The Beguiled (2017), the American Civil War era-set film directed by Sofia Coppola (Marie Antoinette) and starring Nicole Kidman and Kirsten Dunst, is all over the news right now, at least for historical films. The movie is an adaptation of a book and tells the story of an isolated group of women in a Southern boarding school who take in a wounded Union soldier … and then things get creepy.
First, there was a very good article over at Slate about how the lack of any African American characters is problematic. Given all of our recent discussion about the need for representation and inclusion of people of color in our view of history (specifically, movies and TV), I thought it was an important point to raise.
On to the costumes, which were designed by Stacey Battat, who has worked with director Coppola before, but whose only historical credit is the first episode of Z: The Beginning of Everything. She’s been doing a lot of press, so we can look at the costumes from the trailer in context with her vision.
Overall, the general idea created by Coppola and Battat was: “…very ethereal and diaphanous, with pastels and light pouring through moss trees and big windows” (The One Fashion Tip to Master From The Beguiled). Because of that, Battat says she disregarded the historical fact that most of the women would be wearing black (for mourning) or other dark colors, and went for gauzy pastels.
There was a lot of press about the fact that the characters are (gasp!) actually wearing corsets, which I won’t waste your time with (OF COURSE THEY’RE WEARING CORSETS, HOW MANY HISTORICAL MOVIES THESE DAYS OMIT THEM? Cue commentary about how they change how the actors move! They’re not really all that painful! Except maybe they are!).
“That changing of the silhouette is really important because it’s what makes it look old and or like a different time frame so, yes, the period undergarments are a huge part of creating that look of the costumes.” (The Civil War-Era Costumes of Sofia Coppola’s ‘The Beguiled’ Tell Their Own Story)
The other big tweak was the omission of hoopskirts, massively popular and pretty much de rigeur for this era:
“We chose to not have them be in hoop skirts for other reasons, too, and the main reason wasn’t because it’s more relatable. The main reason was because [Miss Martha, Edwina and the girls] were working and they no longer had anyone to impress. All of a sudden these women, who had spent their days learning French, being served dinner and getting dressed for lunch and whatnot, started having to tend to their own garden and get each other dressed in the morning, and do each other’s hair, so the hoop skirts seemed impractical for them. That’s mainly why we chose to not use the hoop skirts, but as an effect of not using them, it did look a little more relatable for us today, and I do think that’s a goal that’s not conscious” (The Civil War-Era Costumes of Sofia Coppola’s ‘The Beguiled’ Tell Their Own Story).
I feel like the two issues I have with this is that 1. I guess they spent a lot of time hemming all their skirts so they wouldn’t be too long? and 2. Given that everyone starts dressing up once the soldier turns up, I would think they would have busted out the hoops too.
Battat mentions in numerous articles that she studied extant garments and other resources at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and also drew inspiration from the paintings of French artist Ingres. Overall, taking into account the conscious decision to change the color palette and ditch the hoops, I think they did a great job with the daywear — the main thing I notice is a lack of headwear (bonnets) outside or (caps) in, but then it’s not like they’re going anywhere.
Looking at specific characters…
“Nicole Kidman’s character Miss Martha is the head of the household, so we wanted her to be dressed in a way that spoke to her being in charge… We gave her a high neckline, and the dress she wears in much of the film looks as though it’s made with a vest on top. It’s very masculine for that era.” (The One Fashion Tip to Master From The Beguiled)
“With Kirsten [Dunst, as Edwina], I wanted her to feel romantic, so I chose to use light fabrics that light would pass through, and her clothes felt billowy and diaphanous.” (The Civil War-Era Costumes of Sofia Coppola’s ‘The Beguiled’ Tell Their Own Story)
“Women would never have worn their hair down, either, not even for bed, but Fanning’s character, Alicia, has locks that are always loose. For several scenes, Battat also styled her buttons to be undone just so at the chest. ‘She’s a bit wilder than the rest,’ Battat says of Alicia.” (The One Fashion Tip to Master From The Beguiled)
What I didn’t love so much was the eveningwear:
“They did get dressed up when Colin came, and they wore more jewelry, just little bits because they didn’t have a lot.” (The Civil War-Era Costumes of Sofia Coppola’s ‘The Beguiled’ Tell Their Own Story)
Probably my favorite quote by Battat was: “I’m sure we are going to get abused by Civil War reenactors” (The One Fashion Tip to Master From The Beguiled)!
