‘Crimson Peak’ Costume Designer Mixes Frills and Chills for Victorian Story

The Jacksons Next Generation
Dan Doperalski for Variety

Kate Hawley has long lamented — mostly in jest — that on her films, she never gets to design the lovely “frocks” she does for the stage. “Every time my agent rings, I go, ‘Please tell me it’s a frock film,’” she says with a laugh.

With “Crimson Peak,” Guillermo del Toro’s Victorian-era Gothic romance/ghost story, Hawley’s wish has been granted: She finally gets to showcase her skills with frills.

That’s only fitting, since Hawley, a relatively obscure designer Down Under when del Toro first hired her, has seen her star rise in the film world in large part thanks to her association with the director, who took her from theater and opera and put her on Hollywood tentpoles.

He’s also been a creative mentor and inspiration, so much so that she gets emotional just talking about him.

“It’s always such a waltz, rather than a walk, with Guillermo,” she sighs. “The way he structures his pieces, it’s always like a piece of music. They’re almost defined by acts. I treat the visual beats like music when I listen to Guillermo’s notes, because I think that’s the poetry he offers in his work.”

Hawley first met del Toro when he was in New Zealand prepping to direct “The Hobbit.” “I believe we first bonded over our collection of books,” she says. “Similar horrors on the shelves.”

He picked her to design that film for him, and when his version of the picture fell apart (Peter Jackson ended up in the director’s chair), he brought her with him to design “Pacific Rim.” That helped her land another sci-fi actioner, Doug Liman’s “Edge of Tomorrow.” She seems to have made friends at Warner Bros. along the way; her next film is the DC Comics twist on “The Dirty Dozen,” David Ayer’s “Suicide Squad.”

HAND-CRAFTED: Kate Hawley’s costumes include flowers cut from antique velvet and a clasped-hands mourning jewelry belt buckle. “Crimson Peak” director Guillermo del Toro favors symbolism.

Del Toro loves symbolism, especially color-coding, she says, and that’s reflected in the costumes for “Crimson Peak.” The heroine, American heiress Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), is often seen in gold, representing wealth — and also, she says, “a canary in a coal mine.” Her dresses and nightgowns are adorned with flowers, connoting fertility. Yet her garments also include elements of Victorian mourning jewelry, such as a belt made of her dead mother’s hair, the buckle a carving of her mother’s hands.

The belt was braided from real hair. “We used all Victorian techniques,” Hawley says. “We just made them a bit larger. It’s all very heightened.”

Englishman Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) appears to Edith to be a perfect romantic hero. As Edith falls in love with him, says Hawley, the motifs evolve on her costumes. “The silhouette of the sleeves becomes fuller, and the flowers start growing on her dress.” By contrast, Thomas’ sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) is often seen in cool colors. “You have the world of the moon, and black, and Lucille being the moth,” says Hawley, “and Edith being the butterfly.” When Edith travels to England with the Sharpes, she says, “The glasses come off. You see the decay and the reality of their world, and how unromantic it is.”

Design carries much of the storytelling in the film, and Hawley relished the challenge. “It was always about supporting the actors in their emotional arc through the story,” she says. She adds that she consulted with the actors to ensure they didn’t feel overpowered by the design. “There was some things where they went, ‘No, that is too much.’ There was a point where a sleeve becomes ridiculous.

“I might look at it and go, ‘Oh my God, maybe I did overdo it,’ ” she adds. “But it felt right for the story that Guillermo wanted to tell.”