After an extraordinary run at the Sundance Film Festival, the Puritan-era indie horror film The Witch was released to many major theaters around the country. In just its opening week, The Witch brought in over $8.6 million (about nine times its modest budget) and stunned audiences with its intense script and chilling cinematography.
While the writing and shot composition are brilliant, one of the most breathtaking elements of the film is by far the costume design, done by Canadian costume designer Linda Muir. We were fortunate enough to get a chance to talk with this award-winning designer about her spectacular costume design and her experience working on this revolutionary horror movie.
What was the experience of working on The Witch like overall?
LINDA: Extremely challenging but rewarding. I learned a vast amount about 17th century clothing and while shooting, frequently felt transported back in time: often candle and fire alone lit the interior sets and only the thin wooden clapboards kept out the cold — it was easy to understand how harsh life must have been.
What kind of research did you and the film’s amazing director, Robert Eggers, have to do for this design?
Robert had worked on the film for approximately four years prior to my involvement with the project and had done his own exhaustive research during his writing stage in order to imbue the script with accurate action, language, and settings. To assist in raising financing for the film, Robert compiled a booklet of images pertinent to the period and, as he has also acted as a set and costume designer, he had drawn the farm and illustrative black and white character sketches, so I had a very clear starting point.
The first part of my job was to read as much as I could of what Robert had previously ingested, namely 35 volumes of reference material produced by Stuart Press called Clothes of the Common People in Elizabethan and Early Stuart England, with titles like The Materials: Fustians, Knitting, Leather, Furs and Skins, Felt and Others, or Women’s Garments: Petticoats, Kirtles, Frocks and Safeguards. These books covered all aspects of the period in which The Witch was set.
Once I understood what was worn, how, and why, I started to look at the people, colors, garments, and details in the work of painters such as Goya and Franz Snyders. Facts that I learned concerning the use of ergot (rye bread mould) as a hallucinogen, applied to spinning distaffs (the actual witches “broom” in period woodcuts) certainly informed Goya’s terrifying scenes.
I found some useful information on reenactor websites, and companies such as Burnley and Trowbridge that could supply reproduction items, such as the ¼” linen tape we braided into female hair updos, used at the period, to dress the hair and anchor the coif (cap).
In order to better understand the look of the wool needed to represent the period, I contacted Stuart Peachey, who provided me with swatches of historically accurate wools (fleece, yarn, and yardage produced at his farm), such as Gray Frieze, White Kersie, Fustian, and Russet; using those swatches as my guide, I then scoured fabric sources for the most basic weaves, in colors that fell within the palette set for the film.
Finding the fabrics — all wool (for bodies, petticoats, waistcoats, doublets, and breeches), linen of differing weights and qualities (for linings, bindings, coifs, aprons, collars, and cuffs) and hemp, with braided linen thread ties (for all the shifts and shirts), plus suitable buttons for all the costumes and for their multiples (identical garments x 3 for Thomasin and William) was quite the job. As a finishing touch I utilized the swatches from Stuart as patches on the costumes of Caleb, Thomasin, and Jonas.
A January research trip to Plimouth Plantation, with Robert and production designer Craig Lathrop, early in the pre-production process, was very productive. Although the plantation was closed to the public for the winter, we had access to the various departments responsible for creating the clothing, props, and structures used by the pilgrims to reenact 17th century life. Each time I read the script after digesting research, I had more questions and suggestions for Robert to consider.
How many of the costumes were made just for The Witch? Were any pulled from other projects?
I created original costume sketches and found fabrics and notions for Thomasin, Katherine, William, Caleb, Mercy, Jonas, The Old Witch (whose costume you do not see in the film), and The Young Witch, incorporating much of Robert’s vision.
We cut and sewed those garments, aged them, and fit the costumes onto the actors approximately a week before camera. After the fittings we completed alterations, and the remaining breakdown/distressing, and they were driven to northern Ontario for the shoot. Costume pieces for Sam, such as his biggin and shift, were cut and sewn in Toronto and shipped north. We made muslins for most garment types, to confirm shape and proportion, before cutting into the wool.
Our cutter, Brenda Clark, has an impressive background working on projects for the Canadian Opera Company, the Stratford Festival, and the National Ballet of Canada. Kate and Ralph were complimentary, saying that their costumes felt more like clothing, which is always a thrill to hear.