So hey, Civil War reenactors and people knowledgeable about 1860s fashion: what do you think of The Beguiled‘s costumes so far?
Interesting that you say there are no black characters, as the original 1971 version had a woman slave—played by Mae Mercer—working at the school and also caught under McBurney’s spell.
Exactly the point made in that Slate article, check it out!
The Slate article absolutely nails it.
One of the commenters on the Slate article posted this article defending SC:
It’s worth having a look at even if you don’t agree with it.
The book also suggests strongly that one of the pupils is of mixed race.
That would be Edwina.
It’s not the costumes, that shock me; but what the hell happened with Nicole Kidman’s face???!!!
I know, and it SO doesn’t work for a historical film!
Kidman’s face no longer “works.” Period.
I’m still a little put out by Coppola’s decision to delete the story’s only black character. And there is something a bit unrealistic about the costumes in this movie. It seemed a bit too 1850s and unrealisitc to me, especially since the women shouldn’t be feeling the pinch of wartime economics until at least 1862/1863.
Don’t know about the current version, but the original was set in 1863.
Movie is set in 1864. Says so at the beginning.
Agree, the lack of black characters (and Edwina’s race lift) is a cop out and comes off as unintentionally “Lost Cause” on SC’s part. She has said in other interviews that she felt she did not have the capacity to do the racial politics of the civil war justice, and that she didn’t want it detracting from the sexual stuff. Fair enough but still…. the GWTW references doesn’t help.
It looks like Nicole Kidman has simply gotten out her old “Cold Mountain” costumes for this: her face looks even more frozen than it did in CM and at least that had the excuse of being set in the Appalachian mountains in winter, “The Beguiled” has no excuse.
And in spite of all the limp skirts, bad corsets, weird bust darts, silk dupioni, and problematic racial politics, I still want to see this movie.
At least, in the tiny bit I can see of the embroidered dupioni dress it sort of looks like the fabric might have been reused from a late 18th century embroidered silk dress found in an attic trunk to make the evening dress, which was totally somnething that happened. So it’s not overly jarring.
I do find the colour choices very odd. artistic decision or not – I think I would prefer to have seen the older women/teachers in dove grey or pearl grey if they were going for that kind of effect, certainly something less “virginal/ingenue”. To me it just looks like Nicole Kidman is wearing the toile rather than a proper dress in her main day look.
The other thing I do wonder about – they say hoops were impractical, but ironically, it may actually have worked the other way round – I read in a reasonably reputable/reliable book that Amelia Bloomer was so impressed by the way that crinolines and hoops released the legs from encumbrance and hampering fabric that she declared she no longer needed to argue for dress reform. Particularly given how hot it always seems to be, it seems that the ventilation of a reasonably sized hoop would have been appreciated.
I do like how these look like “ordinary clothing” though, rather than overly embellished, perfectly tailored fashion plate copies – even the slighty off fitting does make it feel a little more authentic, as if the dressmaker (perhaps even themselves) didn’t really know how to fix the mistake but felt it was good enough.
Agreed on all points, especially the pastels looking weird on the older women!
I’m bothered by how crisp, clean and together all these women are considering they spend parts of their day working the gardens, cooking, etc. I don’t get the sense of Civil War depression by looking at these stills.
My thought exactly — how do they have all these brand-spanking new pastel and white dresses? How are they keeping them clean? Weren’t cottons embargoed during the war by the North? Who’s got money to buy fabrics, and who is sewing them?
This is a huge pet peeve of mine in historical dramas whether downton abbey, those medieval thingies, or beguiled – the characters always seem freshly washed, blemish free, clean coiffed hair and spotless clothes. Seldom disheveled, shiny brow, soiled clothing. Really ticks me off. Come on! Even the aristocracy had zits!
There is a famous story in which Puccini met backstage before the final act with the soprano who was the original Manon, and she was wearing an elaborate dress she’d had custom made. At that point in the opera, Manon had been exiled to Louisiana and was dying in the swamps. Puccini took his cup of coffee and threw it on her dress while telling her her clothes were meant to be distressed at that point.
