Vicky Krieps took home the best actress award in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard section for her role in “Corsage,” starring as the tragic Empress Elizabeth of Austria, the style star of her time.
Director Marie Kreutzer examined the empress with a more modern, feminist take as Elizabeth, affectionately known as Sisi, ages and struggles with irrelevance. In her youth she wields political power, but as she nears middle age she realizes that power was built on her beauty and popularity. As she turns 40 she finds her title alone doesn’t confer much actual power and she acts out with affairs and an eating disorder.
“At this point in her life, she really struggled with that oversize image of herself that she had come to fulfill all the time, and that she was only loved for that image,” says Kreutzer. “It’s actually something we as women all grew up with that it is important to please in order to be loved, and especially when you are an exposed figure, a celebrity, and she was the celebrity of her time. She was extremely isolated and exposed at the same time.”
During filming, Krieps struggled with wearing a corset for hours a day, saying it invoked deep emotion to be bound.
“It was such an unsettling and uncomfortable feeling,” she previously told WWD. “The thing I observed as soon as I had it on — and it would happen every day — is that after two minutes I would get sad. Like a deep sadness. And I found out that your emotional center is where your solar plexus and diaphragm is, and that is exactly where it is pushing the most. It affects your mood.”
It’s no wonder, as she spent up to 10 hours a day in corsets that shrunk her waist nearly four inches.
Costume designer Monika Buttinger constructed the corsets out of stiff cotton and plastic boning, replacing the original whale of the time. She said the production considered using visual effects to trim the waist but then recognized Krieps’ height played perfectly with the fit. “She has wide shoulders and she’s quite tall, with high heels she is even taller, and we could get her to a really nice size with this technique.”
Kreutzer and Buttinger also considered the characters’ positions and time period, but chose to pare down the Gilded Age fashions to focus on form.
“In this time period, there was really not one centimeter between the body [and the dress], it is like a second skin. It was very complicated to make the cuts for them,” says Buttinger. They stripped much of the era’s exterior decorations from the dresses to show posture and how they carried themselves. “Our concept was to work with the materials to make a straight silhouette. The Gilded Age was really highly decorated, but the costumes we made were elegant and plain. You can see the character better if you can see their form.”
That aesthetic extended to the corsets, and Buttinger and Kreutzer were careful to avoid any modern-day associations with sexiness.
“It was very important for me that the corsets were not beautiful or sexy, or made with lace. They were instruments to hold her in that were very technical. All the underwear had only a practical purpose,” Kreutzer says.
While the extravagance of each outfit may have been reduced, each dress still took about 120 hours to construct. With 50 dresses needed for the empress. Buttinger made some pieces interchangeable and switched up exterior elements such as ribbons and bows to create additional looks.
The athletic Sisi was also a fan of fencing, riding and gymnastics, but even these activities didn’t free women from the bind. Corsets for sport had a little more give, created with cording, says Buttinger. A team of 22 people constructed the costumes, on a budget of 300,000 euros.
Buttinger says she tried to make Krieps as comfortable as possible on set, but underestimated how difficult it would be to get in and out of the corsets. “It is a very long process to take off the jacket and open the corset, it takes around 10 minutes just for the corset to be tied,” says Buttinger. “Just being in the corset was really like kind of a cage.”
“I underestimated what the corset would do to Vicky as an actress,” adds Kreutzer. “And I didn’t think so much about what it had done to Elizabeth, because, unlike Vicky, she grew up wearing a corset from when she was 11 or 12. So she was already tied in a corset every day so that her organs would already have placed themselves somewhere else, not like [where they’re] supposed to be.
“To be honest, I didn’t think so much about it while writing. But when we shot the film, we all underestimated the force of it, and what it means to wear it all day, and to never be able to really breathe and not be able to eat, I mean, it’s absurd,” says Kreutzer, reflecting on the idea of women often being considered “hysterical” at the time. “I’m sure it did something to women on many levels.”