Poor Things Costume Analysis Deep Dive

Poor Things Costume inspiration with giant sleeves inspired by Bella Baxter's fashion

The 2023 movie season concluded on a high note with the arrival of Poor Things this past December. Following its release, the film swept the Academy Awards, claiming four prestigious awards including Best Costume Design, Best Production Design, Best Makeup and Hairstyling, and a well-deserved Best Actress win for Emma Stone. In a cinematic landscape dominated by superhero blockbusters and live-action reboots, Yorgos Lanthimos’ adaptation offered a breath of fresh air, blending thoughtful storytelling, captivating world-building, and impeccable costume design.

Drawing inspiration from Alasdair Gray’s novel, Poor Things introduces us to Bella, a pregnant woman rescued from a desperate situation by the eccentric scientist Godwin Baxter (portrayed by Willem Dafoe). To save her, Godwin performs a daring experiment, swapping her brain with that of her unborn child. Alongside Duncan (played by Mark Ruffalo) we follow Bella throughout a European adventure as she navigates the complexities of womanhood in a rigid, patriarchal society.

Set in the late 1800s, the Victorian Era fashion captures Bella’s world with their opulent details and vibrant colors. Costume designer Holly Waddington’s work not only earns her an Oscar but also leaves a lasting impression on cinematic costume design. Join us as we delve into an exploration of Bella Baxter through the captivating lens of her wardrobe.

Poor Things Historical Setting: The Victorian Era

Before we dive into the costume design of Poor Things, let’s take a moment to understand the world that Bella inhabits. Poor Things unfolds against the backdrop of the Victorian Era, a period characterized by its strict social hierarchy based on gender and class. 

Central to Victorian society was the doctrine of “separate spheres”, which dictated rigid gender roles. In the past, society regarded men as strong, independent figures capable of participating in politics, commerce, and other aspects of public life. They assumed the role of providers and decision-makers, and their authority was firmly established and unquestioned.

On the other hand, society restricted women to the domestic sphere, expecting them to embody the virtues of purity, modesty, and submission. They were seen as moral guardians of the home, responsible for nurturing their families and upholding domestic harmony. Victorian society idealized women who embraced the role of the self-sacrificing mother and dutiful wife, finding fulfillment in their domestic duties. 

Additionally, Victorian society placed significant restrictions on women’s sexual autonomy and expression. Female sexuality was considered taboo and was tightly controlled. Society discouraged women from exploring their sexuality and expected them to remain celibate until marriage. Any deviation from this norm was met with severe condemnation and ostracization. Women who displayed signs of sexual desire or curiosity were often labeled as morally corrupt or mentally unstable.

Poor Things Costume Analysis

Through the use of colors in Bella’s wardrobe, the costumes in Poor Things reflect her journey from vulnerability to empowerment. As Bella grapples with societal constraints and navigates her path toward self-actualization, each color choice provides insights into her character development. 

Bella’s Evolution into Adulthood

Poor Things Costumes in White

White represents Bella’s confinement under patriarchal authority. While traditionally associated with purity and innocence, white also becomes a sign of manipulation in Bella’s life, orchestrated by the men around her.

Even though the early scenes of the film are set in black-and-white, Bella’s attire likely predominantly features white hues, indicating her dependency on Baxter as a parental figure. This portrayal suggests her vulnerable state, like a child under his control.

When Bella accompanies Henry to Alexandria her all-white dress reflects his manipulation of her worldview. Despite her optimism, Henry’s influence leads her to witness the harsh realities of poverty and suffering. The white attire illustrates Henry’s control over Bella’s perceptions and experiences, shaping her understanding of the world according to his agenda. 

The white wedding dress Bella wears during her encounter with Alfie Blessington foreshadows the oppressive nature of their previous marriage. This traditional symbol of purity becomes a stark reminder of the expectations placed upon Bella as a wife, setting the stage for Alfie’s abusive behavior. The white attire serves as a visual cue for the audience, signaling the impending control and confinement Bella will face in her marriage to Alfie. 

Poor Things Costumes in Black

Black signifies Bella’s transition into adulthood, marking a shift towards introspection as she grapples with her place in the world. The harsh realities of inequality confront Bella, shattering her childlike naivete and innocence. This awakening prompts her to reassess her worldview and aspirations, leading to a newfound sense of discomfort towards societal injustices. In Paris, Bella becomes immersed in socialist ideals and begins contemplating her role in society, leading to the desire to pursue a career in medicine. 

As she delves deeper into humanitarian pursuits, Bella’s attire evolves to include black dresses, reflecting her growing seriousness. The introduction of black into Bella’s wardrobe marks a departure from her vibrant attire, signaling a shift towards a more reserved and contemplative demeanor. Black becomes Bella’s internal conflict and uncertainty, as she grapples with the complexities of adulthood and learns how to reconcile her idealism with the realities of the world around her. 

