What you might not have known about Kathryn’s outfits in Cruel Intentions

Published April 2, 2018

IMAGE COURTESY OF COLUMBIA PICTURES

Clothes on Film is a series in which we explore iconic looks from film and television that have stayed in our minds years after they first hit the silver screen.

Although Cruel Intentions [1999] has proven its status as a cult classic, it started out as a small independent film made with passionate actors, a small crew, and a very tiny budget. With no studio bigwigs hovering over the production team, including costume designer Denise Wingate, they were able to really get at the core of what they wanted the film to look and feel like, and bring characters like the promiscuous anti-hero Sebastian de Valmont [Ryan Phillippe] and his scheming and manipulative step-sister Kathryn Merteuil [Sarah Michelle Gellar] to life. Wingate recounted the process of designing a wardrobe for Kathryn, who was plotting takedowns on the Upper East Side long before Blair Waldorf ever picked up a headband. 

WINGATE: I started my career as a costume designer with Melrose Place when I was 26 years old, and Cruel Intentions was only my second feature. I had to convince them I knew what I was doing, or at least that I had a vision. This movie was low-budget and under the radar, so the production designer, cinematographer and myself all worked really closely together. Nobody from the studio bothered us. We were able to make everything work together.

My whole idea was to do a contemporary take of Dangerous Liaisons [1988]. For one of Sarah Michelle Gellar’s outfits, we built up this corset and then put it under a Dolce & Gabbana suit so that it referenced an 18th century silhouette but it still felt contemporary. You’ll notice that the drapes in the room are the same color as the sheer dress Kathryn wears. We wanted the palette to be cohesive. We built all of the sets on this little stage down in Culver City. It was one of the most fun times I’ve ever had making a movie because it really was just us in this little world we created. So much of the story is about the palette because through colors you can introduce characters without anyone even opening their mouths. To me that’s the most exciting thing. I don’t follow fashion—it’s all about the story and the character for me.