When you want to make an entrance there’s one person you turn to Jennifer Beavan.
From her post-apocalyptic dieselpunk costumes of Mad Max: Fury Road to her stunning period piece collaborations with James Ivory, and so many other films in between. Whatever the challenge, her vast catalog of work catches eyes and turns heads.
No one demanded an entrance this year like the title character of Disney’s Cruella. The Academy Award-winning costume designer made sure she was dressed for the part. Played wickedly stylish by Emma Stone, Cruella de Vil (aka Estella) made a series of stunning entrances unlike any in recent memory. Her ‘flaming’ red dress in a sea of black and white and her garbage truck gown with the fifty foot train were just of the two showstoppers that audiences could not stop talking about.
In addition she dressed hundreds of extras in authentic fashions to fill the streets, buses, and shops of 1970’s London. This again included designing costumes for Emma Thompson who plays the luxuriously sophisticated Baroness. It is an experience she touches upon in our interview, calling Thompson, “just sheer joy.”
Every frame of Cruella is chock full of some of the most extravagant and appealing costumes on film this year. They capture the era perfectly but do even more. That’s because Beavan role goes beyond costume designer, she’s also a storyteller.
For every costume designs she factors in the character personalities, individual styles, period setting – but that’s just the beginning. This is especially true in the case of Cruella de Vil where Beavan took into consideration just how feasible each extraordinary design would be for the character, a clothing designer herself, to create using her limited resources. All this and more was taken into account as Beavan designed the most talked about costumes of the year; costumes that earned her eleventh Oscar nomination.
Jenny Beavan sat down with Awards Radar to discuss her work on Cruella.
Steven Prusakowski: I want to thank you for speaking with me today and congrats on the success of Cruella. Years ago my grandmother was a seamstress for a small boutique. Watching her work was always magic, transforming piles of fabric into a dress or an outfit. I thought she was an artist and have great appreciation for the art of costume design. Where did your journey begin?
Jenny Beavan: I think it really began when I was taken to the theater, age ten, to see Dorothy Tutin in ‘Twelfth Night’ by my grandfather who loved Shakespeare. I just loved the whole experience of going to the theater. And I knew I wanted to be in some way part of it. Then when I went to college, I actually studied all kinds of theater design – set design was my real big thing. I love making the world that people are going to be in. Costumes were important because the man who ran the course was one of the finest set designers of his period. So he really concentrates on that, and I absolutely love designing sets. I got together with Merchant Ivory Productions and went out to help on a film in India, and actually helped with costumes – well I helped with everything. But they obviously thought I was a costume designer and then as life takes it sort of funny turns, my career sort of switched paths.
SP: You have been honored with numerous accolades. Some standouts, for me personally are The King’s Speech, and Mad Max Fury Road, it’s just incredible what you did there. In a way, Cruella lives somewhere between those two films. Can you tell me what it’s like, with your creative process when you’re shifting gears between more conservative and something as wild as his Mad Max?
Jenny Beavan: Well, I have to thank George Miller for taking a risk on me because my, obviously past history was very much the more traditional period movies, which I absolutely love doing. But to be given that chance to do Fury Road, when, you know, actually, in truth, a lot of my friends are retiring from more normal jobs, and it was just extraordinary. It just completely opened up my career. And, in a way, the joy of film, whoever you are in film, or whatever your job is, is the variety. You never know quite what you’ll be doing next. It’s a glorious challenge.
SP: When you look at Cruella, it’s such a massive canvas. In one scene alone, the amount of costumes that need to be created, is just mind boggling. Then you go out into the streets, onto buses, and all over London – followed by these massive, extravagant balls and events. While challenging, it must have been a treat to work on them. But, where do you begin?