I conducted long-distance comparisons of available rentals from companies in London and Italy, landing on Tirelli, based in Rome. The costumes for the Meeting House BG cast of 50, plus the cast of three dignitaries were rented from Tirelli Costumi. Robert was in London, England, completing casting and I arranged for a meeting/preview/selection of the background costuming in Rome, at Tirelli, so he could confirm that en masse they would give the texture and look for the scene that he saw in his mind’s eye. Some of the costumes were fit in Toronto, for later use in the north, while the rest were shipped to Mattawa, Ontario where we fit, altered and augmented them with linen coifs, collars, cuffs, and aprons of our own making.
The doublet and breeches for the character of Black Phillip, as a cavalier, was also rented from Tirelli, and to that we added a fabulous fabricated feathered hat, a cape, ornate black lace collar, cuffs and boot cuffs, and garters with beaded points, along with boots sporting gold spurs, and elaborately beaded gloves that we beaded on the wardrobe truck.
The background characters seen as the family leave the plantation — settlers, herder, militia, and Wampanoag— were costumed by Plimouth Plantation, where the scene was shot; Denise Lebica, Manager of Historical Clothing and Textiles at Plimouth Plantation, was phenomenally helpful throughout the prep and shoot periods. Not only did she share a wealth of information, she also produced the sugar loaf hat for William, Katherine’s felt hat, and Caleb’s Monmouth cap. I bought the knit thigh-high stockings and garters for the family from old stock that Plimouth Plantation volunteers had knit (40 hours per stocking, if memory serves) for use by their Pilgrims, from wool dyed to colors such as Rat’s Colour, Murrey, or Goose-turd Green. Latchet shoes came from either Plimouth Plantation old stock, or Fugawee Shoes, or Garb the World.
Can you speak to the colors you chose for each character and how those colors changed (or stayed the same) throughout the film?
One of the first myths that Robert dispelled for me was the idea of Puritans dressed solely in black and white. At the period, Puritan clothing was in fact quite colorful; the colors achieved using plant material (woad, oak galls, madder root, indigo, brazilwood, with an alum mordant) faded over time, in the sun and with washing, to soft hues. To replicate naturally dyed wool I chose soft colors, most already tending toward gray, and then we painted and dyed the distressing/ageing/breakdown into them.
The family of seven is seen together, or in smaller pairings, for most of the film therefore the colors for each character had to work both together in the groupings, and also offer individual interest.
Pink, often signifying carefree youth, seemed to collide nicely with the way in which Thomasin comes to be treated by her parents. And of course, pink leads nicely to red.
The wools that I wanted for William’s doublet and breeches were the perfect texture and weave but not the right color so that yardage was dyed to match a swatch I provided and then aged. William has forced his family into the wilderness, and the browns, seen in the surrounding trees and earth, seemed appropriate and the dyes would have been created from wood: perfect for William. The fabric in garments dyed using natural dyes faded most where the sun hit it, so William’s back and shoulders were much more faded than his front (protected from the sun while bending to his crops).
When I set out to find our heavy woolens, I wasn’t prepared for the sad lack in availability; the demand for such wool has almost completely dropped off: we live in heated homes and wear down coats these days, and so many of the world’s mills have shut down or switched to the production of polyester. The hunt took me to the basements of the oldest fabric stores and out-of-town shops.
Honestly, in the case of Thomasin and William, the saying, “Cut your coat according to your cloth,” could not be truer. Our budget did not allow for imports or cloth with more than a moderate price. Both characters required not only their hero costume, but they also needed multiples for clean blood resets, mud resets, and rain resets, and those requirements meant a lot of yardage (which was both a budget issue and a problem to find). But the fabric, the palest of pinks that I most wanted for Thomasin, I did find in a shop basement but one end of the bolt was badly damaged, greatly reducing the amount available with which to work. I decided to split her costume into the bodie (or soft corset) x 3, of one wool, petticoat (skirt) x 3, of another (though they were attached – a period option) and her waistcoat x 3, in a third wool, my favourite. The shades and textures of all three fabrics worked together to create Thomasin in pink (madder root, or lichens), offset by the white of her coif and shift, and brown linen of her apron (which linked Thomasin back to both Katherine and William).
The green (buckthorn berry family, or lichens) of Katherine’s waistcoat is picked up again in her gown (coat) and seemed to add another dimension to her story: she was perhaps once nurturing and optimistic; she was a mother to five. For Katherine’s bodice and petticoat, I chose brown tones to link her to William and to provide additional interest for her varying layers. Some of her fabrics were also incorporated into Mercy’s costume to indicate Katherine’s household economies and link the generations.
True blue – Caleb’s doublet reflected a woad dye color, a faded watchet, and his coat approximated an undyed wool, left its natural color.
The colours used for the twins Jonas and Mercy were the weakest, least developed, and were intended to play off one another.
