Poor Things: The Costumes

Poor Things: The Costumes

Tom Hall reports on the brilliant exhibition at the Benaki Museum showcasing the costumes designed by the talented Holly Waddington for Yorgos Lanthimos’ award-winning cinematic experiment Poor Things. Waddington gives life to a never-before-seen world by blending different historical time periods and styles, taking us through the evolution of Bella’s character through her sartorial genius.  Using costumes as a symbol of Bella’s refusal of social constructs, the exhibition explores the complicated relationship between dress, character and power, and serves as a master class in craftsmanship.


The grandeur of the beautiful neoclassical marvel that is The Benaki Museum, coupled with the sweeping collection that celebrates influence as well as Greekness, make it the perfect home for Poor Things: The Costumes. This is a rare opportunity to get up close to the striking costumes from Poor Things, the (multi) award-winning film by one of Greece’s favorite sons, Yorgos Lanthimos. Given the Grand Tour exhibition showing a few floors down, a collaboration between the Benaki, Government Art Collection UK and the British Embassy at Athens, it is fitting that this show is another example of creative collaboration between the UK and Greece as costume designer Holly Waddington was onsite to help open the exhibition.

What struck me from my many viewings of the film is that the costumes are characters, they push forward the narrative and are active participants in the development, positively or negatively, of the individuals who wear them. What this intimate and arresting show also demonstrates is that they are so much more. It allows you to pause the film, step into the frame and examine the costumes in detail. And what emerges from this examination is that they are works of art in their own right, with thought provoking, even challenging, components.

They are works of art in their own right with thought provoking, even challenging, detail which the humorous captions point out. The wonderful and humorous captions, written by Waddington herself, apparently with much pleasure, help guide you to the detail. Max’s coat, worn at the end of the film when he is a “proper doctor”, is described as having suit buttons “like the pus squeezed from a boil.”

Holly sought inspiration from the inside as well as the outside of the body, so we learn that Baxter’s suits are the palette of offal and that the bespoke fabric for the Parisian Madame is reminiscent of varicose veins. The costumes are also self contained visual commentaries on historical fact and fiction. Holly has previously said that she found the rules of costume design for pure period drama too restrictive and she wanted the opportunity to play with the conventions. It is clear that Lanthimos has given her scope to explore that impulse.

With this exhibition you get a sense of that playfulness in action but also of the deep knowledge of, and respect for, the traditions that she is playing with. When elements of 1930s dress intrude on the 1880s in the form of Harry Astley, you can be sure that the anachronism is accurate, if that makes sense. The Benaki couldn’t be a better place to house this show. From Phillips’ portrait of Byron dressing up in the military uniform he bought in Epirus in 1809 to the many tableaux of traditional wedding outfits from down the years, the collections at the Benaki explore the complicated relationship between dress, character and power, themes which pervade Poor Things. Dress up and get down there.

Poor Things: The Costumes’ exhibition at the Benaki Museum celebrates the exceptional costumes of a recent, multi-award-winning international film. The exhibition was also shown at the Barbican Centre in London (2023). Costume designer: Holly Waddington. Film distributor in Greece & Cyprus: Feelgood Entertainment. Production Studio: Searchlight Pictures. A talk with Holly Waddington follows on June 12 at 8pm at The Benaki on Pireos Street.

When: From June 12 until September 29, 2024

Tickets: €9, €7

Where: The Benaki Museum, 1 Koumbari St. & Vas. Sofias Ave., 106 74 Athens, benaki.org

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