Posted by: charlottedawn | November 11, 2020

Class, Color, and Costume in Crimson Peak

The second half of this post contains major plot spoilers for the film Crimson Peak. I will try to keep it mostly-spoiler free up until I need to incorporate plot points but will mark where the major spoilers begin.

Guillermo del Toro’s 2015 film Crimson Peak takes place at an unspecified point in the year 1901, in an immediate post-Victorian world. In order to streamline the analysis, I will be primarily focusing on the characters Edith Cushing and Lucille Sharpe, although the costuming of Edith’s father Carter and Lucille’s brother Thomas play heavily into the visual signaling of class as well. While much of the movie’s visual symbolism is less than subtle, the particularities of Crimson Peak’s relationship with class and appearance are remarkably unique and nuanced, particularly for a horror film.

Edith and Lucille are foils both in personality and appearance. This contrast is played up with everything from the soft features, gentle brown eyes, and golden hair of Mia Wasikowska (Edith) to the intense blue eyes and striking dark hair Jessica Chastain (Lucille) dons for the role. Edith is a young woman, 24, from New York, and she is in every way the quintessential metropolitan woman. Her father is a wealthy self-made stonemason, and her clothes are tasteful but unquestionably expensive and modern. Edith is dressed exclusively in cream, gold, and bronze for the first act of the film, an indicator of both her wealth and her comfort in the industry she lives in and around. Lucille, however, is a bit older at 32, and next to Edith and the other young women from New York, both her English mannerisms and outdated style of dress mark her as different. The colors she wears, however, mark her as threatening. While Edith and the other New York women wear the popular Edwardian leg-of-mutton sleeves and looser skirts in lighter fabrics, Lucille remains in her heavy, dark velvet and constricting dresses that seem far more suited to an era twenty years previous.

[Edith and Lucille in the park in Buffalo. The two women have already become acquainted with one another – note the black brooch at Edith’s throat and the ribbon on her hat as well as the white lace on Lucille’s collar and cuffs. While their colors have begun to bleed into one another, Edith maintains a floral motif while Lucille keeps more aggressive shapes.]

Lucille’s brother Thomas appeals to Carter for financial aid in building a clay extractor for his property, which Carter refuses, accusing Thomas of not being a hard worker. Edith witnesses this interaction, and later remarks to her father “Did you notice his suit? It was beautifully tailored, but at least a decade old…. And his shoes were handmade, but worn”. Carter replies that she had observed more than he had, and the two leave it at that. While the Sharpe siblings’ clothes are out of style, they are still dignified and carefully made from expensive materials. The two families’ contrasting styles are contrasted further at the ball Lucille plays piano for, which Edith dances with Thomas to. The women’s dresses are complementary in style but strikingly different. Lucille wears her hair tightly braided against her head with a band of large glass jewels across it, and she is dressed in possibly the most spectacular gown of the film – an intricate, silk, extremely tight blood-red dress with a multi-layered train that pools on the floor around her. Edith also arrives in a silk gown with a train – but hers is cream-colored, looser, and exposes her shoulders, arms and back (unfortunately, I was unable to find a quality image of Edith’s ballgown without the cape). Notably, she also wears strings of pearls across her chest and arms – and unlike Lucille’s flashy glass gems, Edith’s appear to be real.

[Lucille and Edith at the ball. Lucille is visibly constricted up to and above her neck in her suffocating gown, while under the cape, Edith’s is practically strapless, with only two small strings of pearls covering her shoulders, leaving most of her upper body and back exposed.]