I remember this line from Empire magazine’s review of Cold Mountain in 2003 that Nicole Kidman looked as if she walked out of the Donna Karen Civil War collection – that’s the first thing that came to mind when I saw images of this movie.
By this time, only older ladies would be wearing day caps. Younger women had ditched them. And if you’re not going to wear hoops (totally accurate, especially for work wear, even the fashionable wouldn’t be wearing then 100% of the time), the alternative is a corded petticoat. That’ll give some more practical fluff. These skirts just hang there like drapes.
Also, white and grey are appropriate for half mourning.
Thanks for the day cap info! And you’re right, without even a corded petticoat their skirts are going to get all twisted up in their legs.
I’m also disappointed that there’s no POC on the movie. Seems unreal not to have at least one or two slaves in a Southern boarding/finishing school during the period. At least to do the cooking and waste disposal. But also to provide a measure of accuracy. And maybe one who was helping in the Underground Railroad if it was active during the Civil War and could read.
Saw it yesterday. Nicole’s character explains that all of the slaves had left and they are alone. The opening says the year is 1864.
It would not be historically accurate to have a black character. The Civil War was close to being over in ’64. Do people really think the slaves would still be there that far into the war, with much of the south devastated and northern troops so in their midst? The majority of slaves had deserted by this point, many moving westward, or to the north.
I don’t see how the majority of the slaves could easily move north or west during the war. After the war, perhaps. Many of the simply escaped from the plantations and made their way to Union lines. And yes, some slaves merely waited out the war on the plantations, due to the heavy Confederate patrols .
The main reason I have against the film’s whitewashing is that Coppola denied the audiences a viewpoint of a black woman in this story . . . something that author Thomas Cullinen and director Don Siegel were obviously not afraid to do. Apparently for Coppola, black women do not have gender issues.
There should have been one. That’s as the author wrote it in the original novel, and the background/reasons are clearly explained. The 1971 film’s better, by far, but still can’t be really true to the novel. It would be a good idea if people actually read the book before making comments about either film version.
When I saw the trailer, the first thing I thought of was Picnic at Hanging Rock. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s a direct inspiration for the white, ethereal look.
I have a lot of issues with ‘streamlining history’ for simplicity. It appears all over the place and I’m not a fan of eliminating key characters by ethnicity, gender, class, or any other reason, just to make a story simpler. Diversity is important and necessary in storytelling.
With that being said, why would anyone think that using pastel clothing during wartime is a good idea? Wars necessitate practicality and light coloured, easily damaged clothing isn’t practical.
Isn’t there a way to achieve ‘lightness’ without compromising on the historical aspects that wars dictate? To me, this reflects our throwaway culture rather than an attempt at artistic licensure. Is it just me? Ideas?
White is easy to bleach. Pastel colors… Shrug. Maybe they tried to overdye their whites with natural dyes, poorly.
I agree, and the problem is that through that color choice they’re erasing part of the very thing Coppola wanted to explore (women’s experience in the south during the civil war).
With you on that. Our culture is in danger of taking these inaccuracies at face value and further dumbing down on historical fact!
I also thought of Picnic at Hanging Rock. Also Little Women with Wynona. Some of the bodices have the look.
Why do trailers these days give the entire plot away? No point in watching this now, especially as the original was a bit meh in the first place.
I have been a Civil War reenactor (but I was a cross dresser as I have short hair and being a Victorian lady was not appealing to me). Having interacted with people who did research the period, the costumes in Ms. Coppola’s film are symbolic rather than realistic, and close to preposterous. The original film was much better. Even with only one house slave remaining, these women had to farm crops, milk cows, help prepare food, sew their own clothes (it was 1864, so no new things for a long time) etc. Even as a school before the war, the women weren’t all aristocrats. Like Harriet Smith in Emma, school was to teach the domestic arts, and many of the women would have not been rich (in the book, Edwina is a mulatto). The women would have had WORK CLOTHES — which included aprons and pinafores, calicoes, rough fabrics, sun bonnets, etc. If Ms. Coppola and the costume designer had been more up front about their changes, i.e., this is a fantasy Gothic horror story, so we took liberties to reflect the women’s role as hot house flowers, it would have been fine. But like the execrable Patriot, they use authenticity in the details to add verisimilitude to their fantasy narrative.
