Drawing inspiration

Batsheva Hay in conversation on Little Women, Wuthering Heights, and establishing relationships with actors

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Batsheva Hay, who likes Yorgos Lanthimos' The Favourite and loves Alfonso Cuarón's ROMA, on George Cukor's Little Women, costumes by Walter Plunkett: 'It's so good'
Batsheva Hay, who likes Yorgos Lanthimos' The Favourite and loves Alfonso Cuarón's ROMA, on George Cukor's Little Women, costumes by Walter Plunkett: 'It's so good' Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
Greta Gerwig's upcoming Little Women with Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen, Meryl Streep, Timothée Chalamet, Laura Dern, and Louis Garrel, could make a lot of new people discover Batsheva Hay's clothes, which found their way onto Jacqueline Durran's costume design inspiration board. As in a Möbius strip, Louisa May Alcott's novel and the various movie incarnations influenced the designer's aesthetic in the first place. Isabelle Adjani at Cannes in the Eighties, Kiki Smith's Wolf Girl, Katharine Hepburn off The African Queen, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Frida Kahlo, Romy Schneider, Sissy Spacek, and Jules Bastien-Lepage's Joan of Arc are some of the extraordinary images assembled by Batsheva on Instagram as muses.

Batsheva's clothes have a cinematic quality and her love for costume dramas manifests itself in her choices that subvert the dichotomies at play in fashion. They are traditional and of the now. A timeless feminist femininity that can feel as dangerous as though you were trespassing into a witch's garden. Livia Firth (Creative Director of Eco-Age) reminded me years ago to never buy anything that I will not wear at least 30 times. The Green Carpet initiative still has to gain more footing. A change of attitude is necessary so that it will be seen as a badge of honour to wear clothing many times.

Life-affirming were the words that came to mind when entering the space on West Broadway in SoHo. Batsheva Hay's pop-up shop during New York Fashion Week where she presented her Courtney Love/Hole themed show with, among others, Christina Ricci, Dolly Wells, Ewan McGregor's daughter Esther Rose, Veronica Webb, Theodora Richards, Annabelle Dexter-Jones, and Sasha Frolova wearing her latest designs.

When I came by on Monday, sewing machines were whirring, and unusual fabric, the one reminiscent of long-ago childhood discoveries, was piled on the built-in shelves. There was an assortment of her dresses and tops on racks, abutting the spiral staircase leading up to a skylight and down to makeshift dressing rooms.

Anne-Katrin Titze: When we talked last Friday, you mentioned Little Women, the new upcoming Little Women, directed by Greta Gerwig.

George Cukor’s Little Women with Jean Parker, Joan Bennett, Katharine Hepburn, Frances Dee, and Spring Byington
George Cukor’s Little Women with Jean Parker, Joan Bennett, Katharine Hepburn, Frances Dee, and Spring Byington
Batsheva Hay: Yeah, my friend who is in the cast [Sasha Frolova], but not a main cast member, was saying that she saw the inspiration board for the costume designer that included a lot of my clothing, pictures of my clothing. So that was really interesting because it is like a cyclical thing. I drew inspiration from old movies and old books like that. And now the movies about the old books are drawing inspiration from me. It's kind of interesting.

AKT: Especially with Little Women. I am sure the George Cukor Little Women from 1933 with Katharine Hepburn had an impact on you.

BH: Totally. I actually have a screenshot - it's somewhere in my saved photos recently because my husband and his grandma were showing that movie to my daughter. And we were taking pictures of that clothing.

AKT: I absolutely love that film.

BH: It's so good.

AKT: What I wasn't aware of until recently is that the later Little Women had the same costume designer.

BH: You mean the more recent-ish one with Winona Ryder from the Nineties?

AKT: No, no the one from 1949. It's also Walter Plunkett, who did not only the Little Women but many of the MGM musicals of the 1950s that I think I see some traces of in your work.

BH: Cool, yes.

AKT: One of them is - it's difficult to say one really likes it, because the plot is pretty awful - Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.

BH: I know. I do love that movie, though. I used to watch that movie so much.

Batsheva Hay on Stanley Donen's Seven Brides for Seven Brothers: 'I had no idea how weird it was back then but the costumes were amazing'
Batsheva Hay on Stanley Donen's Seven Brides for Seven Brothers: 'I had no idea how weird it was back then but the costumes were amazing'
AKT: I did too. Despite the fact that it is Stockholm Syndrome times seven.

BH: It's true. I had no idea how weird it was back then but the costumes were amazing.

