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Fashion Q&A: Belle's Gugu Mbatha-Raw

The starlet talks corsets, red carpet looks and casual off-duty style.
Fashion Q&A: <i>Belle’</i>s Gugu Mbatha-Raw
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Gugu Mbatha-Raw, the South-African/Brit bombshell everyone’s buzzing about in the new film BELLE, plays bi-racial beauty Dido Elizabeth Belle, an illegitimate love child of a Royal Navy Admiral. And, while the controversial color complexities of the 1780s made-up the true intriguing story line, we couldn’t help but focus-in on the fashion of the times. Mbatha-Raw tells us all about her corset-restricted days on set and more.

ESSENCE.com: What was it like being in costumes from the 1700’s?

GUGU MBATHA-RAW: We were wearing costumes from the period of the 1780’s so that means a corset everyday apart from the scenes where we were in our nighties, which was amazing because it means we were basically wearing a giant shirt with very little underneath. It took about fifteen minutes to be laced into a corset everyday, so I’d have a dresser that would get us into our underpinnings, as it was called. So you’d get into your corset and then you’d put on the petticoat, and under the petticoat on some of the dresses you’d have these things called panier’s, which is French for “basket,” on either hip to give that very grand look. And the higher status you were the bigger the hair, which is still the same today. The bigger the hair the bigger the hip paniers.

ESSENCE.com: Did it feel transformational to wear these pieces?
MBATHA-RAW: They were very elaborate, but they give you this wonderful sense of posture, suddenly you’ve got this tiny waist and cleavage you never knew you ever had and makes you move completely differently, which I felt was really helpful for the period in getting that regal grace and the manner of the time where ladies were very much petite demure beings and gentle creatures.

And wearing a corset definitely makes you feel that, you can’t even do-up your shoe laces, you can’t really do much for yourself, you couldn’t really run without being out of breath or even go up the stairs without being out of breath. On a feminist level, I suddenly realized on a visceral experience of being squeezed like that, that’s kind of a metaphor of women’s place in society at that time. How restrained they were and controlled and it was a real relief to take them off at the end of the day.

ESSENCE.com: Was there an evolution with your character, Dido’s looks?
MBATHA-RAW: Yes, absolutely! Amma and the production designer had a very clear evolution for Dido. Very much in the beginning when they are young girls in Kenwood, they are wearing cottons and light colors, so you’ll see at the beginning Dido and Elizabeth are wearing sort of crèmes and pastel colors and floral prints but they’re made with cotton. Then in the Kenwood house, some of the locations we shot at had high ceilings; Amma wanted the girls to feel almost like dolls in a doll house where they hadn’t grown into their space.

Then when we moved to London the Bloomsbury apartment where she first meets Mable; the ceilings are lower, the colors of the interior design are darker and then they start evolving into more sumptuous silks and adult colors like magenta’s and deep turquoise and greys and purples, so that was a definite choice with the director to evolve them from this light and doll-like to this more mature and dark colors, and more sumptuous silks for their coming out.

ESSENCE.com: While we’re on the topic of sumptuous silks, I was recently scanning your beautiful red carpet looks. Can you tell us a bit about that?
MBATHA-RAW: Well, for the MET gala specifically that was the first time I had a couture gown made to measure by Alber Elbaz and I had the measurements done in LA and then they sent them to Paris then I had a fitting with Alber in New York, it was a very international experience and I was kind of wearing a corset for that –– it was so funny because I still couldn’t get away from the corset. It had a structured bodice, which is a very feminine look I think, and I felt very demure in that dress.

ESSENCE.com: You recently wore another Alber Elbaz Lanvin gown for the premiere of Belle.
MBATHA-RAW: I adore that chartreuse color, I really love that dress so much and I was reminded the other day that it’s the color of the heart chakra, because I’m so into chakras and for me that was lovely to have that very balancing but bright color and I just loved the sheen of that fabric.

ESSENCE.com: I noticed you stick to really soft neutrals for the exception of a couple of green bold dresses you wore on the red carpet. But, for the most part you wear a lot of florals and lace that are very feminine.
MBATHA-RAW: Yes, I guess so, although it’s not always a conscious choice. I like to choose things that fit my body for sure; you learn to find the things that complement your shape. I’m definitely open to experimentation, but I think after a while you know what works for you and what you feel comfortable in and everything else is just a variation on a theme.

ESSENCE.com: What are those pieces for you that you gravitate to?
MBATHA-RAW: I like an accentuated waist, I think that’s feminine. I like the clothes of Vivienne Westwood, the modern corset but I think it’s just very feminine. I like the collarbone, a very clean collarbone I think there’s something also very delicate and balletic about that part of a woman’s body and I’m not really a cleavage person but I do like a back or a shoulder, I think there’s something very alluring about backless dresses. I haven’t worn a ton of them. And great fabrics. I like to mix it up, I do like a long gown; I’m not so keen on anything too short.

ESSENCE.com: I notice you support your fellow Brit designers: Vivienne Westwood, Burberry Prorsom –– who are some of your favorite designers?

MBATHA-RAW: I’m just coming to that point where I feel like different designers are becoming more accessible to me, which is really exciting. I love Alexander McQueen, another Brit, I wore a dress of his for a luncheon the other day. I’ve always loved Vera Wang, she has a beautiful feminine style and I love Dior for that classic balletic style, but I haven’t had a chance to wear them yet.

ESSENCE.com: How would you describe your style?
MBATHA-RAW: I’m so kind of schizophrenic with my style because it depends what I have to do  that day. In my own life when I’m not working, I do wear a lot of black, I think I do feel very comfortable in black. But when I’m in L.A. I dress for the culture and the climate so I wear a lot of lighter things. I love to do yoga, so half the time I’m in my yoga stuff. I love a little tailored jacket and heels. I don’t like to, in my own life get dressed up because I feel like I get dressed up for work, so I’m happy to be casual in my down time.

ESSENCE.com: What are your favorite pieces right now?
MBATHA-RAW: I’m loving this bag right now. I was given this from Vivienne Westwood in London and I thought it was too bright for me, but actually it’s perfect for spring and it energizes me so that’s going with me everywhere. My Louboutin heels are obviously a great staple. These are my new favorite pants; these leather pants from J.Brand which have got a real stretch to them and are very comfortable.
I often can be seen in a scarf, I love scarfs. Even when it’s warm weather, when you’re travelling, I just like to have my neck covered if I can, just a comfort thing I think.