“they use authenticity in the details to add verisimilitude to their fantasy narrative”
It’s kind of long for a T-shirt, but I LOVE IT.
“Merely corroborative detail intended to add verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative.”—W. S. Gilbert, The Mikado
Oops! Left out a word. Should be artistic verisimilitude.
Your comment nails it for me. I saw this film last night, and I have to admit absolutely hated it. I am a history teacher, not a re-enactor, but ( setting aside the clunky screenplay and crap gender politics) I was continually distracted by thoughts like…..who washes all these highly impractical ruffled white garments , now ‘The slaves have left’? Who cooks their food and plants their veggies ? Kirsten Dunst vaugely poking at a mixing bowl or Elle Fanning wafting a hoe around would not feed 7 women. Fair enough if Coppola didn’t want to tell women of colour’s story for them – but couldn’t she have at least explored the difficulties their absence was causing ? I totally agree that this film couldnt pick its tone. The lack of any connection with reality would have worked in a sort of Southern Gothic melodrama, but that would have required a very different performance style, and very different dialogue. I am staggered this film has been getting such good reviews, or that it can be seen as feminist. Despite having an almost entirely female cast, it still manages to fail the Bletchel test. ( All they ever talk about is Colin Farrell, and all he ever talks about is what the women look like, and himself!)
Thank You for your replies to this!
Originating from Caucasian/African/Native American share croppers in the south, movies like this royally irk me. Very little of the women folk talked about boys. First of all, you were too damned tired from toiling the indoor chores as well as the outdoor chores.
Women sang songs to drive away the drudgery, and if they talked it was about the weather and how it affected everything in daily life. And the women – especially the older you were, the more clothed you were – my 2nd great grandmother would not leave the house without full bonnet, long sleeved clothes (covering neck, ankles, and wrists), work boots, and gloves! Where were the gloves and bonnets at? Sun damage was a thing back then too not to mention the horrendous mosquitoes!
And yes, there was a very small part of my family that came from a little more money than others, and even then all of the women took part in brutal pioneer tactics of working in the fields and in the home – even cleaning out the outhouses.
There’s a reason why none of the women are smiling in old photos – no matter the socioeconomic background – you were working nonstop and birthing/raising children that you didn’t even want, and dealing with husbands that had the right to rape and beat you whenever they desired.
If the the men weren’t present, the older women saw to it to dish out their own severe corporeal punishment. Sigh.
And somehow to this day there are places here in America that women think that that’s okay! Thanks but no thanks patriarchy! :(
I won’t even begin to cover the race issue because I have mixed heritage and that is a whole other kettle of worms I’m not even going to touch here.
Thank you for covering this and the vast amount of problems with it.
Purple is also an appropriate colour for half-mourning. I found for my 2nd wife’s birthday one year an 1863 dress in half-mourning purple that had both a day and evening bodice. In the pocket of the skirt was a white handkerchief with a black embroidered border.
I want to see this so bad, but not bad enough to drive 150+ miles. Guess I’ll wait until a wider release or it hits a paid streaming service.
I’m not an amazing costumer, but I want to lower all of those damn double darts by 2-3″ so the shape in the bodices wouldn’t be so “rental costume” square
Yes, yes, yes! Those darts are not very good–look like nipple points. This for a main character?! Get the seam ripper. . . .
Aren’t they horrible?? And frankly, poor or not, I can’t believe any of the characters they’re portraying would be so lax as to not tighten the under arm seams and bodices according to the fashion.
Reformed Civil War re-enactor here. The light colored, diaphanous fabrics were actually very en vogue during the 1850s and 1860s. But they do seem to more popular with younger women of the time period. I think it is a bit misleading to say that everyone was in mourning or chose to wear black. Black was generally reserved for mourning, so there was no reason to wear it otherwise. Now you see a lot of black trim on dresses.
Colors were very bright too, sometimes garish. Plaids were particularly popular, especially after Queen Victoria took to staying in the Scottish Highlands.
