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).
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.
“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.