Gothic horror is an invitation for costume designers to unleash beautiful gowns in contrast with the spine-tingling dilapidated environment. The juxtaposition of wealth that has eked away in a crumbling mansion with rich textures and fabrics is a vital part of the Crimson Peak mise-en-scène. The Guillermo del Toro Gothic romance, now celebrating its fifth anniversary, wields the exquisite gowns like a sartorial weapon, adding layers to the narrative via late Victorian-era couture. Making a strong statement of intent in the world of the film, these striking silhouettes are also reflected in contemporary fashion, which highlights the relationship between the runway and fantasy filmmaking.
This movie marked Kate Hawley's second time working with del Toro as the lead designer. The pair first met in New Zealand on the set of The Hobbit — Hawley worked as an additional designer on the trilogy, telling Variety she bonded with the director over a love of spooky literature and that they shared "similar horrors on the shelves." They first teamed up on Pacific Rim in 2013 before the fancy frock-filled world of Crimson Peak, which draws on a classic ghost story.
Del Toro cites Jack Clayton's 1961 movie The Innocents as an influence, which is adapted from the Broadway play of the same name. The latter is based on Henry James' iconic 1898 ghost story novella The Turn of the Screw, which depicts an estate haunted by forbidden love and the alleged specter of former inhabitants. But while the apparitions in The Innocents are left up to viewer interpretation, the ghostly figures in Crimson Peak are as tangible as the black lace couture worn to match the Black Cholera that killed Edith Cushing's (Mia Wasikowska) mother.
"Ghosts are real. This much I know," Edith states in the opening moments of the movie, looking like an image of death. Her pale face is cut, her hand is covered in blood, and the puffed sleeved white gown is giving off a ghostly aesthetic. Her nightwear is something we will become more than accustomed to by the end of the story. The establishing shot sets a haunting tone that weaves its way through this story of loss, love, and legacy.
Like most fairy tales, this one begins with a tragedy, which reveals Edith's early warning from beyond the grave — her younger self wears a similar nightgown. Cut to Buffalo, New York, and 14 years have passed since that terrifying encounter. It is a new century, and some of the trappings of Victorian society are beginning to fall away. This is visible not only in the style of dress but also in the status shift from old money to those who have made a fortune through industrial enterprises — a conflict also depicted through Edith and Lady Lucille Sharpe's (Jessica Chastain) contrasting silhouettes and style.
Edith is a woman of means, which is reflected in her array of luxurious gowns worn in professional and social settings. Her ambition to become an author is reflected in the fuss-free (by 1901 standards) black and cream ensemble that incorporates a neck-tie to mirror the men who pull the publishing strings. The ghosts in her stories are a metaphor for the past, and her fashion-forward costumes symbolize her youth, wealth, and the ability to give life. Warm ochre, cream, earthy olives, and golden hues dominate Edith's closet. She wears the on-trend leg-of-mutton sleeves, which Hawley based on real couture gowns from Paris. In some cases, one sleeve would use 3.5 meters of fabric.
This is the modern world that is beginning to shed the corset bindings of the old, representing new money in the process. While the story is fantastical, it is very much grounded in reality. A walk in the park with the noble Sharpe siblings is an enlightening encounter for Edith while also serving to highlight the intricate costume details. Every stitch, applique, lace embellishment, and floral decoration is a nod to who these people are.
The butterfly conversation is a prelude to the forthcoming horror. Lucille's nature channel-style anecdote is also a warning: "Beautiful things are fragile. At home, we have only black moths. Formidable creatures, to be sure, but they lack beauty. They thrive on the dark and cold." In this case, Edith is very much the butterfly Lucille foresees taking all her wealth and crushing beneath her feet, but little does she realize that people aren't as easy to predict as other species.
Diametrically opposed, they are quite literally light and dark. Edith reflects the Buffalo sunshine whereas Lucille's heavy dark gown absorbs it. She looks like she is in mourning with the red rose detail as the only blast of color. It mirrors the family heirloom that will soon be taken off her finger while also matching the crimson of her ancestral estate and takes its place over her heart (that belongs to her brother) — whereas Edith wears a cornucopia of floral adornments on her hat and blouse to reflect new life.
The belt around Edith's waist is a piece that directly references her mother. Made from plaited human hair (yes, really), her mother's locks have been made into a belt and the clasped hands are based on ivory mourning earrings. Making clothes out of human locks sounds a little too close to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre for contemporary minds, but this form of remembrance was common during the Victorian era and is far from macabre.
Before Edith's ends up in the crumbling Allerdale Hall in Northumberland, England she is whisked off her feet during a candlelit waltz with Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston). Her appearance at this affair is a last-minute decision but this doesn't mean she doesn't have the ideal jaw-dropping silk ivory gown and matching cape to hand. The delicate pearl straps emphasize her youth and innocence, whereas Lucille at the piano is the only guest in a dark crimson hue.
Even in the corner of the frame, she draws your eye to the pooling bloody shade of fabric at her feet. The hand-sewn detail of Lucille's couture accentuates her spinal column and her penchant for the tightest of corsets is accentuated when she sits at the piano — something we won't see her free of until the final act of the film when the Sharpe sibling secret is discovered.
Before skipping to the end — as the opening of the film does — Edith's betrothal and subsequent move from Buffalo to northern England require some heavier outwear to withstand the bitter chill of this location.
