Costume designer Jenny Beavan on how her memories of life in London squats inspired Cruella’s fabulous looks

·6-min read
 (Disney / Laurie Sparham)
(Disney / Laurie Sparham)

Set against the backdrop of London’s punk boom in the 70s, Cruella is probably Disney’s most fashion forward film yet. Directed by I, Tonya’s Craig Gillespie and written by Tony McNamara, the creator of chaotic period dramas The Favourite and The Great, this 101 Dalmatians prequel imagines the chain-smoking villainess’s early years as an anarchic aspiring designer stomping around Notting Hill, working as a cleaner at Liberty and sharing a squat with her sidekicks. It’s a scene that costume designer Jenny Beavan could remember vividly.

“It was very much bringing back the 70s, which I remembered quite clearly because I was completely starting my theatre design career at that point,” the two-time Oscar winner says. “That whole warehouse scene was terribly familiar to me, when I took my mind back. A lot of my friends lived in various squats, including crown commissioned property, [John] Nash terraces in Regent’s Park which were totally empty, so everybody used to take them over. Then they got all their food from things that were past their sell by dates being thrown out, so they lived on fantastic fish and double cream and stuff. It was an incredible period.”

Estella (Emma Stone) starts out as a wannabe designer (Laurie Sparham)
Estella (Emma Stone) starts out as a wannabe designer (Laurie Sparham)

She’d also often visit Liberty, where Emma Stone’s Estella (as our anti-heroine is first known) bags a job, and would “save up and buy Tana Lawn” printed fabric, “way out of my price range,” to “half make things, because I’ve never been very good at finishing them.” So, when Beavan first started thinking about looks for Estella and her companions, she was guided by “strong memories” of “what we all loved wearing” - from topsy-turvy layering (“when you wore a short sleeve t-shirt over a long sleeve shirt with very long cuffs… that was a look”) through “very wide lapels” to the overabundance of brown, velvet and brown velvet. “I had a brown velvet Biba hat,” she recalls, momentarily wistful. “I loved it - I don’t know what happened to it, I never wore it, but I loved it.”

When Estella piques the interest of the Baroness von Hellman, a veteran designer played by Emma Thompson in a series of towering hairpieces, she swaps squat life for a high fashion milieu of runway shows, cocktail parties and balls. These set-piece scenes, requiring entire collections of catwalk-worthy showstoppers, meant the project was a major undertaking for Beavan, who “took it on rather last minute… we had 10 weeks to prep this - that’s not really enough. We got a little extra because Emma Stone had a shoulder injury, which saved us. But it’s not very long to do something on this scale.”

Beavan and her team made 47 costumes for Stone (Laurie Sparham)
Beavan and her team made 47 costumes for Stone (Laurie Sparham)

Stone wore 47 original outfits, with Thompson not far behind with 33. For inspiration, Beavan would trawl Portobello market “almost every Friday morning and get tonnes of stuff,” before heading off to Los Angeles to visit “the vintage stores in Santa Monica market.” Cruella and the Baroness’s diametrically opposed styles place them at complementary odds with each other: the younger woman’s punk look, inspired by German singer Nina Hagen and early Vivienne Westwood, aligns her with fashion’s iconoclastic new guard, while the Baroness’s designs echo “the chicness of Dior” and Old Hollywood - putting her out of step with the changing times. Their colour palettes couldn’t be more different, either. “I think characters find their colours - Cruella has the black, white and red - the reds obviously an addition for standout moments - and she can’t be anything else,” Beavan says. “Could you put her in yellow and blue? I don’t think so. The Baroness, in her old-fashioned richness, was browns and golds… it’s sort of snobby.”

The striking red gown was inspired by Charles James’ tree dresses (Laurie Sparham)
The striking red gown was inspired by Charles James’ tree dresses (Laurie Sparham)

One of those “standout moments” in scarlet comes when Cruella turns up uninvited at the Baroness’s ball, wearing a cloak that covers up “what’s supposed to be a remake of one of the Baroness’s dresses that she found in a bin in a vintage store,” Beavan explains. In a burst of flames, the cloak seems to burn away, revealing a show-stopping red gown inspired by legendary American designer Charles James’s tree dresses. “It had to be a total standout in a black and white ball,” she says.

The fiery transformation we see on screen was pulled off using CGI magic, but Beavan originally toyed with using practical effects. “I felt we could have done it for real, because there are fabrics with fire wire, and there are things you can do… but it would have been crazy,” she says. “The way the cloak was designed originally, there were lines in it, so you could have had fire coming out, and we got hold of some fire wire, so we knew it wasn’t ridiculous. But the visual effects division did such a brilliant job - people have almost always asked me whether it was real or not.”

Her look gets closer and closer to the classic Cruella aesthetic as the film goes on (Laurie Sparham)
Her look gets closer and closer to the classic Cruella aesthetic as the film goes on (Laurie Sparham)

Though director Gillespie “has a very strong visual eye,” he gave Beavan plenty of freedom to shape Cruella’s fashion journey from skint upstart to alt-couture queen. She had seen “both the animation and the live action” film starring Glenn Close in “the very dim and distant past,” but didn’t feel beholden to them. “All I thought was really that at some moment towards the end of our Cruella, you should be able to just see how she could possibly become the Glenn Close character - without anything slavish.” Sadly, she didn’t get the chance to show her work to her friend Anthony Powell: the legendary costume designer, who created Close’s fantastical outfits for 101 and 102 Dalmatians, died earlier this month. “I was so sad because I knew him well, but I hadn’t been able to see him for ages. I was dying to show him what I was doing, to see if he approved of it,” she says.

Beavan spent lockdown remotely sourcing 50s outfits across the Channel from the comfort of her home (for the upcoming remake of Mrs Harris Goes to Paris about a cleaner who falls in love with a Dior dress, which was cast “three days before the quarantine came in,” she worked with a Parisian designer, sending her “lists and mood boards” for each actor then overseeing fittings on Zoom), and is now working on Mad Max spin-off Furiosa, which will be another “massive making project.” With international travel still limited due to the pandemic, the pre-production process has been markedly different to the first film, for which she won her second Oscar. “I’ve been Zooming and FaceTiming, sending photographs backwards and forwards,” she says. “It’s fine - you do adapt. We all adapt all the time, and I think we’re used to adapting in the film industry. It’s almost, for me, quite nice - I don’t have to parade around…”

Cruella is in cinemas and on Disney+ Premium Access from May 28

Read More

First Cow review: make this heart-rending Western your first-see film

Moby Doc review: Self-centred? Profound? It’s maddeningly hard to tell

What to watch this week, from Frankie to I Used to Be Normal