut amongst the American well-to-do in this striking color. Amidst the sea of pinks and pastels the other ladies are wearing at the dance, crimson makes Lucille look as ominous as the ghosts trapped in her manor, covered in clay.
Also, in Lucille’s wardrobe, is a deep blue gown, which she dons upon returning to her home in Cumberland, England. Here again we see the Sharpes’ wardrobe echoing the walls and fixtures of their home. At the end of the film, Edith’s voiceover suggest that some ghosts are tied to a place because of strong emotions, hate, love, etc. and that those ghosts can never leave. Lucille’s color pallet, red included, mark her as a part of Allerdale Hall and foreshadow her unfortunate fate.
Alan (Charlie Hunnam)
The good doctor, Alan McMichael, is not your typical unrequited-love character. Throughout the film, he remains steady in his affections for Edith Cushing, but also respectful of her life choices. His signature color in the film is a tobacco brown, soft, but inviting and steadfast. Amidst the heavy, cold colors of the manor, Alan’s unassuming brown suit is almost as striking as Edith’s golden hair. Here he clearly represents safety for Edith, who is facing her most devastating trial yet.
In contrast to Thomas Sharpe, Alan McMichael’s clothing is always impeccably neat and crisp. It serves to separate Alan, the man of science, from Thomas, the man of fantasy. Edith, though, is not ready to make the leap from a life of fantasy, to one of reality until the fantasy of Thomas Sharpe is both literally and figuratively dead. The viewer, of course, can decipher which character is meant to be a healthy and supportive partner to Edith just by seeing the two men stand next to each other, thanks to their clever costuming.
Kate Hawley went on to be costume designer for 2016’s Suicide Squad, and is currently working on the Peter Jackson-scripted film, Mortal Engines, which is due to come out in 2018.
Crimson Peak is available on HBO Now/Go and on Blu-ray.