Bella’s Personality Traits

Decomposing Apple Hues

In a pivotal scene early in the film, Bella uses an apple in an exploration of her sexuality to experiment with her body. However, Mrs. Prim and Max scold her, explaining that her behavior is not respectable in polite society. The apple scene portrays the constraints and expectations imposed on women in society, highlighting the themes of sexual repression and shame that women were compelled to act upon.

While designing the costumes of Poor Things, Waddington’s creative process involved an intriguing inspiration. When she discussed color palettes with Lanthimos, he observed the colors she described resembled those found in rotting apples. This led Waddington to incorporate rich tones of acid yellow, light pinks, and deep oranges into her designs, creating a visually striking wardrobe for Bella. 

The significance of the apple extends beyond its role as a source of inspiration; it becomes an important symbol within the narrative of Poor Things. The use of decomposing apple hues mirrors Bella’s rejection of societal expectations. Yellow, pink, and orange emerge as prominent colors in Bella’s wardrobe, each representing distinct traits of her defiance against Victorian societal expectations, stemming from the decomposing apples.

Poor Things Costumes in Yellow

Yellow embodies Bella’s disagreements with characters who oppose her defiance of societal norms, leading to tense and confrontational scenes.

In a dinner scene with Duncan and his friends, Duncan reprimands her for her lack of decorum. This confrontation escalates to Bella defiantly slapping him, asserting her independence. Similarly, Bella dons a bright yellow cape during an argument with Swiney in the brothel. She challenges conventional gender roles by advocating for women’s agency in choosing their partners.

Poor Things Costumes in Pink

In contrast, pink embodies Bella’s journey of youthful discovery and freedom, where she is encouraged to embrace her true self beyond societal expectations. One notable instance of this is in her dancing scene, where Bella wears a sheer pink skirt, illustrating her inhibited expression and celebration of her individuality. 

Additionally, Toinette and Max wear pink at different points throughout the film. Even Godwin’s house is painted pink. Each character encouraged Bella’s exploration at some point, further exemplifying female empowerment and defiance of societal norms. 

Bella’s Journey to Freedom

Poor Things Costumes in Blue

Blue serves as Bella’s quest for freedom and liberation from oppression. This color represents her inclination towards escapism and the act of running away as a means of breaking free from societal constraints. However, while these actions signify her desire for autonomy, they ultimately fall short of granting her true freedom.

Bella is first introduced in a blue dress which implies her desire to escape her abusive husband’s control. The blue in this opening scene is a deep dark blue, reflecting her decision to jump off a bridge to what she believes will be her death- the ultimate freedom from the suffocating and choiceless life she was living.

During Bella’s time in Lisbon, the iconic blue jacket paired with the yellow skirt represents her newfound freedom from Godwin and Max’s influence. By embarking on a journey with Duncan, Bella explores her sexual desires and embraces the possibility of life beyond their control. 

On the boat, while diving into the realms of philosophy with Martha and Henry, we find Bella in a similar blue outfit. While she initially explores sexual liberation with Duncan, her transition to philosophy represents a deeper understanding of her agency and potential. Her outfit mirrors her escape from the limitations imposed by Duncan.

In the film’s closing scene, the presence of blue attire on Toinette, Mrs. Prim, and Felicity suggests their journeys towards freedom, inspired by Bella’s courageous pursuit of independence. Just as Bella’s blue wardrobe represents her escape from societal constraints, these characters follow suit, embarking on their paths toward autonomy and self-discovery. 

Poor Things Costumes in Orange

Orange emerges at the end of Bella’s journey, suggesting the union between her two personas represented by yellow and pink. In color theory, one creates orange by combining red/pink and yellow, reflecting Bella’s fusion of her youthful exploration (pink) and defiance of societal norms (yellow). This gives Bella the confidence to finally break free from societal confinement.

We see Bella wearing an orange gown during her confrontation with her abusive husband, where she shoots him in the foot. This bold act of defiance marks a pivotal moment in Bella’s journey by reclaiming her agency and independence from her previous and current life. Similarly, in the final scene of the film, Bella wears a bronzy orange skirt as she prepares for her medical exams. Her choice of attire showcases her newfound determination and resilience as she embarks on a path toward self-realization and professional success. 

Going back to color theory, blue is a complementary color to orange and holds significance in Bella’s story. While blue represents her initial quest for freedom through escapism, orange embodies a more enlightened form of liberation. Bella’s journey highlights that true freedom lies not in fleeing from societal expectations, but in embracing self-discovery and personal growth.

Through the symbolism of colors and their evolution in Bella’s wardrobe, the costumes become a narrative within themselves, reflecting her journey from vulnerability to empowerment. As Bella grapples with societal constraints and navigates her path toward autonomy, each color choice speaks volumes about her internal struggles and external challenges. 

From the confinement of white to the liberation of orange, the costumes not only adorn the characters but also serve as visual metaphors for their triumphs and tribulations. Ultimately, Poor Things emerges as a masterclass in storytelling through costume, offering viewers a captivating glimpse into the complexities of womanhood and societal expectations in the Victorian era.

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