Poor Things costumes

Balloon sleeves and ruffles: The secret meanings behind Poor Things’ costumes

I need them available to buy NOW

If you’ve seen Yorgos Lanthimos’ latest film, Poor Things, you’ll know it’s a whirlwind of ultra-surrealism based on the 1992 book by Scottish writer Alasdair Gray. Following the life of Bella Baxter, we see a woman re-born (no spoilers) in more ways than one. But aside from the winding plot and Emma Stone’s Oscar-worthy performance, there’s another element of Poor Things you can’t tear your eyes away from: The costumes.

Designed by Hannah Waddington – and nominated for Oscars and BAFTAs alike – the Poor Things wardrobe is bursting with ruffles, balloon sleeves, culottes and corsets. So, in case you’re curious about how Hannah came to choose Bella’s iconic outfits, here’s everything she’s said about the hidden meaning behind Poor Things’ costumes:

This was never meant to be a Victorian period drama and inspiration came from everywhere

Poor Things costumes

Credit: Searchlight Pictures

Hannah took inspiration from Victoria designs but wasn’t trying to be faithful in anyway to 19th-century fashion. “[Yorgos] didn’t want me to do a period drama,” she told Refinery29. “I was using Victorian shapes and then I was finding other ways to interpret rich textures, which for me needed to feel animal and unruly and organic.”

Loads of the costumes are inspired by female body parts

Poor Things costumes

Credit: Searchlight

If you think some of the shirts in Poor Things look like vaginas, it’s sort of because they’re meant to: “Lots of them were references to female body parts,” Hannah told LA Times. “I remember bringing Emma to the set, and Yorgos looked at me and said in a sort of deadpan voice, ‘It’s a vagina blouse.’ And it was, but not slavishly, just subtly. That is what was going on in my mind.”

The puff sleeves were even bigger at the start of filming

Poor Things costumes

Credit: Searchlight

Hannah used shoulder pads as a way of showing pompous behaviour in Poor Things, especially in relation to Mark Ruffalo’s character Duncan Wedderburn. So, she originally gave him and Emma humungous costumes:

“I thought it was quite funny that Bella would have these huge shoulders and be almost overpowered by them, and [Duncan] would be in these slightly diminutive shoulders with this curvy pigeon chest,” she told IndieWire. “We did have to calm it down. He started off with a foam collar and a big pigeon chest. We had to simmer it all down. But in the final film, he does wear a corset in certain moments.”

They wanted Bella to be as alive as she could possibly be with the materials they used

Poor Things costumes

Credit: Searchlight

After Bella’s resurrection at the start of Poor Things, Hannah wanted the costumes to convey the character as alive as possible: “I had this fabric that was almost like the texture of an intestine or a lung … and it’s kind of breathing,” she told LA Times. “Victorian clothes are about controlling the body and forcing it into a specific shape. This is a contradiction. She doesn’t wear a corset in her wardrobe ever.

“Texture was a big thing for me, organic textures, and the textures of organs,” she added. “[the decisions to replace Victoria beading and lace] were evocative of living forms to show how [Bella] is unruly, uncontainable, a living creation.”

Bella was meant to appear like a child with the costumes she wore at the start of Poor Things

Poor Things Costumes

Credit: Searchlight

Bella often looks a bit messy and chaotic and that’s exactly how Hannah wanted her to appear: “That’s what children are like — they are very quickly disheveled and unraveled,” she told LA Times.

At points, Bella even wanders around in the street without a proper dress on: “She hasn’t had the life or brainwashing or learning to know that you put your skirt with your Victorian jacket and a belt and a brooch,” Hannah added, explaining to The Playlist: “The idea is that she’s often in this state of half dress.

“She’s being dressed in the morning by Mrs. Prim. She’s got this bodice on, it’s silk. I mean, it’s still really weird, isn’t it? For me, those striations in the silk are a little bit like meat. That’s what I was thinking about.”

When Bella wear ugly colours she’s meant to be unhappy

Poor Things costume

Credit: Searchlight

Like most of us, Bella wears the colours which fit her mood. In one scene, she wears a burnt orange dress which is more restrictive than anything else in her wardrobe: “It’s like a really complex, quite ugly color,” Hannah tells The Playlist. 

“It’s got some military motifs, the sailor color, the frogging up the arm, the frog around the waist. So it’s pretty ugly. It’s supposed to be. It’s from her unhappy time. This dress would’ve looked better in a corset. But again, she is in this house, she’s trying to escape. And it wouldn’t enter her head because she hasn’t lived through, she hasn’t sort of learned that that’s what you do.”

For all the best film , music, reality TV and entertainment news, like Pop Culture Shrine on Facebook

Related articles recommended by this author:

• Poor Things: A life-changing, eye-popping odyssey of epic surrealist proportions

The huge differences between the Poor Things film and the chaotic book its based on

The darker meaning behind Poor Things’ shocking final gag explained

Featured image credit via Searchlight Pictures