Costuming plays a vital role in the life of a motion picture. From the creases in a double agent’s pants legs to an unassuming kindergarten teacher’s crisp white button-down, costume design elevates a character’s on-screen presence in the most seamless ways. The work of costume designer Jane Petrie in Suffragette speaks volumes to this fact.
“Most of the clothes in the film are 100 years old or so, therefore they bring with them a texture and a history that hopefully informs the look of the final costume in such a way as to provide a visual depth that allows the viewer to believe in the characters without being distracted by the ‘periodness’ of the costumes” said Petrie.
Suffragette tells the story of the courageous women who wanted the right to vote and were tired of taking ‘no’ for an answer. The film is directed by Sarah Gavron, written by Abi Morgan, and stars Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter and Meryl Streep. The film is scheduled for release on October 23, 2015. Our team was on the red carpet at the New York premiere where we interviewed cast members, producers, and the director.
Jane Petrie’s meticulous attention to historic detail in the costuming choices introduces audiences to Maud Watts, played by Carey Mulligan, a woman of quiet dignity who no longer wants to live in the shadows of male-dominated 18th-century Britain. Petrie shares that Carey Mulligan was good natured about wearing the ancient garments that were literally hanging in threads. “She was patient and committed to the idea as she suffered our daily repairs with grace and humour”.
“I think that costumes are always a huge part of any actor’s experience,” said actress Carey Mulligan. “… Jane Petrie, our costume designer, wanted to work with a lot of original costumes, some of the history behind those clothes really helped.”
As Suffragette’s costume designer, Petrie designed looks that highlighted the oppression felt prior to the women’s suffrage groundswell. “The responsibility I felt was to the women who had given so much to the cause – I was determined to create believable characters whose lives felt real and immediate to a contemporary audience.” said Petrie.
In a tremendous fight for equality, women of the Suffrage era commingled their fashions with statement pieces and jeweled accessories. Characters dressed by Petrie will be seen wearing accessories popular among Suffragettes: cloche and flapper hats, clutches, and kitten heeled lace-up boots. “When we actually started to look at the surveillance photos of these women at the time, they were much more unbuttoned,” Suffragette screenwriter Abi Morgan said, “Their clothes were much looser. They felt much more contemporary, actually. I love the fact that I had been sold one image of history in fashion when in fact there was another one to discover.”
“There were meticulous studies of what women at the time looked like,” said Dr. Helen Pankhurst, the great granddaughter of Emmeline Pankhurst, British political activist and leader of the British suffragette movement who was played by Meryl Streep “They went through footage. They went through some filming. They actually got some of the clothes that belonged to Suffragettes. So, the attention to detail, in terms of the clothes, is very, very significant.”
“We had to match what people would’ve been wearing in that actual weather, otherwise it wouldn’t have looked authentic, and authenticity was the absolute keynote of the movie” said Suffragette Producer Alison Owen.
As the political movement grew, women were feeling more empowered and found a subtle way to display their involvement: brooches. “The medals were very important to Suffragettes,” explained Pankhurst, “[They were] symbolic of people who had been to prison.”
These tangible beacons of hope boasted colors of the movement: refreshing greens, bold whites, and rich violets. According to Queens of Vintage, “Gold, white metal and violet was also used because the initials of the three elements – G, W and V – also stood for Give Women Votes and so wearing an item of jewellery could act as a code which other women could instantly recognise and appreciate.”
“The most interesting part of the process was the research,” explained Suffragette Producer Faye Ward, “We knew how important this film was when we started, but it’s not until we really dug deep into the research did we see the true relevance of… this political movement and how relevant it is today.”
“What’s great about the Suffragettes was that often in a lot of photos, they look very modern,” said Suffragette Director Sarah Gavron, “Also, they were hiding stones and toffee hammers under their dresses.”
In addition to looking kempt and using their style-savvy techniques to communicate under-the-radar, the Suffragette movement succeeded thanks to all the women who never gave up their fight for equality.
The Qualification of Women Act, which gave some women the right to vote, passed on November 21, 1918. In 1928, all women in Britain were given the right to vote. One can only hope that these women showed up to polling stations in their best kitten heels.
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Gerilyn is a professional writer who edits and writes news stories for Fashion Mingle. Having studied fashion and consumer sciences at Texas State University, she seeks to educate readers about this evolutionary art form's historical and cultural impact. When she is not helping local businesses expand their social media presence and marketing efforts, Gerilyn spends time collecting Milan Kundera hardcovers and creating original artwork.