Overall, the aesthetic should have been “worn” and in some ways, out of date, in my opinion. They would have been affluent at one time, but most of their dresses would have been slightly out of date, IMO.
I agree that the evening dresses look ill fitted. Actually, downright awkward.
I definitely like the article on Slate WAY better than some of the belligerent nonsense that I have seen elsewhere. There were actually two black characters in the original novel; one was the housekeeper and the other was a student passing as white. Part of me says that Coppola was afraid to broach the subject of slavery because let’s face it, no matter how she interpreted it, someone would have been offended. But I’m disappointed that she chose not to include either character because so much more could have been added to movie as a result.
They costumes look bland and uninteresting and do nothing for the characters at all. Even the plainest dress from the 1860’s still had detail that made it interesting.
Reexamining the photos, I was struck how slightly off everything is. Some dresses look weirdly corseted and not a darn in sight. Also no young lady over 16 or 17 would wear their hair down. Where are the bonnets, gloves etc for outdoor work.
Previously I stated the reminded me of 1994 Little Women. Well sort of still, but Colleen’s costumes were so appropriate for the March sisters and all still had proper hair. Amy’s was curled, Jo and Trini’s character wore it up and Beth’s was mostly braided. The dresses showed wear and tear. The March’s were cash strapped with their father in the Northern Army. I’m apologizing to Colleen Atwood. Her costumes looked ‘right’, these just weird. If Ms Battat was a dog. I’d be saying ‘Bad Dog!’
Also ‘Bad Director’ to Ms Coppola, a South without slaves during this period is trying to sugarcoat slavery. I enjoyed the Slate article, too.
I’m definitely going to wait for the DVD.
Give me another Wonder Woman and I’ll watch Beauty and the Beast and other better costumed movies until then.
(Sorry for mini rant)
I’m fine with the lack of hoops. I read a civil war diary of a woman who fled New Orleans for Texas and the author marveled that Texas women were still wearing hoops, so this seams plausible. But I’m with you, the cut on all the evening bodices seems wrong and weird.
I have to wonder if the choice to not wear hoops is because of how it was done in Gone With the Wind. The shot of Kidman coming down the stairs with the gun is so reminiscent of Scarlet in her work dress at Tara. But even though the white women at Tara had a few black workers left to help, the white women were covered in grime from working the farm. The white women in The Beguiled don’t appear to show the slightest signs of hard work. Real farm women didn’t often clean aprons used for work. They wore them all the time for working around the house and farm to protect their dresses. And the work dresses would have been the same one or two dresses, day after day, with a change for evening.
I came on to say exactly this, Denise – that shot on the stairs instantly made me think of GWtW.
I would also wonder about the lack of sun bonnets. Having spent more than ten years living in the south, you need a hat or a bonnet to keep the sun off your face! And didn’t women try to keep their skin as white as possible? Nobody wanted to have dark skin because they’d look like they were working in the fields.
My question is if they didn’t wear hoops and the justification was about working in the gardens, why would they wear corsets to do manual labor?
Also, would the young ladies in a young ladies’ seminary really wear white every day? Wouldn’t the clothing be more utilitarian? Or was that just in England?
Actually, that’s a little like saying “Would they wear bras to do manual labor.” Biggest myth about corsets is that they’re all uncomfortable and tight, whereas most women just wore them as the bust-supporting, shaping garment on which your dress was fitted. There were at various times, less fashionable corsets without bones for those philosophically against corsets (“reform” corsets), and for the working class, but I’m betting that the ladies could have bent over a bed of vegetables in a regular corset laced normally, just fine (haven’t worn this era myself so I”ll leave those testimonials to others).
While I might buy the fact that young ladies (and maybe everybody else) wore corsets all the time, I cannot equate them with bras. I would more likely equate them with “longline” bras or “Merry Widows,” which nobody in their right minds would wear for doing manual labor. If the young ladies ditched their hoops for comfort, would corsets not be hot in the South, as opposed to uncomfortable? I’ve worn stays and corsets from Elizabethan to 18th century, but admit that I do not do any Civil War so I can’t speak to the comfort of corsets of that era.