A short amount of time later, Edith marries Thomas and returns to his and Lucille’s home in England with him. Their mansion, Allerdale Hall, is cavernous in size but actively decaying. Bright red clay seeps up from the floors and runs down the walls, and a massive hole in the foyer ceiling lets in leaves and, later, snow to collect on the floor. It is in the home that the costuming again progresses to another level, with Lucille greeting the newlyweds in a dress the same color as the walls of the house – a deep Prussian blue. Thomas wears a coat in an identical color and fabric. Edith, however, dons her most striking costume yet – a silk gown in a shade of canary yellow so highly saturated it borders on garish. The brightness of her dress is a far cry from the muted, gentler warm tones she has worn thus far. Not only does this dress follow Lucille’s red one in color intensity, but it features pleated elements at the chest that are reminiscent of Lucille’s gown as well.

[Lucille is back to her thick, heavy velvet and sharp accents (note the thorns adorning the leaves on her top). Edith, however, now wears thicker, heavier silk, this time with large pieces of embroidery on the sleeves and pleated patterns at the front. Although it is difficult to see from this angle, this dress also features a massive black velvet bow that ties at the back of Edith’s neck and is so long that it touches the ground.]

MAJOR PLOT SPOILERS FROM HERE ON

As several months go by, Edith finds herself becoming more and more ill – and the more bitter tea Lucille offers her to soothe her stomach, the sicker she gets. As is revealed through an investigation back in New York, Edith’s father, who died unexpectedly, was murdered, and his fortune has been steadily being drained into the Sharpes’ name in order to fund Thomas’s mining device. This is also not the first time this has happened – Thomas has been married three times before, to women with significant inheritances and no living relatives. The siblings, left penniless by their father with a house that was in too poor condition to sell, were too proud to leave their home, and so have been stealing money from women for the last decade to fund Thomas’s experiments (which have all failed, keeping them poor). This depiction of the lack of wealth turns the conventional “beggar in slums” trope on its head. The Sharpe siblings wear beautiful, well-tailored clothes because they were able to afford them in the past, but all the clothes are visibly worn because they have been unable to afford new ones for over a decade. Despite their appearances, the Sharpes are not wealthy at all, but were at one point in the siblings’ lives, and as such they are stuck in a sort of liminal space where they possess many valuable items, but have no actual money, and are too proud to sell anything they own, and as such have resorted to theft and murder. Edith is their next victim, and while the more empathetic Thomas begins to genuinely fall in love with her, the colder and more pragmatic Lucille increases the doses of poison she administers. While Lucille and Thomas’s costumes continue to mirror each other fairly uneventfully (they mainly rewear the blue and black clothes for the duration of the film), Edith’s clothes begin to change more and more. She does not know it yet, but the Sharpes are actively draining both her finances and her life. Almost all of her inheritance has already been siphoned into Thomas’s inventions, and she has begun coughing up blood nightly from Lucille’s poisoning of her tea. As the Sharpes, the house, and the secrets both of them hide begin to consume her, Edith’s color scheme shifts from her golds and yellows to green, and her light, gauzy fabrics shift into thick embroidered silks and heavy velvets. The darker green her clothes, the more of her life and wealth the Sharpes have bled out of her.

[On the left is Edith early into her stay at Allerdale Hall, wearing a nightgown. While it still has her characteristic yellow, the gown itself is a warm, light green, the shape is extremely structured, and both the high neck and long sleeves look more like Lucille’s clothing than anything Edith has worn yet. On the right, Edith wears a deep green velvet top with a high neck and smaller sleeves than she usually wears. She has been influenced and manipulated by the siblings and, as such, has taken their signature color into her own.]

While more events play out before the film’s dramatic close, the most significant indicators of wealth and class in costuming have already been given to us. Edith, in her golden industrial shades and modern shapes, and the Sharpes, in their dark, heavy fabrics and long-out-of-fashion styles, give the viewer visual cues in their clothing as to their personalities, desires, and secrets.

The costumes for Crimson Peak were designed and executed by Kate Hawley.

Works Cited

Crimson Peak. Directed by Guillermo del Toro, Universal Pictures, 2015.

All images are either promotional photographs or screencaps of the film.


Responses

  1. Now I absolutely must see this film! Fantastic post about it.


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