When we get dressed in the morning, we may not be aware of it, but the clothes we put on have a history. Whether we’re the first to own them, or they’ve been passed through time to end up in our closets, each and every article of clothing has a past. A past that might shock us. This is where the premise for In Fabric begins…
…Releasing on VOD December 6th from A24, writer/director Peter Strickland’s (Berberian Sound Studio) new film, In Fabric, is a provocative piece of arthouse horror that explores the very fabric of human beings, and the way in which we find ourselves subservient to the clothes we wear. The film stars Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Leo Bill, Fatma Mohamed, and many other wonderful actors, in this ghostly story about a cursed red dress passing from person to person, always leading to devastating consequences.
I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with Peter, who offered some fascinating backstory behind the film.
WARNING: MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD
Killer Horror Critic: How did In Fabric come about?
Peter Strickland: I think it was a mixture of things really. I really got into these M. R. James adaptations that BBC made, which were very eerie, uncanny, very quiet and still ghost stories…sometimes involving objects, inscriptions, objects which are activated by humans, which become very malevolent. Usually they take place in haunted settings, like the house in the country, and I just thought, why don’t we pick a space which nobody would associate with ghost stories? Which is the high street, the sales, somewhere that’s very noisy, and just try and tap into that, see if we can find something unfamiliar within that very familiar, prosaic world?
And then it just came to my head. Those eerie cues at 5am in the morning, the mannequins, the hands…Those seventies mannequins, I remember as a kid, they always felt like those hands were putting a spell on you, you know, a curse on you. Gradually more images came to mind. But also, a lot of it I think came from shopping, especially in second hand stores, you’re aware that that’s dead people’s clothing. It has a history. It’s going to have a new history if you buy it and so on. So that really informed our whole structure of it. When you buy these clothes sometimes, you know they have stains. They have certain smells which are usually unpleasant. I guess that gets into different aspects of clothing…whether it’s fetishes, whether it’s body dysmorphia, and trying to put that into a genre framework somehow.
KHC: How did In Fabric come into the hands of A24?
PS: They saw it in Toronto in 2018. They asked if they could buy it and of course we said yes. There was not any kind of question there because I love the films they put out. I mean this year’s been great. This year you had Joanna Hogg’s film The Souvenir. You had Ari Aster’s new film. Robert Eggers with The Lighthouse. These are all directors who love cinema. I think it’s great just to be in that kind of company.
KHC: You mentioned the 70s influence with In Fabric. I’m a fan of your other film, Berberian Sound Studio, which was set in the 70s. What is it about that decade that attracts you, and how did it influence In Fabric?
PS: I think the 70s fascinates me purely because I was a child then. Our most resonant memories always come from childhood. So, I think it’s not a coincidence that filmmakers, not always but quite often, tap into their childhood decade. I remember in the 80s, I thought, why are all these films tapping into the 50s? You had Back to the Future, you had Gremlins. And it kind of makes sense, they all grew up in the 50s. I think my generation, a lot of us, are tapping into the 70s. But I think with In Fabric, actually it’s not clear, it’s set in 1993. That was a very conscious decision to break out of my childhood even though I’m using my childhood perspective. But the stores were always trapped in the 70s. That was what was interesting.
And actually, what I wanted to do was set the film now, and keep the stores feeling like the 70s. You had this wonderful organic contrast between outside the store, which is contemporary, and then going in, back in time. Which is pretty much how it is in real life. The reason I set it in 93 was a very simple reason: It’s just because I wanted to introduce Marianne’s (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) character with this ad book. And I guess 93 was the last year they had these ad books. The internet was taking over after that, so that was the only reason for 93. Otherwise I probably would’ve set it now.
KHC: That’s interesting because the film often feels very out of place and out of time. Was that a conscious decision of yours to give In Fabric more of a dreamlike atmosphere?
