Warning: Spoilers for 'Midsommar' below. Do not read any further until you've watched the entire movie.
"Midsommar" is one of those films you kind of wish you were watching on a small screen — just so you could pause, zoom in and analyze all the beautiful, terrifying plot clues hiding in plain sight. (Which I will do, eventually, if I can work up the courage to view writer and director Ari Aster's followup to "Hereditary" a second time.)
Aster and team, including production designer Henrik Svensson, designed and built a remote Swedish village, inhabited by the fictional Hårga people, from the ground up in Hungary. The stunning murals in the sleeping quarters and tapestries hanging on clotheslines foreshadow the storyline and detail the Hårga's fertility-obsessed mythology and traditions. Using a runic alphabet, the team even developed its own language, the Affekt, which also features prominently on the costumes by Andrea Flesch.
"It's sort of a crazy festival. Special ceremonies and dressing up," says Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), as he opaquely describes the midsummer rituals performed every 90 years in his hometown (or commune, rather) early on the movie. In retrospect, perhaps Dani (Florence Pugh), her cowardly boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) and his grad school bros Josh (William Jackson Harper) and Mark (Will Poulter) should have asked some follow-up questions — especially about that "dressing up" bit.
That's because traditional white and embroidered folk-style clothing has its own unique meaning in the idyllic-seeming, but actually terrifying world of "Midsommar," as the Budapest-based costume designer will explain below. As a matter of fact, you may never look at an embroidered white dress the same way, ever again.
Flesch studied traditional Swedish folk dress, or folkdräkt, which differ based on town and region. The clothing, usually worn in rural areas, phased out during the mid-1800s due to industrialization, but returned to style in contemporary times for nostalgia's sake. Aside from small batches of reproductions and authentic historical pieces in museums, large quantities of costumes weren't available to rent, so Flesch and her team had to design and build at least 500 costumes for the cast and extras.
Speaking to Pelle's explanation that the Hårga made their own original Midsommar festival clothing, she maintained a simpler, homespun and "handmade" aesthetic for the costumes. "It was very important that it didn't become a 'high fashion' kind of thing," she says. "So you can believe that these people are working on their clothes for 90 years for this big event. Not everything is perfect."
Flesch first sourced upwards of 700 yards of remaining 100-year-old linen fabric in Hungary. There wasn't enough prep time to hand-stitch the detailed patterns, so she found swatches of authentic Swedish embroidery. Flesch discovered that other countries, including Ukraine, Hungary, Romania and Peru, have similar-looking folk-style trims, which she then incorporated into the Swedish base designs.
The silhouettes of the costumes differ by the seasonally-defined age groups — like the younger men in cropped trousers — and hold meaning specific to the Hårga sub-groups. For instance, the senior male members wear "frocks," explained by an elder as a tribute to the "hermaphroditic" aspect of nature. "This community raises a child all together, so [the societal norms are] not important: mother and father, women and man," explains Flesch. "The elder men wear dresses and skirts because the [gender] is not so important."
If you look closely at the bodices on the Hårga traditional clothing and the tops of the shoes, you'll notice a monogram in the embroidery. "It's a combination of the runic and Affekt alphabets," says Flesch. "As a person grows up in the cult, he or she is assigned a specific rune, which corresponds with their unique background." The symbols also offer clues to the member's backstory and role with the tribe.
"Every member of the community gets their first sacrament at age two, the second one at age 18, the third one at age 36, the last one at age 54," she continues. "There are three main categories: balanced runes, unbalanced runes and prohibited runes." The runes were either hand-painted or embroidered onto the costumes.
The "F"-like token on village matriarch Siv's (Gunnel Fred, above) shirtwaist for the opening ceremony is a balanced rune, meaning "the gift of speech/communication." Dani is the only character to wear two runes — balanced and unbalanced — on her blue-embroidered dress, which she dons to win the May Queen competition. The hourglass-like shape means "helplessness/innocence," while the backwards "R" forebodes "crisis/death."
The Color Palette
Overall, "Ari's vision was to have the Hårga community all dressed in white, both men and women, and wearing floral garland crowns — a symbol of rebirth and fertility — which is traditionally worn in Sweden during midsummer celebration," explains Flesch, about the starting point of the nine rituals.
"We added a new color with each ceremony: blue for the Ättestupan ceremony, green with the little boy's pine dress for the Lake ceremony and red for the animal sacrifice," explains Flesch. The primary hues of red, blue and yellow all speak back to traditional Swedish folk clothing. "The colors culminate in the Maypole dance ceremony. The girls dancing around the tree wear various colors: red, green, blue, yellow. The colors became even more intense in the final scene as the Hårga wear their most festive attire for the celebration of their May Queen."
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Dani's May Queen Dress
After winning the dance competition to be crowned May Queen, Dani is first presented with a floral headpiece and collar, which is based on real life midsummer regalia. "It's a true thing that they wear. This flower cape was not an invention of us," says Flesch.
However, the concept for Dani's flower-covered, full-body May Queen robe was an original creation. "This was Ari's vision from the beginning," says Flesch, who started working on the final look from the beginning. Understandably, the May Queen costume took the "longest" for herself and her team to design and build.
"We used 10,000 flowers," she says. "Fake flowers. We wanted to make it from real ones, but, because the costume took several weeks to make, we couldn't keep them alive." Flesch used the most authentic-looking and lightweight faux blooms possible, but the considerable quantity required proved unwieldy — which actually helped the impact of the scene.
"Florence really had to fight in this costume and it was very, very heavy," says Flesch, who also explained that the sheer weight of the piece and constrictive conical shape made it difficult for Pugh to move in a lateral direction. In addition to her powerful performance of accepting her grief and despair, the actress's physical struggle at the end was very real. "This was good because she really couldn't move either way in it. But that was the goal."
Top photo: Merie Weismiller Wallace/Courtesy of A24