The Historical Accuracies Of The Witch Part 2 (Costume & Set)
Article by Aaron Haughton
Last year, Robert Eggers floored audiences with his chilling tale of 17th century folklore, The Witch. However, it wasn't solely the Puritan nightmare that wowed the crowds, but Eggers' painstaking attention to detail and the film's historic authenticity.
Being a production and costume designer before turning writer/director, research is no new concept to Eggers. He researched the film over the course of four years while simultaneously juggling costume design and other projects, going so far as to work directly with museums and historians, who helped compile an expansive collection of primary sources, which comprised of volumes of period fashion, animal husbandry, agricultural techniques, firsthand accounts and journals, religious texts, and folklore.
This research permeated the screen in various shapes and forms, be it the dialogue, the dress, or the very farm the family resides on, all of it necessary for the final product. It helps to suspend any disbelief, helping the audience to lose themselves and become transported to 17th century New England.
As Eggers mentions in the Salem Panel Q&A, which appears on the film's digital release, “I was trying to understand how the Salem witch trials happened, how the witch holocaust in Europe happened, and, I think, because today, when we think of evil witches — and I’m not talking about white witches and Wiccans and contemporary witches — but when we think of evil witches, it’s as if it never existed… But to actually understand that in the early modern period for everyone, except for a few people in the extreme intelligentsia, the real world and the fairytale world were the same thing, and if someone called you a witch, they really thought that you were a supernatural being capable of doing the things that the witch does in this film. So, if I’m gonna get audiences to actually go along and accept that, we have to be transported to the 17th century, we have to be in the mindset of the English Calvinists, or it’s never going to work.”
With that in mind, I've done some digging of my own and broken the film down into 4 essential categories, delving into the accuracies and research that make each piece feel so very real. This week, we'll take a look at the historical accuracies as they relate to the costumes.
- One of the challenges Eggers ran up against was the lack of images that really portrayed the dress for that particular time period. At the time, New Englander's were against graven images, the painterly tradition was focused more on the wealthy. Eggers said that referencing woodcuts was "kind of like using New Yorker cartoons to look into the the 21st century." This was only a speed bump for the filmmaker though. Eggers was able to turn to historians and living history museums for help, which led some promising leads. "[The costumes aren't] stuff that you can grab on Amazon, but [they're] out there if you’re working with and talking to the right people."
- In order to be historically accurate, the clothing needed to be made of handwoven cloth. However, due to a limited budget, the handwoven cloth available could only be used when afforded. "Linda Muir, the costume designer, had samples from the U.K. that were all handwoven, exactly what it should be, and then, where we could afford it, we would use that, but if we couldn’t afford it, she found incredible machine-woven stuff that looks really good. They were all hand-stitched and lined correctly, they were made like clothing, not made like costumes. So that was one thing that was a bummer, but it would have just exploded the cost, and the stuff that Linda found was so strong. The wools that she had have a ton of texture and a ton of integrity, so I don’t think that it is taking away from the film."
- Costume Designer Linda Muir used Stuart Peachey’s massive 30-volume Clothes of the Common People in Elizabethan and Early Stuart England as her Bible. "In preparing to design costumes for The Witch I read approximately 1,800 pages of material in books produced by British historian Stuart Peachey, covering every aspect of 17th century clothing, such as weaving and dyeing wool, garment construction and pattern making, and notions like buttons and braided ties." She used all visible seams on all the clothing. Even on the inside of the garments, she hand-stitched the seams.
- While researching headwear, Muir found a website created for 17th century re-enacters that helped to shed some light on the way in which hair was dressed during that period. They used woven linen tape braided into the hair, which Muir was able to find an affordable reproduction to use in the film. "That information turned out to be vital to the look of the film: not only was it accurate, it beautifully reflected the tightly bound up and covered beliefs that eventually unravel. As we see Thomasin and Katherine become more and more out of control their coifs (linen caps) come off, revealing the hairstyles and in the end all the hair comes down with yards of tape left dangling — Katherine crazed and defeated, Thomasin sensual and alive."
- Aside from the costumes, the set was another budgetary expense. The outbuildings were made with hand-driven wood by workers who repair first-period homes and museum re-creation. Unlike Linda's machine-woven cloth, it was difficult to find a way to fake hand-driven wood. As opposed to faking it, they constructed the buildings as realistically as they could.
- In the 17th century, there was no foundation or sills. Commonly, settlers dug holes for posts, stuck them in the ground, and moved from them when constructing a house. Eggers would've taken this approach, but it was the dead of winter during production, which made constructing the sets in the 17th century fashion more difficult. Difficulty aside, Eggers still had a strict rule that mandated that everything on camera be made out of the proper materials.
What do you think? Did all of Eggers research pay off and help you slip more into the film? Did you notice the detail in the costume? Does this information enhance the film? We want to know. Share your thoughts and feelings in the comments section below, and, as always, remember to viddy well!