AKT: And the dances. I find it really interesting that we can love the look of something so much and overlook what lies beneath.

BH: Yes. I do hear things like that about my clothes. Like why are you drawing inspiration from old-fashioned things that obviously represent so many hardships for women and all of that kind of stuff? It's true and I'm not denying it. I think that's a big part of it but I'm not trying to deny history or deny anything. But I think trying to have a laugh about it sometimes - it's not always a laugh.

But definitely there is that feeling that we have of ambivalence with a lot of things where we love the aesthetics and we even have nostalgia for the aesthetics and then we reexamine the societal things going on at that time. And it tugs at us and makes us angry for having those feelings. We do have a lot of ambivalent feelings about clothing.

AKT: We all get dressed in the morning. We make the decision how to face the world everyday. I recently talked with László Nemes, the director of Son Of Saul, which won the Oscar in 2016. You might have seen it?

BH: Yeah, totally.

AKT: His new film is coming out soon. It's a beautiful film called Sunset, from the perspective of a young woman in Budapest before the First World War. She is a hat maker, who returns to her family's store. Anyway, we talked about cinema and that he feels and I feel too that there is a lot out there that doesn't go very far.

Batsheva Hay with Anne-Katrin Titze on Greta Gerwig's Little Women: 'I drew inspiration from old movies and old books like that. And now the movies about the old books are drawing inspiration from me'
Batsheva Hay with Anne-Katrin Titze on Greta Gerwig's Little Women: 'I drew inspiration from old movies and old books like that. And now the movies about the old books are drawing inspiration from me'
Movies that put you on a very narrow path. You just have to thoughtlessly follow the superheroes, or whatever it is and the audience doesn't have to do much work. What's missing is the adventure of cinema. I feel you could draw a parallel with fashion.

BH: I definitely think so. I definitely have found that in a lot of creative forms, just compared to when I was growing up, in the Eighties, Nineties, everything seemed more exciting to me. It seemed there was more going on in art, in film, in fashion. And now it's like, going shopping, even if I go to the nicest fanciest store, there's nothing I want. There's nothing that feels like I need this. That feeling of excitement and real connection to it?

AKT: Passion is gone. As little Samuele says in Gianfranco Rosi's Fire At Sea, the documentary about Lampedusa, "You got to have passion." Something is lacking with the seemingly endless access to things online.

BH: Right, and there's also something maybe similar with film - you just throw some famous actors in and that's your movie. Or just have a famous director. With fashion, everyone just wants a certain brand. It's an obsession with branding.

And an obsession with status, status symbols instead of interesting things, you know? We don't even realise if actors are good actors anymore. We just know there's a famous actor in this movie.

AKT: And you have actors now wearing your clothing. That must be an interesting thing to see. There is your philosophy about garments which I feel very strongly is present and at the same time you are being pulled into a world that is feeding on what you describe.

BH: And it's mostly because of Instagram, I guess, that people have found me, like actors. Which is funny too, because my clothing doesn't tend to be very evening wear and actors usually need dresses for the red carpet. I have, actually because of that, established relationships with actors, selling them or giving them dresses, that are just for daytime. It's under the radar kinds of things. They become real fans or friends of mine, rather than making something and loaning it for a red carpet moment.

AKT: I wish there were more dresses like yours on the red carpet. The concept of the red carpet is another thing that has gone by the wayside. It has turned into a brand circus.

BH: Well they don't dress themselves. You never see the actor's taste in it.

AKT: But even the stylists who dress them, who are these people? Where is their taste?

BH: Right, there is not much adventure, they play it safe, too.

AKT: I was re-reading Susan Sontag's Notes on "Camp", for one, because of the new Costume Institute exhibition, Camp: Notes on Fashion, coming up in May. There are great ideas in the essay. How do you feel about Camp?

Oscar-nominated costume designer Sandy Powell for Yorgos Lanthimos' The Favourite and Rob Marshall's Mary Poppins Returns
Oscar-nominated costume designer Sandy Powell for Yorgos Lanthimos' The Favourite and Rob Marshall's Mary Poppins Returns Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
BH: I do feel that some of my stuff is campy. Sometimes I go a little kitschy. I think it's great, I'm all for it. I'm way more interested in anyone who wants to make a statement. I'm never going to reject someone because they do something too risky. I always like the Worst Dressed List better than the Best Dressed List, you know? I'd rather see something interesting.

AKT: Did you see the last exhibitions at The Met?

BH: At the Costume Institute? It's usually honestly too crowded but the last one I did go to.