I’m a reenactor who usually does servants and working women (when not being an artilleryman. I can assure you that a properly fitted corset is just fine for work. The major problem I have with them is hot weather, when it always seems to itch under your corset, because of sweat. However, a close-fitting and boned bodice and substituted for support purposes. (BTW, I’m also the author of an article that made the rounds for a long time, “First Aid for the Corseted.”)
re: white for practical things, white is easily bleached and washed in boiling water. So it may be way more practical to get white clothes and wash them often. White does not fade as much too. Think of all those babies and small children (and who or what creates more stains than children?) and all the white they wore. The see through fabric is maybe less practical because it is easier damaged when washed often. And as for corsets, I agree with Alden. :)
I’m trying to think how far back wrappers go. One of you will know. Was the costumer’s efforts a mash up of wrappers and hoop skirts I wonder??
Wrappers go back to the 18th century. However, most wrappers made a gallant effort to look a lot like dayware, with just a bit more ease and ease in putting it on. I own several wrappers from this era, and none look anything like these outfits.
I am so sick of the “relatable” shtick. I grew up watching historical dramas, War and Peace, Pallisers, and had no difficulty as a teenager relating to the characters in accurate period costume. In fact the costume was part of the appeal. To relate to characters that are not us, who look different, have different cultural backgrounds, different gender or gender orientation, different experiences, is the whole point of fiction. It expands our understanding and appreciation of other people and the world we live in. “Relatable” is the “buzz word” of the moment in the entertainment industry and I think it is high time to wage war on it.
Enjoyable review BTW. Sorry for the rant.
Hear, hear! It’s all about putting oneself in a different environment, not adapting the environment to the viewer.
I agree entirely. There is a huge problem, I think, in historical fiction, film and popular nonfiction, to try to make people in the past just ‘us in fancy dress’. They’re not: mind-sets, values, mental furniture as well as physical environment and circumstances are different.
‘Relatable’, like ‘problematic’, just makes me want to slap people who use them.
“I’m done commenting on the fact that no woman over 30 would have a face that doesn’t move pre-20th century.”
Laughed so much at that line.
Having worn 1850s costumes in a muddy environment I think pastels would be exactly what women would want to avoid when working in fields. Also they would have probably worn blouses and skirts if they could as that makes washing easier and they certainly would have worn bonnets when working outside.
I am afraid the more I see about this film the less I am convinced to watch it, Nicole Kidman, crappy costumes.. Not selling it. I might just re-watch Picnic at Hanging Rock instead.
Or watch the 1971 Beguiled.
The evening wear is horrendous. Like I don’t even care about the inaccuracy of it but it looks so ugly and ill-fitting that it everyone involved in allowing those darts should go and visit an optometrist.
So, the dresses have round waists and high necks. That’s about all I can say they got right in terms of accuracy.
The armscye are at the complete wrong place, hitting the top of the shoulder which is why the armpits look so wonky. Where are the collars????? Especially if you’re working, a detachable white collar or neckerchief is absolutely necessary to protect the dress. Then we can get into fabric selection: absolutely no consideration for the correct fabrics for the styles was given.
As for hoops, these are women who would have worn them. They came from wealthy families, they would have never even thought to go without. And if, for some strange reason, they did go sans hoop, they’d have at least worn 2 well starched petticoats keeping their skirts from looking like limp dishrags like these. Though, I suspect, rather than a legitimate costuming choice, this decision was made due to the fact that the one little old man who made all the hooping for the industry retired, and it’s near impossible to get. Hold on to that hooping, ladies!
As to the hair, well, that choice was just stupid. I HAVE plowed a field in 1860s clothing, and hair is HOT. All I need to say there!
Overall, I give the costuming 0 stars, two thumbs down, however you want to rate it, it’s the lowest.
At least Cold Mountain had semi-structured headwear. :(
Not liking it. Kidman’s character is supposed to look severe? She looks like every woman I see at reenactments, minus the hoop or even a petticoat to poof it out the way lower and middle class women who had to do work did. Hair isn’t thrilling me either, it needs to be up or curled. Bodices don’t fit, and the silhouette of Kidman’s torso looks like her corset is wrong. “very masculine”? Ha! from the waist up, clothing was very androgynous. She could be wearing a mens’ jacket and I wouldn’t bat an eye.
And really, no hoops for the FORMAL wear? uh-uh. Not buying it.