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How They Dressed for Survival and Empowerment in ‘Suffragette’

How They Dressed for Survival and Empowerment in 'Suffragette'


The fight for women’s equality in early 20th century Britain offered a different kind of costume design aesthetic in Oscar contender “Suffragette.” Looking to ordinary people for inspiration, designer Jane Petrie conveyed dressing for survival and empowerment in the gritty drama of factory worker-turned activist Maud (Carey Mulligan).

READ MORE: “How Sarah Gavron Picked Her ‘Suffragette'”

“I wanted to find early images of clothes in motion, relaxed, real people going about their daily business,” recalled Petrie (“Moon,” “28 Weeks Later”). “No gloves, open jackets, not following the rules of a period costume drama, basically. It was important to me to get away from anything theatrical or contrived so I wanted as many images as I could find of ordinary daily life. Edward Linley Sambourne’s photographs were taken secretly so the women weren’t aware of the camera. They weren’t necessarily working class but they were very real. I also looked at early documentaries, particularly ‘Peek Frean and Co. Biscuit Works.’  Real people striding out with purpose, laughing, relaxed and working class. This was a key reference.”

The clothing was nearly all 100 years old and, thanks to a vibrant secondhand market, Petrie successfully translated the worn-out tiredness of what the factory workers wore. “That’s something which is hard to achieve by theatrical techniques such as aging and breaking down of fabrics and newly made garments,” she added.

In terms of protagonist Maud, however, the wardrobe helps convey the arc of her journey, beginning with what she wears in the factory, “dressing for survival,” and then how her wardrobe changes when she joins the suffragette movement led by the real-life Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep). It’s important to note both the kinds of clothes Maud wears as well as how they fit her. It’s as though a weight has been lifted through her activist awakening.

“Instinct for the script and experience is the way I trust myself to tell a story,” Petrie explained. “I just did what felt right then looked at the plan and there was a story already there in the clothes and the colors. By doing the deepest, most thorough research and a focused prep, in my experience, produces the right results without needing to consciously analyze ideas as much as you might think.

READ MORE: “‘Suffragette Breaks at Telluride; Meryl Streep Slams Lack of Female Directors (VIDEO)”

“I find if I am under pressure to make a decision at the last minute and I am as well prepared for a project as possible, then what I come up with in that moment under pressure is often better than anything I could have come up with by sitting intellectualizing and pondering for hours. It’s happened to me time and again that if I trust my instincts after my prep then the arc will naturally happen in the right way. The whole process is of discovery for me, I never want to impose on the script, I want it to give me the answers.”

By contrast, the sportier Edith (Helena Bonham Carter), a chemist and veteran activist, serves as mentor to Maud, the newbie. “She is confident, educated, and liberated for the period and I wanted her to have a practical aspect due to being a scientist. Maud’s clothes are practical because she is a laundry worker so both women have a connection visually. They are compatible from the outset so as Maud awakens, the journey for her clothes isn’t too dramatic to be unbelievable. I looked at Victorian working women in books and they sometimes wore trousers if the work was manual. Maud would have witnessed and worked alongside women like this, full of gumption and very resourceful. That’s where Maud and Edith meet and have common ground over the class divide.”

And, of course, there’s a world of difference between dressing for survival and for effect.

“There is no choice when dressing for survival: I wanted to show visual repairs and the women’s hands having worked the clothes—absolute necessity. And then dressing for effect [and] the visual impact it would have—they were very savvy and probably the first ‘branded’ movement.”

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