Early awards season, um, favorite, "The Favourite," is all about the ladies. Director Yorgos Lanthimos's latest film illuminates palace political intrigue and the complicated, if not dysfunctional relationships of gout-ridden Queen Anne, close friend and advisor Lady Sarah Churchill and palace newbie, Abigail Hill. The period piece stars Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone, respectively.
While "The Favourite" is set in early 18th-century England, there are a number of historically inaccurate flourishes, from the sharp (and at times expletive-laden) dialogue, to the costume, hair and makeup, starting with the black-and-white wardrobe.
The early 18th century is rarely portrayed on film, which presented costume designer Sandy Powell with a few challenges, starting with limited rental options. Of course, the situation also offered opportunities for Powell to flex her three-time Oscar-winning skills. She created an overall palette of black and white for the three leads and the royal court. She had Lanthimos's inspirations in mind, including historically authentic imagery and period-incorrect references, like 17th Century Dutch paintings and Igmar Bergman's 1972 film "Cries and Whispers." Powell also performed her own historical research, looked to present-day fashion and referenced Peter Greenaway's 1982 period film "The Draughtman’s Contract," which holds sentimental value from early in her career.
The minimalist color scheme also helped Powell stay within the film's limited budget. She custom-built the costumes in authentic period silhouettes, but using a range of mostly contemporary and "cheap" fabrics, trims and textures, like cotton, canvas and other unexpected options.
And then there were the beauty looks, or lack thereof. On top of banning hairspray on set, Lanthimos had a literal hand in the carefully styled period hair. "I would do a hairstyle and he would get his fingers in it and move it around to try and mess it up," says hair and makeup designer Nadia Stacey, over the phone from London. She was also instructed to keep the three leads mostly makeup-free.
But the pared-down, yet still visually stunning approach also helps highlight the three lead women and their stories, while the film's showboat-y men happily preen in the background. "I'm really proud because [the movie is] meant to be about these three women," Stacey says. "You shouldn't be looking at makeup and it shouldn't be distracting you. It should be about those three women and their story."
Powell was also attracted to the film for the chance to work with female leads. "My entire career, I've dressed more men than women. It's just who people make films about — or have done until now. It's all changing," she says. "The next thing I'm doing is women, it's all women." (Powell is about to start work on Julie Taymor's Gloria Steinem biopic "My Life on the Road" starring Julianne Moore.)
Below, Stacey and Powell share behind-the-scenes insight with Fashionista on their sublime and story-telling looks for Abigail, Sarah and Queen Anne. We also had to ask about Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult), who definitely spent the most time in hair, makeup and wardrobe.
Abigail Hill (Emma Stone)
Ambitious, charming and clever Abigail enters the story with an entry-level palace job as a scullery maid. Powell economically — and sustainably — created the servant uniforms out of repurposed denim, which she cut up "so they've all got worn bits in and we did all the top stitching."
As Abigail undermines Sarah and captivates the Queen, she undergoes a dramatic wardrobe and beauty evolution — peaking with an extravagant, contrast-printed gown and opulent jewels for a debauched dinner party. "Slightly tasteless by the end of it in that nouveau riche sort of way," says Powell. "She's taken it too far."
Abigail's 18th century "Housewives" moment also includes a face full of overdone makeup. "It's quite garish at that point," says Stacey. "There's something a bit sinister about her when she's drunk with the fire eaters and she has got to that point in the story." The scene was especially jarring since she's fresh-faced leading up to the moment. "We tried putting concealer under Emma's eye one day, and he sent her back and said to take the makeup off her," laughs Stacey.
Abigail's hair progressively becomes more more voluminous and complexly styled as her palace influence increases. "As Abigail gets promotions, my thought was that she would try to emulate people she sees around her," continues Stacey, about her similarity and converse hair trajectory to Sarah's. "I wanted the end sequences with Abigail to have hair that would be the lady of the court, [like] Sarah wears to court."
Lady Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz)
Gowns of the era consisted of three pieces: a skirt, the stomacher, the triangle piece on the bodice decorated with bows, jewels, embellishments, etc., and the mantua, essentially the over-robe. So Powell designed a versatile and modular series of pieces to configure looks for Lady Sarah and her fellow leads, like a Multiples for royals in the 1700s. "So out of two skirts and two mantuas, I could actually make several outfits," Powell says. "It really was mix-and-match." In one scene, Lady Sarah wears a stunning mantua which looked like exquisite (and expensive) lace, but was actually budget-friendly laser-cut vinyl.
Sarah also has a penchant for wearing pants, literally and figuratively, especially when she's shooting — trying to retain her power and intimidate Abigail in the process. "She is a force of nature, really, and I wanted her to be dominant without being domineering — without being masculine, but to have that edge." Although, Powell did style Sarah's trouser outfits with a period-correct corset and blouse.