AKT: The Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination?

BH: Yeah, it's cool. Listen, it's like an amazing fancy job that they do.

AKT: I love their exhibits, I usually get my few minutes with Andrew Bolton at the press preview and I believe he is making people think differently about clothing. People might actually rethink the power of what we are wearing. You come from a law background. By the way, so did Walter Plunkett, the Little Women costume designer.

BH: Oh that's so funny.

AKT: And so did a lot of collectors of fairy tales. The Grimms studied law, Charles Perrault came from a family of lawyers, Alexander Afanasyev was a lawyer. There is a fairy-tale quality to your clothes, too.

BH: That's so funny. That's interesting. I mean, there's a lot of storytelling in law. When you study law you just learn about cases that are like these funny situations that people ended up in.

AKT: A sense of justice is very big in tales.

BH: You have to stand for something.

AKT: How does storytelling enter into the clothes?

BH: I think there is a sense of fantasy definitely and story in my clothing. And also being involved in vintage and wanting to inhabit a person's clothing.

AKT: Any films, new ones and old ones, that you have seen recently that you really liked?

Batsheva Hay on William Wyler's film, starring Laurence Olivier, Merle Oberon, and David Niven, based on Emily Brontë's novel: 'I always re-watch Wuthering Heights'
Batsheva Hay on William Wyler's film, starring Laurence Olivier, Merle Oberon, and David Niven, based on Emily Brontë's novel: 'I always re-watch Wuthering Heights'
BH: Honestly not so many recently, especially with the kids. I liked The Favourite.

AKT: I did too, very much.

BH: I like any period piece, really, pretty much.

AKT: Did you see ROMA?

BH: I did, yeah, I loved it. And then I always re-watch Wuthering Heights, the one with Laurence Olivier.

AKT: And Merle Oberon.

BH: Yeah. I love it. You kind of look like Merle Oberon a little bit.

AKT: I do? Thank you.

BH: On the eyes.

AKT: Catching up on old New Yorker articles I wanted to read, I came across a book review from last November of Sylvia Plath's letters [The Girl That Things Happen To by Dan Chiasson]. In one of the letters she mentions that she planned on publishing a lot of poetry in order to afford a sewing machine.

BH: Oh, that's so cool. I've never read that.

AKT: So she can make clothes for herself and her daughter.

BH: Wow, that's crazy.

AKT: And then she turned the making of the clothes back into poetry again. It's a lovely circle. The idea of safety came to mind. That's how I feel in your dress, the one I got here Friday.

BH: That's so nice.

AKT: I thought, how strange, nobody would at first glance say, "She's wearing a safe dress."

BH: Right. It's kind of adventurous looking.

AKT: It looks adventurous and the opposite of what some might call safe, even by fashion standards. This is the garment's double nature, because at the same time, I've hardly felt more protected than while wearing your dresses. Does safety come in at all in your thinking?

Anne-Katrin Titze in a dress designed by Batsheva Hay: 'The idea of safety came to mind. That's how I feel in your dress, the one I got here Friday'
Anne-Katrin Titze in a dress designed by Batsheva Hay: 'The idea of safety came to mind. That's how I feel in your dress, the one I got here Friday' Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
BH: Yeah, I mean for me what I was looking to do when I started making dresses, was to make a uniform for myself. Because sometimes it's such a burden to get dressed and I think we all feel that. And I know a lot of people do have their own uniforms that are actual simple uniforms, like a button-down shirt or a pencil skirt or whatever. And I was never able to find that for me in a store. And what I ended up doing was always just dealing with these vintage clothes and finding what I was going to wear that day.

I wanted to find a shape that felt exactly that safe. And I could have it in ten fabrics and just throw it on. Have pockets! Have it really utilitarian the way a jumpsuit might feel to a city worker. And that's what it did feel like for me. Also you have a lot of fabric, it's covered. That was definitely the instinct for me.

AKT: Seeing all the dresses and fabrics I was reminded of a thought I had as a five-year-old. I was playing with other children and remember distinctly thinking, "Those poor boys, they are not allowed to wear dresses." When the shift dresses I wore in the summer were the best thing. And I could wear pants, too. It felt very unjust to me. It's so simple, I just had to put on the dress and go.

BH: Exactly. I still have that feeling. It's such a nice thing to throw it on. And also there are so many things that you throw on that you feel not so good about yourself in. But there's something about the cotton dress that you feel good about yourself.

Greta Gerwig's Little Women will open in the US on December 25 and in the UK on January 17, 2020.

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