Alice Babidge is an Australian costume designer who has worked on two Justin Kurzel films (The Snowtown Murders and True History of the Kelly Gang). Her latest project is historical drama The Dig, about the excavation of Sutton Hoo. The film stars Ralph Fiennes, Carey Mulligan, Johnny Flynn and Lily James and is currently available on Netflix.
Mrs Pretty (Carey Mulligan) is introduced in very practical trousers (possibly military in style?) – why did you want to introduce her character in this particular way?
I would describe them as being masculine traditional English hunting style, like sportswear. They are a men’s cut of trouser, I had these originals that I reworked the pattern of and made them to fit Carey. The idea behind it was about trying to present this woman, in our first few frames with her, as someone of this period who has a self-sufficiency and has an independence. She has a spirit unto her own that isn’t necessarily dictated by the constraints around women of the period.
Mr Reid Moir of the Ipswich Museum only has a small role, but he makes quite an impact for two reasons – he’s played by Paul Ready, who’s an amazing actor [Alice: he’s such an incredible man!] but also you have him in an immaculate cream-coloured three-piece suit and hat. It’s such a memorable outfit and really makes him stand out, why did you go for this?
Paul and I talked about it a lot. There were some descriptions of him (Moir in real life) having worn light colours like that, but also we liked the fact that it made him deeply impractical. It meant that this man who arrived and professed to have expertise, who wanted to be involved and to take over was in no way going to walk himself up to that mound and start digging. So it was about finding a way to communicate that. I don’t think a lot of people could pull it off, but Paul certainly can!
Mrs Pretty still dresses for dinner, even if she doesn’t have guests and I was wondering how much research you did into this very English ritual (of a certain class, of course) and did you look into when they stopped doing that? Because I’m guessing this was towards the end of the concept of “dressing for dinner” as a tradition?
Yeah, it absolutely is. Maria (the production designer) and I – we talked a lot about these meals and she and I worked a lot together on the whole film, but we worked really closely on meal times. It was about maintaining a tradition as a society, but it was also about maintaining a sense of tradition and ritual within this family. Giving this mother and this son time together, albeit with a kind of formality. It was a nod towards the life that they had lived, prior to the death of her husband. There’s a sense of “keeping up appearances” about it, even though it’s played for no audience, but the minimal staff that they have in this home. I think there’s a certain amount of self-preservation that comes with this act of dressing for an occasion, even now in our contemporary society. You feel, when you put an effort into something and you go the appropriate lengths for an occasion, there’s a specific kind of impetus behind it and that mode of dressing. I think it was about giving those people a sense of ritual and a sense of occasion through their day.
There are four fairly major characters who come into the film at staggered stages – Rory (Johnny Flynn), Charles Phillips (Ken Stott) and The Piggotts (Lily James and Ben Chaplin). Each one of these characters has to establish themselves quite quickly – how did you help this process through costuming, so the audience could quickly become aware of who these people are?
I wasn’t necessarily thinking of ways to establish them quickly for an audience, I like to work really closely with the actors and it’s more about finding a way that I can help them do that. It’s about finding a silhouette that feels appropriate for the character, it’s about finding the right tonal palette. At the end of the day, I have to put them in something that we both believe has truth to it, that they can then play. Because they will establish it, as soon as they walk onscreen. The whole thing is a collaboration, if I get the costumes wrong, then the character won’t land and won’t establish itself in those first moments. Otherwise we’re not singing from the same songbook and that’s what a massive part of my job is about.
Peggy Piggott (Lily James) has probably the most varied costuming and goes on quite a journey in her limited time. She arrives in flimsy skirts and then she has to borrow more practical clothes from Mrs Pretty. My favourite is the burnt orange dungarees that she wears in one scene [Alice: they were a favourite of a lot of people!]. How did you take her character on a journey through costuming?
I think it was about beginning with the conventions of the period, I think that’s always a useful place to start because it gives you something to push against. So you understand where women fit at a certain time and then you begin to unpick who this person is within that society and how they might fit inside that or might try and exist outside of it. And I think she was both pushing against it and sitting within it – doing a little bit of back-and-forth. So there’s a level of appropriateness to her dress. There’s a sense of playfulness initially in how she dresses and then just a need for practicality that comes into play.
That conversation she has with Phillips when she arrives is that she’s thrilled that he wants her there and she thinks that he’s recognised some sort of skill in a paper that she’s written, but really he wants her there because she is tiny and won’t impact too heavily on the site. If I’d been in her position, my reaction would to that would be to become as practical and as indispensable as possible, in the face of that kind of man. And I think that’s what she does and until she has the means to borrow clothes from Mrs Pretty and from her husband, she just tries to improvise with what she has. I think that sense of make-do that she has with her wardrobe is also a reflection of her in herself.
Full Review of The Dig – click here.