Plus, costume designer Natalie O’Brien explains how Kristen Stewart would sneak jeans and Converse under her 1890s housemaid costumes.
Warning: Spoilers for ‘Lizzie’ the movie and the 126-year-old true story of Lizzie Borden below.
Producer and actress Chloë Sevigny spent nearly a decade bringing the latest dramatization of Lizzie Borden’s alleged 1892 ax murders of her father and stepmother to the big screen. Her vision for “Lizzie,” written by friend Bryce Kass, explores the lead-up to the still-unsolved grisly murders, and the famous trial of the accused murderer, played by Sevigny, from a feminist and “smash-the-patriarchy” point of view.
As a decision-maker in front of and behind the camera, she was fully invested; she even spent a night in the Fall River, Mass. murder house (now a museum and a bed and breakfast, which can’t not be haunted, honestly). That meant everything in the film, including the costumes, required meticulous dedication to authenticity. Because of the salaciousness and brutality of the hatchet murders — and the fact that the Bordens were prominent members of the community — the case was like the O.J. Simpson trial of the day. So, the costume department had copious old photos, sketches and documentation surrounding the proceedings to analyze.
Costume designer Natalie O’Brien, who also outfitted Elizabeth Olsen as a spot-on influencer in “Ingrid Goes West,” carefully studied “Parallel Lives: A Social History of Lizzie A. Borden and Her Fall River,” by Michael Martins and Dennis A. Binette — a comprehensive “bible” about Borden.
“It has the kind of details like, ‘and Lizzie Borden wore a blue cord skirt when the murders happened,’” O’Brien explains over the phone from Los Angeles.
For roughly the first half of the movie, Lizzie also wears a pansy pin on her collar (pictured above), which O’Brien notes is visible on a number of images of the accused killer. Behind the scenes, the costume designer and Sevigny brainstormed a possible backstory and decided that the pin must have been a gift from Lizzie’s father and the most expensive piece of jewelry she owned.
As a producer, veteran actress and style icon, Sevigny gave regular input regarding her costumes and O’Brien welcomed the collaboration. “It’s beautiful to speak with your actors, and be like, ‘How do you see it? How do you envision it?’” says the costume designer. “[Sevigny] was a huge part of telling the story.”
The lead also had one significant, and daunting, ask: to wear all original vintage. “Like 1890s authentic vintage,” specifies O’Brien, “and that’s very difficult to maintain — and even to obtain — so we were definitely like little warriors hunting for every kind of piece.” Lizzie had many costume changes, including a late 19th-century blue ruffle-front, mutton-sleeve and pleat-detailed dress for when she first meets new maid, dramatized love interest and possible future accomplice Bridget (Kristen Stewart).
“That was falling apart,” says O’Brien. “Everyday we would have to French seam it back together because it’s hot days in Savannah [where they filmed] and there’s wear and tear on everything.” In the beginning of the movie, Lizzie attends the theater in an elaborate and pristine vintage olive green evening dress (below), which garners compliments from her stepmother and catty theater-goer.
The look was also intentionally covered-up to communicate Lizzie’s reported aloof and guarded nature in an era when women liked to reveal a teensy flash of collar bone or décolletage (ooh, racy). “That was something [people] would say about Lizzie Borden: ‘ugh, what’s her deal? Why is she so closed up?’ We don’t know,” adds O’Brien, who sourced from “everywhere,” including costume rental houses, Ebay, Etsy and private collectors.
One particular private collector proved eager to lend: Sevigny, herself, who had amassed an archive of pieces from the 19th century. O’Brien initially was skeptical, as the decade when the murders occurred was a very specific time in fashion history, when unwieldy and not-so-functional “big bell mutton sleeves” were the thing. “That was a very strange era and it only lasted so long because it was so strangely extravagant,” O’Brien says. But she was pleasantly surprised after looking through Sevigny’s collection, which included a black polka-dot dress with the most beautiful pleats and lace piping, which Lizzie puts on post-murders to greet the police.
“She had some really beautiful items that actually really fit in the era,” O’Brien continues. “I was like, ‘Wow, she’s really been doing her homework for awhile.’” However, Lizzie’s blue corded skirt and printed blouse murder outfit had to be custom-built, due to the need for multiples — because blood.
O’Brien’s team also custom-built Bridget’s maid uniforms and working-class wardrobe of dark sweaters and practical jackets paired with muted full skirts, which provided a socio-economic contrast via color palette and condition. “When she first comes in, you can see her ankles, and that was a big no-no,” she explains. “That shows that Bridget didn’t have anything tailored and it was more of a hand-me-down.” Eagle-eyed viewers may also notice a rip on her jacket shoulder.
O’Brien even went a bit method with making sure all of Bridget’s costumes literally fit into the suitcase she brings to the Borden house. Although she wasn’t able to squeeze in one extra maid’s costume. “I said, ‘OK, maybe she made it or bought it [after she arrived], so I’ll let that one one slide,’” O’Brien laughs.
One may also notice — especially in a few key disrobing scenes — the lack of buttons and fuss when it comes to Bridget’s clothing as compared to Lizzie’s complicated tiny buttons up the back. Back then, women of a certain class needed help from servants to get dressed, thus also allowing for an intimate moment between the two. “Bridget wouldn’t have that help,” O’Brien explains. “So anything she wore, it had to be something that she did herself.”
In the late 1800s, women were still expected to wear corsets, which meant the actual actresses all needed help from the costume department to get dressed. “I would personally deliver Fiona Shaw’s corset in the morning because she is a bundle of joy,” O’Brien says, about the actress playing Lizzie’s stepmother (and the deliciously enigmatic Carolyn Martens on “Killing Eve” — seriously, all your favorite TV people are in this movie, too.) For the sake of authenticity, putting on the period costumes was a whole process: “It goes bloomers, shoes and then the corset because they can’t lean over and put their shoes on,” O’Brien explains.
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Unsurprisingly, Sevigny also fully committed to the presumably tortuous corset situation to help immerse herself into character. “In the morning, she would come up and be like, ‘Can I have my corset?’” O’Brien says. “I’m like, ‘You don’t have a scene for another four hours.’” Also unsurprisingly, Stewart, who’s a fan of slouchy denim, casual caps and distressed t-shirts in her off-hours, wasn’t as excited to don the restricting foundation garment. O’Brien would sympathetically loosen the actress’s corsets when they weren’t shooting.
“Sometimes, she would wear her jeans under her dresses,” says O’Brien, about Stewart sneaking in her preferred uniform during close-up shots. “I’d pass her and be like, ‘What are you doing?! Noooo, this doesn’t look authentic.’ She’s like, ‘I know, I’m sorry.’”
O’Brien gave her a pass. “There’s even funny on-set pictures that paparazzi caught of her wearing her corset and her hat and then she’s got her jeans and her Converse or Vans on the bottom.” It was a different type of authenticity than the one O’Brien was focused on, but authenticity nonetheless.
Follow Natalie O’Brien on Instagram @hashtagnatalie. “Lizzie” opens in theaters on Friday, Sept. 14.
Top and homepage photo: Saban Films and Roadside Attractions