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‘Suffragette’ Costume Designer Jane Petrie Talks Dressing Carey Mulligan and Finding Inspiration in Ordinary Life

The historical drama, which also stars Meryl Streep, hits theaters on Friday.
Photo: Focus Films

Photo: Focus Films

Over the past few weeks, we've seen Carey Mulligan dominate the "Suffragette" press tour in a ruffled Chanel frock, a floral Roland Mouret dress and a chic Marc Jacobs pantsuit. Expect a drastic change of sartorial pace when you watch the actress's turn as a women's rights activist in the historical drama, which opens in theaters on Friday. But, while her on-screen outfits are decidedly more subdued, the story behind the costumes makes them just as exciting. Mulligan stars as Maud Watts, a poor London laundromat worker who joins a group of female "footsoldiers" in 1912, bravely on the front lines of the British suffrage movement. Directed by Sarah Gavron, the film fuses fictional characters, like Watts, alongside real-life suffragette leaders such as Emmeline Pankhurst, played by Meryl Streep. The result is an eye-opening, emotional look into a revolution that's rarely depicted in popular culture.

When it came to dressing an entire army of suffragettes, the film's costume designer Jane Petrie clearly had her work cut out for her. Petrie's strategy for depicting this historical movement through clothes? Go straight to the source, of course. She studied 19th and 20th century photographs and texts, then used as many authentic clothing items as possible — even though they required multiple repairs throughout filming, since 100-year-old pieces often fall apart. Before you see the amazing (and accurate) costumes on-screen, read our interview with Petrie, where we discuss collaborating with Mulligan and Streep, the importance of trusting your instincts and finding inspiration in life's most ordinary moments. 

Brendan Gleeson and Carey Mulligan. Photo: Focus Films

Brendan Gleeson and Carey Mulligan. Photo: Focus Films

"Suffragette" is a film that's based on real events that happened in the UK. When you're dealing with a movie like this, how do you begin the research process?

After I have read the script and talked to the director, I usually begin an intense period of research and script breakdown. In the case of "Suffragette," there wasn't much time to do this, so I had a close friend who happens to be an amazing picture researcher work with me. We started seeking out early street photography and documentary films. 

What sorts of things did you look for?

I wanted to find early images of clothes in motion; this felt relaxed — real people going about their daily business. [Outfits with] 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. 

What resources did you use to find these images?

[My colleague] Katy Hackney and I discussed what we were looking for and then started looking through websites and blogs, books and collections. In particular, we studied Edward Linley Sambourne's photographs, Spitalfields Nippers and Spitalfields Life, and this film. Especially roughly 10 minutes in, where you can see 3,000 workers leaving the factory to go for their dinner break. It shows real people striding out with purpose, laughing, relaxed and working class. This was a key reference.

Helena Bonham Carter. Photo: Focus Films

Helena Bonham Carter. Photo: Focus Films

Where did you source the costumes in the film? What sorts of things did you look for when picking out the clothing?

Almost all of the costumes in the film are original garments from the period. I only made clothes for wealthy characters or for scenes where I knew things could get destroyed, such as Maud's skirt for the riot. I rented clothes from costume houses in Paris and London and then I purchased from dealers. My goal here was to gather the stock in exactly the same way as I would have done for any contemporary gritty urban drama. That's how I saw this film, as a natural progression of my process on films such as "Fish Tank," "Harry Brown" and "'71."

Carey Mulligan's character, Maud, is a working-class laundromat employee who later joins the suffrage movement. How did you help to transition her look throughout the film as the events progressed?

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Maud's laundry clothes came from thinking about the conditions. It's a hot, sweaty, damp environment, which means thin cotton blouses and no layers. Then she had some knitwear, which she would wear under her coat to go home. This gave me two or three looks from one set of clothes. Everything I chose was justified by the life Maud lived, so hopefully nothing felt imposed. I allow the character and the world to give me the costumes.

Tell us a little bit about Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep's) robes and embellished pieces. Where did these come from, and what type of message were you hoping to convey?

I had seen this image of Pankhurst and it struck me how much it resembled a preacher's robe. I wanted her to appear scholarly and inspirational, so this was a great starting point. Her clothes come from an earlier generation, so there is a bit more frippery — but not as much as the real Pankhurst was fond of. I pared it down in the film so I could make a clear statement in one short scene.

Meryl Streep. Photo: Focus Films

Meryl Streep. Photo: Focus Films

The hats in this movie were incredible! Where did the inspiration for these come from?

They're nearly all original. We used fresh flowers and sort of folksy, handmade ribbon for the hats worn in the protests and then lots of silk ribbons and flowers for the derby.

This is a movie that relies on the work of hundreds of extras. How did you decide what they were going to wear?

I work very closely with my team, so they're clear about the story we are telling through the clothes. We choose all the stock and recycle a lot of it, even restyling pieces for each scene if necessary. We fit everyone a week or two in advance so there's extra time for alterations and repairs, as well as for trimming and finishing touches. Some clothes only work in certain scenes — such as the white and cream funeral outfits — but a lot of the daywear was actually used repeatedly on different characters throughout the whole film. 

How much of an input do actors like Carey Mulligan and Meryl Streep give in terms of their costumes?

The costume process is collaborative. We all work together to achieve the highest possible result by building on each other's strengths and ideas. We discuss every aspect of the character's journey, often considering the backstory and experiences the character may have had that aren't on the page. Actors bring great insight into their characters when they come to the fittings and we go on a journey of discovery together, looking for an authentic, believable person to channel the script through. It's wonderful to see the idea of a character come to life in a fitting room.

Can you tell us a little bit about the current movie you're working on?

I am working on "War Machine" with Brad Pitt, written and directed by the brilliant David Michod. It's a smart satire on the war in Afghanistan.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Homepage photo: Focus Films