The much-anticipated live-action update of “Beauty and the Beast,” starring Emma Watson and Dan Stevens, finally opens in theaters this Friday, March 17. It sort of feels like we’ve been waiting forever — and not just because it’s been more than 25 years since the Disney animated classic and Céline Dion’s other earworm theme song (performed for a new generation by Ariana Grande and John Legend) worked their way into our collective hearts.
The “Beauty and the Beast” update has been making headlines by modernizing what could be considered a woman-in-captivity “tale as old as time” into a progressive, empowering message — especially given that outspoken feminist Watson is the top-billed star. (The film also features Disney’s first ever outwardly gay character, much to the outrage of some less progressive potential audiences, from Alabama to Russia.) The refreshed and still very erudite Belle is the inventor of the family (rather than her father, Maurice) and leader of the resistance fighting for women’s rights and literacy in the “poor provincial town.” (Sorry, the soundtrack is stuck in my head.)
The costumes, by Jacqueline Durran, help tell the story of an updated, badass Belle and her perfectly healthy — not-Stockholm Syndrome-at-all — romance with the Beast. Leading up to the premiere, the costume designer, who won an Oscar in 2013 for “Anna Karenina,” jumped on the phone with Fashionista to chat about giving Belle an 18th century version of trousers, working with Watson to design a feminist version of that iconic yellow ball gown and confirming that, yes, even CGI Beasts need proper, tangible clothing.
Where did you look for the inspiration for Belle’s costumes?
The production designer, the director [and I thought] about [the movie] as a story set in 18th century France, so there was always the [1991 animated ‘Beauty and the Beast’ classic] as a really strong instrument. No one wanted to change or reinvent the animation, because it’s so strong and loved by everybody. It was always about augmenting and just making what’s established in the animation work for live action.
Another thing that we wanted to bring to it was this feeling of history. So when I was looking at fabrics and thinking of how the villagers and those other characters would look, there’s more freedom to invent. I was looking at 18th century French prints and peasants’ costumes. We took elements of those 18th century things and added them to Belle. So her pockets, for instance, are an 18th century thing. It’s just that people didn’t wear them outside like she does. They wore them inside the dress, hidden. But we just put them on the outside [like a tool belt] to look extra useful. So I would take elements that were historical and bring them with a twist into our Disney ‘Beauty and the Beast’ world.
Belle’s in-the-village, pre-Beast ensemble looks like it has more contemporary details, like a denim-like bodice. What was the inspiration and concept behind that?
It is different. We started by saying, if Belle was an active girl, who wanted to invent things and be doing things in the village, she shouldn’t have delicate ballet shoes. She should have strong shoes that would be grounding for her and enable her to do all the things that boys who wear boots would do. And she had her skirt that she hikes up into waist and, to make that possible, she wears bloomers underneath, which are almost like her wearing trousers. But she doesn’t wear trousers because she’s a girl in the 18th century.
She has the bodice and the blouse and the elements are probably a tiny bit, not too much more modern. But then, if you look at the animation, the costume, it’s also of no period, particularly. It’s not Victorian or 18th century. It’s just a blue skirt and bodice. We add in pattern and texture and make her have two skirts, which is more historical, and we just added elements taken from history from our research to enrich the image.
I read in Entertainment Weekly that you worked with Emma Watson to develop Belle’s yellow gown and that being active was an important part of the design. How did you incorporate design elements to allow for the physicality?
[Watson and I] did try a lot of things because it was about how Belle is represented as a princess. So is it like the animation or do we try something else? We did try going in the direction of a historical 18th-century dress, and we tried going in the direction of something more modern, as a reinterpretation of an 18th-century dress. In fact, in the end it, came back to being closer to animation.
But what we did with that silhouette was to try and give it a lightness and a fluidity and very little structure, so that Emma didn’t feel inhibited or trapped by it. That it was as light as it could possibly be, but at the same time had enough movement to work for the gown. It’s very wearable and it doesn’t have such a big skirt or have things that makes it impossible to imagine.
What was it like working with Emma on that dress?
It was very good. It was quite tricky, because she was working so hard to create a strong, individual, modern, emancipated kind of Belle. But at the same time, there are elements in which the yellow dress works against that in a sense of being a pretty, princess-y kind of dress. So to try and find balance and try an a yellow dress [that would] work for the new Belle that we’re creating was difficult and interesting. I think that we arrived at the end by making it quite simple and something that she felt she could really move in and be active in.
In terms of the costumes, how was it for you to be a part of this more sophisticated and almost politicized update?
It was good! Yeah, it was just [determining] what elements the dress needed to have in order to help Emma be her version of Belle. It was certain it shouldn’t have a corset. It was certain it should be something she should move in. It should certainly be not too heavy, but it should still have movement and everything and be beautiful for the ball.
I’m imagining that finding the perfect shade of yellow to match the animation was a process, too.
It was really a process. We did lots of camera tests on different colors of yellow. [We looked at] how much shine the yellow had; how matte the yellow was; whether the fabric had the texture; what tone the yellow was. How was it in the light or the darkness of the ballroom when it goes through all the scenes? Sometimes what you thought was the right yellow would be completely wrong once you camera tested it. We [also] wanted the yellow that suited Emma and was close to the original yellow because that seemed to be an important link.
The Beast (Dan Stevens) was created through CGI and motion-capture technology, but you had to create real physical costumes, too. What was that like?
We created the costumes, because we started off [thinking] he was fully existing and he would have needed costumes in every scene. We’d already started work on the costumes on the body form of the Beast, so we just continued with that. And, in fact, when they’re building a CGI Beast or any sort of CGI character, they need costumes to be physically made for scenes, so that they can program the movement of the costumes and input all the detail of the costume into the CGI image.
What were the challenges for you in designing real costumes for a CGI character?
The challenge of doing the Beast was finding a way to get the body of the Beast and to fit the body of the Beast. But it was evolving, because the shape of the Beast would be evolving as we were making the costumes; everyone had an opinion of what shape the Beast should be or how big his head should be or how hairy he was. All these elements would be evolving in the process. We would always adapt the costumes as the Beast would evolve. And his costumes become more human as he goes through the story, even during the time he is still a Beast.
So Beast has a ‘wardrobe evolution,’ as they say.
He starts off with this really crazy cape, and just before the end when he’s doing the dance with Belle, he’s pretty much wearing sort of clothes that an 18th-century aristocrat would wear. But he’s just a Beast. And I enjoyed making the costume for the Beast where he’s dancing, because we had the idea that all his clothes needed to be made by the objects in the castle. So we thought the idea would be as if Plumette [the feather duster, played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw] had painted onto his coat. So we painted and printed it on, rather than embroidered it or any other method of decoration. A little bit like Plumette’s contribution to his makeover.
Dan Stevens, in the beginning of the movie, is the most fun. He’s done up like the prince. He has a coat that’s completely covered in Swarovski crystals. It’s quite an extraordinary beginning for him — just immediately before he turns into a Beast. But that was really fun to do because we discovered it was actually a thing in the 18th century that men had jeweled clothes. And so we designed what looked like a diamond-studded coat for a vain prince, and Swarovski supplied the crystals and we had people sticking them on. I can’t remember how many crystals, but thousands. His coat is embroidered with theses sort of phantasmagorical animals, like wolves and dragons to show that he’s kind of [on the] dark side.
‘Beauty and the Beast’ opens nationwide on Friday, March 17.
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