PS: Yeah. I wanted to have some kind of anchor if somebody wanted that. You know, in one of the newspapers it says January 1993, so it’s there, but I don’t expect anyone in the cinema to get that reference. There are not many clues. You know, Reg (Leo Bill) has a fleece jacket, which is a very 90s thing to wear. As you say, I’m quite happy with the dreamlike quality because again, those stores were dreamlike. And it was like going back in time. You were in this other space, which is very flamboyant, and yeah, it’s just kind of this weird patchwork of Edwardian Britain, Victorian Britain, the 50s, 60s, 70s. They kind of felt like the clock stopped in the 70s. So, I guess it’s a case of being true to those stores, which are all dying out now. All suffered from online shopping.
KHC: So, that’s why you chose to set it in 93 then, for that visual of the time period with the ad book?
PS: Yeah. I mean the catalogue was very important to me. We made our own catalogue, and I remember, that was such a huge part of shopping when I was a kid. And not just the models, not just the design behind them, but also the kind of paper they used. This very thin paperweight with very high gloss treatment. Which gave the paper a very specific sound when you would turn the pages. It really tapped into my childhood.
I remember those stores because they were very quiet places, they were not like nightclubs, which most stores are like now. You had the sound of the catalogues. You had the muttering in the background. So yeah, the catalogue was very much a part of the whole thing. Some of the films I would go into in the 60s, there was this wonderful film by William Klein called Who are You, Polly Maggoo?, which really reveled in found images from magazines and catalogues and so on. Putting them on this huge canvas, the canvas of the cinema screen. And it was wonderful, really very interesting in taking the found images, so that was something I really wanted to try.
KHC: It might be fair to say that, typically, a killer dress film could be perceived as a little too silly, but yours is a blend of silliness and provocative drama. How did you go about having fun with In Fabric while maintaining the darker power of it?
PS: I think the thing is to, in a way, to embrace it, you have to be serious about it. To have your tongue in your cheek, I think that’s where you end up in trouble. It’s just you really want to get inside these characters, in their hopes, dreams, desires, anxieties, really just follow them as straightforwardly as possible. To be honest, all the stuff that people find wackier, I’m exaggerating the work life in the back. So many of those things are true to life. If you work in those jobs, they will follow you to the toilet. They will break your balls over a handshake. They will use euphemisms and so on. But I think people that work in those jobs can relate to it even though I’m exaggerating it. I mean the silliness does come from real life.
KHC: About that actually, both Sheila and Reg seem to constantly struggle with being seen with an identity outside of the clothes they wear. For example, Sheila is always being seen as a bank teller who has to smile and be proper and Reg is always being asked about washing machines. Were you trying to make any sort of commentary there?
PS: Well, there’s a scene in which Reg goes to the bank, in his clothing, which for me is very tragic. When you’re in your twenties, there’s no shame in being fired, but I think when you’re older, I think there’s something very shameful about losing your job. I’ve known people who are actually embarrassed to say they’ve lost their job so they will pretend to go to work which is really tragic. So, there’s a scene, in the morning, where he’s hoping his fiancé Babs (Hayley Squires) will leave for work first so he doesn’t have to go out, but he’s forced out in his uniform. So, there’s that element to it.
The waving comes from certain etiquette things that some people have. You know, like you shouldn’t wave to so and so, it’s seen as too forward, too casual. So, you know, I think a lot of these things, you put them in a film and they seem absurd. You know, the handshake…I remember when I was teaching, someone really giving a woman a hard time because of her handshake and the next lesson, he came back with handouts, a photocopy, showing what’s a good handshake, not realizing maybe this woman has some hand issues or whatever. It’s absurd. You see all kinds of weird stuff.
KHC: Costume design often doesn’t get recognized enough in film, and so I’m curious, when it came to the dress in In Fabric, did your costume designer design it themselves, and what sort of input did you have on how you wanted the dress to look?
PS: Yeah that was Jo Thompson and Kasia Chojnowska. They designed the dress. I couldn’t even design a pair of socks, it’s very much their work. All I could do was describe how I wanted the dress to move in terms of floating through the sky. I wanted it to feel like a jellyfish. So, then Jo would suggest silk. I talked a lot about the type of store I remembered as a kid. I was a typical, middle-class kid, and I’d go to these middle-class stores, so I remember my mother going to these places which were middle-class but aspirational. They always aspired to be like somewhere on Bond Street in London. They could never quite manage it. They were always slightly off. They were never high fashion. They aspired to be that. And there’s an element of fantasy when you put on these dresses, as if you imagine yourself being invited to the French embassy one evening. There’s kind of a formal element. So, it was really describing that to Jo and she’d come up with various designs and I’d just keep picking what felt right instinctively.
