Dressing the Cast of BELLE
BELLE's costumes also reflect Dido Belle's unusual journey through fashionable English
society. The task was undertaken by costume designer Anushia Nieradzik, whose films include Steve
McQueen's HUNGER. She wanted to bring a strong authenticity, allowing the characters to move as
they truly would have in their 18th
Like the rest of the team, Nieradzik's first and most important reference point was the
painting. "For artists in the 18th
Century," she says, "the main priority was status, so it was quite
unusual having a girl of mixed-race not kneeling down. So I echoed that relationship in the way that I
dressed the two girls. I didn't want to make Dido look any lower than her cousin. We never see the
girls dressed exactly as they are in the painting, but I did give them the same necklaces, so that the
effect would be slightly subliminal."
The costume designer created a similar shift between the pastoral tranquility of Kenwood and 16
the more modern energy of London. "Kenwood House at that time was surrounded by fields and was
quite a ways away from central London -- and the Mansfield family were quite cocooned there.
There's a line in the film where one of the girls says, 'When we have visitors, can we wear our silks?'
So I dressed them in cottons and slightly gentler, less formal clothes. But when they come into
London, and they enter the marriage market, we see a second look -- more showy and dressed up."
Century clothing can be spectacularly beautiful, it can also be uncomfortable and
constricting. But Nieradzik notes that our ideas of the era have perhaps been over-influenced by
badly fitted movie costumes. "Often, when you see period dramas people are actually wearing
furnishing fabric, which is intended to be used for curtains and upholstery, so it's heavy and it chafes,
which is why I wouldn't use it. The fabrics we used -- silk, taffeta and muslin -- are really quite light."
Of course, dresses still involved waist-cinching corsets and hoop skirts. "Being in a corset
for 10 hours a day is a real shock to the system," admits Gugu Mbatha-Raw. "You do get used to it,
but on your days off, your body sort of expands and relaxes, and then you have to be pulled back into
it again. But I found it very informative to the character because you start to realize that for the ladies
of that time, there was so much they couldn't do. I couldn't even do my shoelaces up myself! Much
as we all complained about our corsets, they put us into that constrained place."
Sarah Gadon felt similarly. "One of the hardest things for me about playing Elizabeth was
just the physical challenge of the corset!" she admits. "Just trying to maintain your energy and being
able to breathe and being able to use your voice properly become great challenges."
The men, by contrast, were sleeker in those times. "The guys have less fabric to drag about,"
says Nieradzik, "but it's still a very different silhouette to the kind you'd see in other periods.
Particularly with the hats, because there wasn't such a selection of hats that you could choose from
back then. It was really just the tricorn. Even the working-class wore the tricorn as well."
Tom Felton, who plays James Ashford, says that Nieradzik's impeccably researched details
were invaluable in making history feel real and current. "We rehearsed in our civilian clothes," he
says, "but it added a whole new dimension when we started putting on these fabulous costumes and
hairpieces. I mean, every little detail, right down to the little snuff ring that James has, really helped
me get into character. It would be almost impossible for me to be myself in those clothes."
Asante says that the combination of cast and wardrobe became key elements in bringing her
vision of BELLE to life. "What's been really fascinating for me," she says, "has been thinking that I
know a particular character inside out, and then learning there's even more to that character than I
could have ever known. That's what the actors bring to it. There's sensitivity there, and a sensibility,
that I knew would come, but I didn't know how, or in what guise and in what way. And Anushia's
work adds something breathtaking to that. With the actors in her costumes, the characters were just as I'd always seen them. Not only were they fabulous, they were now very much alive."
A similar feeling of aliveness came to Asante when she heard Academy Award winner
Rachel Portman's emotional score for the film. "Using all the elements of the film, she came up with
something really different," the director muses. "At times, it absolutely brought tears to my eyes."
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