Jenny Beavan: Well, you begin with a fantastic crew. So when I knew, I sort of thought maybe I can do this, I called one of my best supervisors, and she was really up for it. We managed to put together the most extraordinary crew. You don’t do it on your own. You’re doing it with these amazingly talented people. From all the different types of makers who specialized; one a little more eccentric, one more constructionist, one maybe sort of elegant. And then you also have, of course, a huge team of people – all the supporting artists are going out to source the clothes, and there are still a lot of 70s clothes around. It’s not that long ago, the only thing is, we were all much smaller in the 70s. We didn’t eat all this processed food. And actually, I think people just ate less and generally, probably walked more. So the clothes tend to be on a much lighter side. But, there is some really great, really great stuff around with those crews and those teams of people sourcing fitting. It’s the only way to do it. We have a very short time to put it together.
SP: Let’s dive into Cruella a little bit. Estella/Cruella. You had to tell a story with just her look from a young age to the adult version of herself. How did you accomplish that through the costume design?
Jenny Beavan: It’s just storytelling. And that’s really what I do. I mean, I’m not a fashion designer, and I’m not a fine artist. I basically tell stories with clothes. So, it’s really well written, you can pick up the traces of how you know where she comes from, and where she’s going and the route she takes because a lot of that is in script, particularly the sort of anarchic schoolgirl, which definitely gives you a clue as to what she’s going to turn into. And then, the next thing is you find the images and I remember the 70s. I mean, I hate to tell you, but I was very much around in the 70s. I started my career in theater, in fact, in the 70s. So, I remember the clothes – the hat that little Estella wears in the ballroom – the 18th century ball scene ever so like the one I bought around ‘72 or ‘73. So there were lots of bits of me, which nobody would know, tucked in there. And the shapes of trousers… Oh my god, I love the flowers – and the wide trouser. That’s the thing, that’s the job I do. Telling those stories and finding those costume arcs is kind of natural to me. But in this case, there was a lot more to find, because her journey is so interesting.
SP: What were some of the steps made in the costume as she evolves from Stella to Cruella. What were some of the things that you incorporated?
Jenny Beavan: I think just making her get more sophisticated, because as she works for The Baroness, I did build in a sort of slightly more sophisticated look that then ends up of course, right at the end with a very sharp, tailored look. I’s true that some of what we did, I think we shot it so fast, and it’s edited so fast that you actually probably can’t see the detail of what we’re up to. But ideally, she comes from this slightly scruffy punky Nina Hargen sort of look, which felt terribly right. You know, sort of gentle, soft, slightly more hairy sweatery, and slowly just adds bits that she would have found at Portobello – which I was going to in the 70s – Portobello Market every Friday morning. I was pretty much finding interesting bits and pieces to add into the general look. What we tried to do is find ‘found things’ and then slowly, she begins. So when she really changes and she knows what’s going on, and she sweeps the breakfast off the table and she has become Cruella, then her tailored look comes in. It’s a little unlikely, but we did provide her the sewing machine and the wherewithal to make clothes, so I’m hoping that people will realize she was quite an accomplished maker as well as designer by then.
SP: It’s incredible. If you pause on just about any shot in the film it’s those costumes that stand out. I watched it with my daughters, and they were pointing out all their favorites. One thing they really loved were the pins on young Estella.
Jenny Beavan: Oh, yes. And they’re like, punk safety pins. Yes.
SP: They’re pointing out all these great things and I’m appreciating it just as much. So it’s nice to see, two generations connect just on the just on the designs of the costumes.
Jenny Beavan: But it is the actors who bring those clothes to life.. Because when you hang them on the hanger, they look a bit sad. It’s when you put clothes on bodies, and the person who’s wearing it gives it their, you know, body language and a bit of sort of pizzazz. That’s when the costume really takes off. It doesn’t sort of exist on its own, but I’m very happy with what you’re saying thank you.
SP: It must be a joy working with the Emmas – Emma Thompson and Emma Stone especially because they make everything you costumed them in look so glamorous.