"It was different and also set her against Abigail who was coming in as this sort of ingenue," explains Powell. Sarah's riding-inspired costumes also influenced Stacey's design for the Duchess's hair evolution, which essentially falls from elaborately curled up-dos to a less formal side-ponytail, as her status does in the court. "When I saw Sandy's costumes, [I thought] there's something a little bit left field about Sarah," says Stacey, specifically referencing the character's tricorn hats. "When Rachel and I talked about it, we said there's something almost quite pirate-like about her."
Stacey originally envisioned a tall, men's style wig for Sarah inspired by an "odd" oil painting from the period, but "Yorgos wouldn't let me," she says. "So [we decided that Sarah] should have her hair down more when she's riding and that kind of thing. She's not going to follow rules."
Queen Anne (Olivia Colman)
The first shot of Queen Anne spotlights the removal of an interminably long, elaborate and presumably heavy ceremonial train in her bed chamber, much to her relief. "That was great how you first see her in the biggest, the most uncomfortable [costume]," says Powell. The scene was also key to juxtapose how the audience usually sees Anne, who suffered from lifelong health issues, insecurity and loneliness.
"I thought, what do people do when they're depressed? They don't get dressed," says Powell. "I had her in the same nightgown all the way through, with different robes, which I really liked. For the ball scene, she has to dress up, but then she just ends up going back to the nightgown. Comfort clothes that really is what it is."
Powell was also tasked with designing her a "completely fabricated," almost armor-like riding outfit. "That was scripted as being 'a contraption: this goes on and that goes on and it's screwed on,'" says Powell, about putting her creative spin on the direction. "It was quite difficult to get my head around what it actually meant, so I thought. 'let's just make a [torso] brace and leg braces.' It did work, the ceremonial way it was put onto her by Sarah. It was a bit fetishistic, the whole image."
Stacey's makeup illustrated the Queen's physical and mental health decline. She created special prosthetic pieces to show gout scars on her legs and used prosthetic glue to hold down Colman's eye and mouth to support the superb performance. (I seriously cannot wait to see Colman as Queen Elizabeth II in "The Crown" season three.)
Stacey's favorite makeup moment for the Queen was actually scripted. Early in the movie, Sarah tells Anne, "you look like a badger" and the camera quickly pans to the Queen pouting in overly- and amateurishly-applied clown makeup. "There's such this naiveté about Anne. She's like a child at a point," explains Stacey. "So it's almost like a child has tried to copy that. She's seen one of the beautiful courtiers, and thought, 'oh, I can do that,' but it's just not quite right. It's not working on her."
Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford and Earl Mortimer (Nicholas Hoult)
Speaking of overly done: "The men are the peacocks," laughs Powell, perfectly summing up the dudes in their fancy suits, knee-high socks, unwieldy long lace sleeves, chunky high heels, massive wigs and caked-on makeup. The men are also the only courtiers to wear color via their vests (or "waistcoats" if you're British) to represent their political party: red for the Whigs and blue for the Tories, led by Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult). Despite all the elaborate layers to put on, Powell says the dressing process for Hoult was quite easy.
"He probably spent longer in makeup than in wardrobe," laughs Powell.
The men wore full faces of white face makeup mimicking the lead paint powder and rouge of the period. At first, Stacey and her team created pristine, "beautifully blended" looks on the male cast to show Lanthimos. "Yorgos said, 'No. These people would have been dirty and sweaty,'" recalls Stacey, who regrouped by mixing different mediums into the products to simulate cracks in white lead powder, sweaty hairlines and bright red blusher smearing onto the wigs.
"We literally put our thumbs into the rouge and just smudged on their faces because it was meant to be rough and a bit garish," she says.
While scheming and trying to manipulating Anne through Sarah and Abigail, Harley also sends subliminal signals through his face patches or mouches. Back in the day, the whimsically shaped mouches covered up pockmarks caused by smallpox and toxic lead in the face powder, and sent covert messages depending on placement. For instance, a flourish on the chin means "I'm feeling bold," while a cheek mouche communicates "I'll kiss but go no further."
Stacey strategically positioned the mouches on Hoult's face based on his dialogue and conversation partner, which adds an extra layer of fun to watching the movie. She pared Hoult's makeup prep down to 30 minutes. But the wigs — which she custom-built out of separately sourced components to also create modular pieces — proved more of an endeavor.
Hoult's required intensive "redressing," i.e., de-frizzing, curling, and roller-setting, after wrapping scenes. But the actor immediately embraced and affectionately named his special wig trifecta. "Barbara's the big one with the horns. The smaller fuzzy one is Hattie and the big long orange one is Lulu," laughs Stacey. But overall, the focus of the movie is on the three women leads, even if the men were more high maintenance.
"We spent more time running around carrying wigs and touching up men's makeup, so the dynamic really changed, which in itself really goes with the film as well," she says. "It is about those three women. So, it was really special."
Top photo: Yorgos Lanthimos. Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation