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 Century lives.
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 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."
Though 18th 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
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 AwardÂ®
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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