Red seemed like the only choice for the witch’s cloak, an agreed upon fairy tale must, and red was also used on the heels of the boots worn by Black Phillip as a cavalier, and in the baptismal “bearing cloth” cloth wrapped around Sam when he is returned to Katherine — all examples of the devil at play.
Did you have a favorite piece? (I personally loved the father’s leather vest).
That’s a terrific pick! William’s jerkin is also a favorite of mine; the brass buttons, rather than being individually sewn on opposite each buttonhole, are held to the garment with a continuous thong that runs up the inside of the jerkin and punctures the leather at each button.
I’m also very happy with all of Katherine’s garments. And I love the look of Thomasin’s petticoat (skirt) when “kirtled” up into her belt on each side revealing her shift and stockings, when washing William’s woolens at the brook and when riding Bert through the forest.
Did the aspect of wilderness affect your costume choices at all?
Absolutely. Robert asked for a very reduced colour palette for sets and costumes, yet the actors had to stand out against tree trunks and riven wood.
We shot exteriors at the end of April and throughout May in northern Ontario: there were still snow drifts in the shade of the forest. I designed period outerwear for all the family characters: a short cloak for Thomasin; long gown for Katherine; leather jerkin for William; and coats for Caleb, Mercy; and Jonas. Surprisingly, the actors rarely asked for their down warm up coats; they said they were toasty in their woolens, while the crew was all dressed in parkas.
Did the horror genre affect any of your design choices?
The horror genre affected the budget and that in turn affected the design choices: during a pre-prep period, while I was devising a realistic wardrobe budget, Robert and I decided that the family members could only have one costume each because of the cost of supplying multiples, primarily needed for blood resets. Once the family’s misfortunes start, the decline occurs quite quickly and we felt that it feasible that since they had little to start with, in their grief, changing a waistcoat or doublet wouldn’t be important to them.
How did you like working on the horror genre?
I enjoy horror. I designed the costumes for the second and third seasons of Bitten, which entailed dressing werewolves (in their human form) and a coven of witches. It was a very happy family and we had an awful lot of fun — and the blood flowed! Traci Loader is the incredibly talented make up artist who created the old witch makeup in The Witch and gave both the makeup-less and blood-drenched looks to the family. Traci also worked on Bitten.
For me, the politics and beliefs that affect each family member so profoundly in The Witch is the real horror in that story.
The Witch was, however, the first time that I had worked on a horror film with vast amounts of blood where the set was in the middle of a (stunning) forest, with little running hot water, no cellphone reception, and no Internet capability. That was another horror. It extended the work day by hours; arrangements with all contacts supplying costumes needed for later in the shooting schedule had to be made from northern Ontario by email, either before our 5am starts (the set was an hour from our Mattawa base) or after our nighttime wrap.
How did this experience compare to your other design experiences?
The film is intimate; the audience observes the family at very close quarters during extremely long takes therefore the authenticity of the costumes had to withstand ongoing scrutiny. Since the members of the family dress and undress on screen and their clothing is often used as a prop, all visible seams (inside and out) were hand sewn and all garments were lined with either linen or wool.
Six members of the family were cast in the UK (Sam was cast in Mattawa, Ontario) and we built their costumes without having ever seen them in person until the epic fitting day, a week before camera. That is very unusual; normally (on the projects for which I design costumes) only few cast members come in from out-of-town. I usually have access to the actors for more than one fitting.
Be aware: never accept electronically scanned actor foot tracings as accurate!
During the prep period for The Witch I found myself saying “Thank God for Skype.” Much of the work was done long-distance: discussions with Robert when he was in Brooklyn (and eventually in Mattawa) and I was working away on the costumes in Toronto, or previews of costumes available from Tirelli, or conversations had with the actors while they were still in the UK, and all of the follow-up arrangements made with Plimouth Plantation, after my research trip.
In my experience on other period films for which I have designed the costumes, the director typically relies much more on the costume designer to provide the creative thrust for every aspect of the costumed look for the project, in consultation with the director, writer, and production designer.
The Witch was different because Robert had very developed images in his mind of what the film could look like, so the members of the creative team arrived on the same page quite quickly. I think it was difficult for him to cede the areas of costume and set design, and he did warn us that he would be impossible, and he was…in the very best possible way. His enthusiasm, intelligence, and knowledge of the period were inspiring and infectious— and since he was totally hands-on in every department, the process was highly collaborative.
Basically Robert said this is what I know, this is what I want to see, now take it and run with it — so I did.
Thanks again to the fantastic Linda Muir for her insights into the film’s costume design. The Witch is now playing at most major cinemas and is an absolute must-see for all fans of the horror genre.
images via A24