KHC: The characters that occupy the boutique are themselves quite unique. Can you talk about how you developed the concept for them?
PS: Yeah, I mean that was written for Fatma Mohamed (Miss Luckmoore). I always work with Fatma. That was the only dialogue that was written with someone in mind because the other characters I didn’t know who was going to play them. In terms of the costumes, I mean again, I was thinking of the stores of a different time period that they were kind of caught up in. So, you know, we’d start with Edwardian Britain or Victorian, so I think when Jo was working on different ideas, she’d take me to this costume house in London where they had these outfits that had that feel to them.
With the dialogue, again I would sort of really exaggerate British retail speak, British euphemistic speak. I mean the Brits are so famous for that. We have at the moment the conservative government that’s trying to increase the retirement age to 75 and I’ve even seen a hashtag calling it “age confidence”. I mean it’s remarkable how you can do that. I remember years ago in a job center, there was a warehouse job, a night shift for shelf packing, and the job title was “Twilight Replenishment Operative”. So really the way she talks exaggerates that, speaking in platitudes, speaking euphemistically. But again, I’m stretching the believability of it. I never wanted to snap that elastic, it always had to feel connected to my experience working in retail.
KHC: So, descriptions at the boutique, like the dressing room as the “Transformation Sphere”, that came from your working experiences?
PS: Yeah. I mean I never heard that exact expression but again, if I wrote a scene at a job center and put Twilight Replenishment Operative, you would think I was nuts but actually that came from real life. So yeah, I had to make up my own version but they’re all based on my experience of how British use euphemisms.
KHC: I was curious, what in particular motivated the split structure of the film, spending half with Sheila and half with Reg?
PS: Well originally there was going to be a lot more of them. It was going to be an anthology film. It was going to have six originally. But there was just no way I could get it budgeted. I had a choice, either cut down the stories of each character and fit all six in, but I think the danger with that was it felt more like a slasher film where the characters are a bit more…they become disposable. Which is not what I wanted. I really wanted the film to play out like a retail nightmare. I wanted it to feel like the nightmare of someone who works too much in those stores. To work like a nightmare, you have to actually care about those characters. You have to live with them to see their hopes and fears, their frustrations, especially their frustrations at work and their home life. That’s why I had it in two. If I had it my way, I would’ve had a four-hour film.
KHC: There is a heavy element of sexual themes in the film, in particular when it comes to the way the women at the boutique treat the mannequins. Why the emphasis there?
PS: I think clothing is so caught up in desire. In terms of looking at clothing on people, and how you feel when you wear clothing. So, the whole marketing of clothing, it’s so caught up in body image. It’s very hard to kind of unravel. So, I guess I really wanted to explore human desire in this film. With fetishism, with Reg when he has this formative childhood experience in the store where you see this woman’s tights. There’s a very kind of private, almost unspoken things connected to clothing and desire. So, I think with the ritual, I think it’s wanting the mannequin to kind of feel as if they’re heading towards being human. They menstruate, whereas the humans feel like they’re heading towards being mannequins. You know, Fatma, her character, she’s bald, she looks like a mannequin.
I really wanted to explore the idea of sexual fluids which again is something that’s on clothing all the time. Then there’s the idea of fluids, maybe they’re actually making the clothing, they’re acting as some sort of dye. There’s actually a very important part of that scene which we couldn’t shoot because there wasn’t enough time, when the boss ejaculates. The sperm lands on this dress, which is for sale, and it dries the next morning into this beautiful, silvery pattern that somebody buys. I love the idea of body fluids looking like they were designed.
KHC: Well listen Peter, I just want to thank you again for taking the time to do this today.
PS: Thank you so much. Thank you for helping to support the film.
Don't miss 'In Fabric' when it releases through VOD on December 6th from A24.
By Matt Konopka