Regardless, she never loses the floral motif even in this barren land. In fact, the adornments are dialed up when she moves to the palatial estate that has lost its sheen. As Hawley told Variety, "The silhouette of the sleeves becomes fuller, and the flowers start growing on her dress."
In this world, Edith is a butterfly representing fertility via violet handcrafted embellishments and bold orange fruit imagery. Purple can symbolize either mourning or power — it is a noble hue — depending on the circumstance. Duality is represented in the disruptive role Edith will take as Sir Thomas' new wife when she breaks the longstanding chain of murder. Death threatens to envelop her but she is far more formidable than her sister-in-law predicts.
Never underestimate a woman who wears a gold frock when there is no one around to comment on just how extraordinary it is. Hawley refers to it as the "Nancy Drew" dress, a rather self-explanatory reference that points to Edith's dogged determinism to find out what secrets are being stashed beneath the surface. While she plays ball outside with her adopted pooch, the color is a sunshine streak across the drab landscape. When she returns to the house, her inquisitive mind means she can't help but investigate the creepy subterranean levels.
The red clay Sir Thomas has been trying to sell as an energy source is in bubbling abundance down below, which does not bode well for floor-skimming couture. Luckily, Edith covers the evidence with a blanket before the suspicious Lucille sees. It is unclear how she intends to get rid of this stain from a dress she wears often — Edith has money, but repeat costumes are a realistic choice. The black bow running the length of the back and the botanical puff sleeve detail continue to underscore the theme of fertility but also the danger she poses to Lucille's way of life.
Hawley's mood boards drew on pre-Raphelite imagery from the mid-19th century including "The Bridesmaid" by John Everett Millais. The influence can be seen when Edith's hair is at its freest, unlike her sister-in-law's uptight 'do. The golden hue is also part of her signature aesthetic to signify a light can exist in the dark that emanates from every corner of this home.
Edith's roaming around the spacious and drafty home is not confined to the daytime, as her slumber is often interrupted by Allerdale residents who were once flesh and blood, but now only exist in a terrifying crimson form. It might appear as if they mean Edith harm; instead, they are giving her a hint of the red clay future she can expect. If only ghosts could communicate in a more succinct (and less frightening) manner.
She resembles a ghostly figure while wandering the halls of this creepy dank abode in a stunning light nightgown. This is the frock from the opening shot of the movie, so we are primed for bloodshed while she is wearing this. And when that time comes, it provides another opportunity to showcase the varying styles of this period — while unleashing Lucille's true nature.
Edith has a trunk full of garments, but Lucille only wears one day dress when she has returned to the homestead — notably, this frock is not worn in the US. The rich black and teal number cocoons the former lady of the house in fabric. This is her form of armor and also signifies the dire financial situation these siblings have found themselves in. It is hard to keep up appearances without the necessary garments.
If Edith is the butterfly, Lucille is the moth and her darker color palette reflects this. Red is for trips abroad, but at home, she resorts to this one costume that incorporates a black vine-like garland down her spinal column. When her brother returns with his new bride, he wears a matching teal jacket and this visual unity is an additional warning sign. In the kitchen (aka the heart of the home), Edith stands between them in this shot, and ultimately, she breaks up their unholy union.
Speaking of which, when Edith accidentally catches the two siblings at it, Lucille is not compelled to cover this act with excuses or to even bother getting dressed. Her free-flowing shoulder-baring white nightdress is the antithesis of Edith's high collar number.
She doesn't need to be bound by Victorian clothing restraints now that this repressed sexuality is out in the open. The only thing she does cover up with is a black robe, which adds drama to the final showdown as she stalks her prey. When Lucille enters the bleeding basement, she looks like a monster returning to her lair. The color and symbolic contrasting costumes run throughout the whole film, combining recognizable imagery — such as the use of light and dark — with spellbinding designs.
Not only are the Crimson Peak costumes part of the overall Gothic romance fantasy that reiterates del Toro's propensity for marrying beauty and horror, but Kate Hawley's design is still leaving a mark five years later. While she sadly was not nominated for an Oscar in 2016, Hawley did get a Costume Designer's Guild nomination in the Period category. Period design is often favored by the Academy, but Crimson Peak straddles genre and that particular year was a very competitive one. Sandy Powell's Cinderella was a more traditional period fantasy and Jenny Beavan took the rare win for a dystopian sci-fi with Mad Max: Fury Road.
Even without that particular accolade, Hawley's vision is reflected in current trends including the notion of nap dresses, which has taken 2020 by storm. Edith's puffed sleeve design makes the contemporary versions look basic af in comparison and it is an enticing sleep attire prospect. The last couple of years has seen a power shoulder resurgence that resembles the sleeves of Edith's nightwear, and brands including the Vampire's Wife offer a toned-down take on these silhouettes for when you can leave the safe confines of your home.
This style statement was implicit when the film was released in 2015, and Bergdorf Goodman's storefront displays (see above) incorporated current trends from brands like Tom Ford and Oscar de la Renta that fitted the Crimson Peak aesthetic. There is definitely room for Gothic romance or horror in every closet even if you don't fancy a frock that is as opulent (or voluminous) as Edith or Lucille's.
In the world of Crimson Peak, ghosts are real, and clothing is a symbolic gesture of love, life, death, and remembrance. It is also a visual feast that proves beauty and horror can co-exist, reinforcing the theme of contrasts that runs throughout this narrative. The dark sartorial decadence is not bound by time or place — as Lady Lucille Sharpe is — and the mix of gold hues, fancy bed attire, and floral adornments will see the light again.