Jenny Beavan: I’ve worked with Emma Thompson for years, and from when neither of us were known at all, and she is just the most wonderful person to dress and she’s so loved all that she used to hyperventilate before each fitting because she was so excited to see what we’ve got to bring next. I think she’s just sheer joy. Emma Stone is equally wonderful. But Emma T. I’ve just known for a long time.
SP: What’s the typical reaction when they see your costume and they get to finally try it on. That must be incredible for them and you.
Jenny Beavan: It normally is good, because I mean, I’ve been at it for a long time. So I am quite good at knowing what will work. There are wonderful moments when an actor comes in and they look at the rack of stuff and say ‘oh yes, I thought exactly those colors’ or ‘Oh yes, that looks exciting.’ ‘Oh yeah, let’s get going.’ So normally it is very pleasing. It’s what makes the job worth doing.
SP: I do not have much time, I do want to speak a little bit about some of the specific dresses, the flaming red dress, the garbage truck dress, the signature piece, can you give me a little bit about each?
Jenny Beavan: Well, they’re in the script – what had to happen. I wanted to make sure that they were possible to do. We obviously did not actually set fire to Emma Stone. It is a visual effect, but it’s so well done by visual effects that people always asked me whether it was done for real. It wasn’t, but I did work out how you could do it for real with fire wire. The Garbage Truck dress; again, it’s in the script that it said it was The Baroness’ 1967 spring collection. So that’s why it says sort of like colored dresses and whatever we could put on. That was shot for real. I don’t know whether there’s any visual effects on that. But we definitely shot that on a rather cold, late at night in London, sort of Novemberish, I think, as you do – with a garbage truck, at the bottom of Regent Street. And, again, it’s for real, it’s a sort of wonderful, sort of mad collection of stuff, but it’s about 50 feet long. It was really fun.
SP: What about what about some of the smaller costumes that may get overlooked in the wake of these incredibly big and flashy ones? Are there any that stand out to you that you’re most proud of?
Jenny Beavan: Well I do love Winks rat costume. I have done a lot of animal costumes in my career, including pajamas for cow in Cranford but Winks’ little rat costume to me, I don’t know. It’s that dog. I’m not a dog lover. I just adored that dog. And he was so characterful. He just was so good about just putting things on. So it’s silly, but I love, I just love that dog and that costume. I guess there’s all sorts of bits and bobs, I really like. I mean, we did have fun and I have a really creative team around me – all assistant costume designers, adding bits and all the cast added bits. Gosh, I don’t know. I really love that funny tie she wears – the metal tie, which we found in either Portabello or one of the great London street markets and then sort of put a look together around it. I do love anything with a fluffy skirt and Doc Martin boots – particularly in slightly military jackets. I’ve always liked that look. So we had to pop that in because that was so all over the place in the 70s.
SP: You mentioned the red dress flames were CGI. But I was actually referring to the boldness of the color in that ballroom surrounded with black and white outfits. Cruella reveals this gorgeous red dress and makes the fashion statement of the year. That’s an entrance.
Jenny Beavan: And I mean, obviously she looks like she’s in white, and who knows what’s underneath and then red. It just had to be red because what other color would really stand out as much. That was obviously taken from the dress she sees in Archie’s vintage store. What I tried to do is make sure there was enough fabric to do something with. So it had a big red stole which is in the film, but you can’t see it maybe as clearly. Then we left a little bit of the top of itm the bodice so you could tell it was that dress from that she’d seen. And then if you cut it up like Ian Wallace did, so we made it into this sort of Charles James tree dress. It was a deconstructed Baroness. I think when I do clothes, I try to make it real – or possible, so an audience doesn’t, “Hmmm… that wouldn’t have worked,” and then they worry about it. I was trying to make sure they didn’t even think about it. It could have worked.
SP: Thank you so much for your time. Like I said, I really do appreciate your work. I think it’s fantastic. Best of luck going forward.
Jenny Beavan: Thank you very much.
You can find Jenny Beavan’s costume designs in Cruella on Disney+, Blu-Ray and all major VOD services.
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity]