Welcome back to Look of the Week! Celebrating the best in TV and film sartorial excellence, past and present across sci-fi, horror, fantasy, and other genre classics!
"Real witches dress in ordinary clothes and look very much like ordinary women," Helga (Mai Zetterling) tells her young grandson Luke (Jasen Fisher) at the start of The Witches. Based on Roald Dahl's 1983 dark fantasy novel of the same name, Nicolas Roeg's wonderfully terrifying children's classic celebrates its 30th anniversary this month. Next year, Anne Hathaway takes on the role of the Grand High Witch in Robert Zemeckis' remake. These are some big square-toed shoes to fill, but with The Man from U.N.C.L.E.'s Joanna Johnston on costume design duty, this character is in very good hands.
Cinema and television are awash with stylish witches from the mid-20th-century I Married a Witch to recent additions like Chilling Adventures of Sabrina's Prudence (Tati Gabrielle) and Ambrose (Chance Perdomo). It should come as no surprise that Anjelica Huston as Miss Ernst — aka the Grand High Witch — is no exception to this sartorial rule.
Huston is a style icon on and off the screen — including her turn as another witch in The Addams Family — and the Grand High Witch ticks several high drama boxes. Witches typically fall into two camps; they are either scary or empowering. Because this is a story aimed at children, this depiction sticks to the traditional Brothers Grimm version of women with magical abilities. And just like the old crone who wants to eat Hansel and Gretel, this coven is intent on living up to the fairy tale villain image.
Masquerading as an annual Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children convention, Miss Ernst uses this ironic cover to promote her diabolical plan to rid the world of its youth. In the past, these women banished their victims to a life spent hanging out in a painting (if you're lucky you might get some geese companions), but now the plan is to turn them into mice.
Helga's early witch spotting lesson points out several useful identifying factors, including their inability to wear pretty pointed shoes (due to their lack of toes), gloves to hide their claw fingers, wigs that irritate their scalp, blue spit, and purple-tinged pupils. Accessories are integral to a witch closet and Miss Ernst opts for items that match her eye color. To some, this might be a little cheesy, but in this room, it is a power move.
When she arrives at the hotel, a purple garland sits on her shoulders like a floral stole as opposed to a more obvious fur option. Impressive jewels line her black gloves and adorn her neck, and a veiled and velvet bowed hat is indicative of her leadership. Remnants of the previous decade's trends linger during this transitional period as the '90s shifts into focus.
The Witches costume designer, Marit Allen was a British Vogue fashion editor in the 1960s, transitioning into a career in film with another Nicolas Roeg collaboration. Psychological thriller Don't Look Now featured a defining image of a figure in a red coat that has since gone on to inspire Steven Spielberg and a pivotal crimson garment during a Venice chase sequence in Casino Royale. In The Witches, Allen seamlessly showcases an eclectic mix of styles in portraying the witches that dress in "ordinary clothes." To set her apart, the Grand High Witch requires something special to denote her status. The compliments she receives about how good she looks are not simply fueled by fear, but by good taste.
Walking onto the stage to adoring legions, the purple lined cape is dramatically dropped as Miss Ernst laps up the attention. Rather than falling to the floor, the black frock has gained a mullet skirt. Miss Ernst doesn't need the Sabrina Spellman (Kiernan Shipka) spin or a magic spell to change outfits when the tailoring is functionally fabulous. This is what we call a day-to-night look without having to swap out garments. A chic time saver that proves the Grand High Witch is fond of fashion multitasking. There is no waiting for the coat check or finding somewhere to put your outerwear when wearing a dress like this. She deserves that standing O.
Later, when she returns to her hotel room, the cape is around her shoulders shawl-like, which is reminiscent of Huston's recent look in John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum. At no point does she have an awkward underwear flashing wardrobe malfunction — a professional hazard of a skirt/cape combo. Balancing timeless with contemporary trends is never easy but this dress is an audacious version of both. Wrapped up in a bow, this is serving looks from the back and front.
In Huston's memoir Watch Me, the actress discusses her collaboration with Allen that involved fittings at Huston's apartment. She had already been through the prosthetics process at Jim Henson's Creative Shop in London to depict the transformation into the terrifying version of the Grand High Witch. With that image in mind, Allen was "looking for a good dress for the character of Miss Ernst that could plausibly become the costume for the Grand High Witch."
The high neck black crepe dress was not what the director had envisioned, pointing out "It's just not sexy." Sex appeal is not something Huston had considered with this role, but she notes, "His vision was diabolical and dark and brilliantly funny. If a witch was to be the center of this plot, she needed to be sexy to hold the eye." That is until she takes her face off, then she is definitely holding the audience's attention.
The Grand High Witch keeps a spare face in a Louis Vuitton trunk that becomes an integral part of Luke's future, proving her taste for high-end items runs deep. The mask itself already has time-saving red lipstick and purple eye shadow pre-applied — once again she picks a color to match her distinct pupils. Nothing is left to chance, but this doesn't take into account those humans prepared to deal with the witch threat.
A result of the many movie and television witches is that it can be tough to stand out from the crowd, but the dramatic aesthetic delivered in the partnership between Huston and Allen emphasizes why the Grand High Witch holds this lofty title. Miss Ernst's withering stares coupled with the enticing two-in-one gown has a spellbinding effect that after 30 years is still impossible to forget.