That director Luca Guadagnino’s films have the most pause-worthy visuals in contemporary cinema is in no small part due to Giulia Piersanti, his costume designer of choice. Having first worked together on 2015’s A Bigger Splash, they’ve since made last summer’s Call Me By Your Name, and now, Suspiria, a remake of Dario Argento’s 1977 cult horror. (Guadagnino, incidentally, describes her as “the most tasteful, thoughtful and ironic person I know”.)
When making an adaptation, there’s always the question of how much, or how little, to refer to the original. It’s especially pertinent in the case of Argento’s Suspiria, whose cartoonish, lucid visuals are still influential today. Although a fan of Argento’s, Piersanti sought to distinguish 2018’s Suspiria by looking instead to the “irreverently theatrical” films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, in particular The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant, his 1972 all-female film of which the protagonist is, fittingly, a fashion designer.
A brief bit of scene-setting: in 1977, in Berlin, Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) is a young dancer who enrolls at the prestigious Markos Dance Academy, helmed by Tilda Swinton’s Madam Blanc – only to find that it is run by a coven of witches. The Seventies is an era that Piersanti evoked by favouring a muted, muddy colour palette inspired by the pages of Sibylle, at its peak the best-known fashion magazine in East Germany (the German Democratic Republic) which was in print from 1956 until 1995, and which Piersanti describes as “a socialist version of Vogue.” Late ‘70s GDR fashion, as she points out, was defined by the scarce availability of branded clothes. Accordingly, Piersanti designed almost the entire wardrobe of Suspiria from scratch; even creating her own Louise Bourgeois-influenced, printed fabrics.
If Piersanti is acutely concerned with creating intricate, credible costumes, that’s not to say there’s no room for the fantastical and theatrical in her work. The red hand-knotted costumes for Volk, the dance company’s signature performance, were inspired by the Japanese photographer Nobuyoshi Araki’s erotic bondage photographs and by “Wedding Dress”, a piece by the artists Christo and his wife Jeanne-Claude. Tied in pentagram shapes on the body, the ropes were left to hang like dripping blood. For Sabbath, the film’s climatic, gory ritual, Piersanti created Margiela-esque dresses from real human hair extensions (these would be washed of fake blood and combed back into place after shooting each night).
Piersanti is not a costume designer by trade. Originally a knitwear designer, she still works in a freelance capacity for the likes of Céline. Now based in Milan, the Rome-born 41 year old studied at New York’s Parsons School of Design and began her career at Miu Miu. Her background might go some way to explaining her particular skill in balancing the evocative with the contemporary, the result being films that consistently chime with the zeitgeist. She approaches creating costumes from the perspective that period costumes can tend to get in the way.
“When watching period films set in the ‘70s and ‘80s, I often find it hard not to get distracted by overly charged costumes,” she says. Instead, she looks for “common denominators between what is period-accurate, and what is still relevant today” in order to “complement the narrative and not disturb the viewer.”
In Suspiria, this meant avoiding typical ‘70s silhouettes, such as flared trousers, and opting instead for the structured gowns Tilda Swinton dons, a nod to the legendary choreographers Pina Bausch and Martha Graham. Rather than playing on horror film tropes, Piersanti wanted to “subvert the established look of villains.” Her witches are “normal ladies with a bit of humour in their wardrobe choices.” As she put it, “the realness [with which] these witches … go about their day is what I find the most disturbing.”