Do you remember Frock Flicks, our costume movie podcast? A few years ago, myself, Trystan, and Sarah were semi-regularly podcasting about the good and bad (oh, the bad) about costume movies. We podcasted about a number of different costume movies: from Sophia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, to The Other Boleyn Girl, to The Tudors (okay, so that was a drunken watch along, with me yelling “Bangs!” periodically, but we live to entertain).
costume in cinema
The conversation on my movie review of Amadeus sparked an interesting discussion about early inspirations for costuming, and Lylassandra said, “I would LOVE a blog post about which movies (and other experiences) first inspired your love of costuming.” I think the “other experiences” is worth chatting about, but that’s enough to be another post… but sure, I’d love to yammer about early costume movies!
Of course, the first thing I did was go through my movie reviews and some online lists of costume movies to try to remember which ones had an impact on me. I’ll confess right here that I was born in 1974, so I was probably too young to see Amadeus or Dangerous Liaisons when they first came out.
The first thing that came to mind was all of the not-quite-there inspirations, so the beginning of this post might seem a little flimsy, but then I’ll get to the knocked-me-over ones at the end, so stick with it!
For sure, Gone With the Wind was an early one. I remember my mother buying me a VHS boxed set, and I definitely watched it a number of times. I remember LOVING the huge crinoline skirts, but being frustrated by all the short sleeves and weirdly 1890s elements in what should have been the bustle years. And I was too young to think Rhett Butler was terribly attractive (he just seemed kind of greasy), and I thought Ashley was super annoying. So it was always a less than satisfying watch! I will say that I hadn’t watched this for years, when about a year ago our local art deco movie theater showed it. I went to see it and apparently I am now the right age to appreciate Rhett Butler, because HOT DAMN! I was swooning!
I’m sure I didn’t see My Brilliant Career (1979) when it first came out, since I would have been about 5, but I must have seen it when I was relatively young because it is one that has always stuck with me… probably more so for the extremely literate and fascinating main character, but also for her ugly duckling-ness. I remember being fascinated that she COULD go a different route… This is a movie I think too few people have seen. If you at all like strong heroines and complex stories, WATCH THIS.
I definitely watched and rewatched Far and Away (1992) a number of times, mostly because it was a historical romance. I always thought it was cheesy, and I’ve always been irritated by Tom Cruise and loved Nicole Kidman. The costume era wasn’t one that really thrilled me, but again, romance! History! Costumes! Hey, I was just graduating high school…
Other ones I specifically remember are:
- Orlando (1992) — I think the artiness of it confused me, but I loved the huge white 18th century dress:
- Age of Innocence (1993) was visually and costume-wise stunning, although the overwhelming theme of restraint made it less-than-perfect to me. I do remember thinking that I could NEVER make a costume as fabulous and complex as the bustle gowns worn in the ball scene.
- Interview With a Vampire (1994) had some great elements but Tom Cruise was a big wet blanket on the whole thing, and there weren’t enough (grown up) female characters featured for me. I did love Madeleine’s dress:
- Queen Margot (1994) got a little too rambly and depressing in the second half, and I had done enough renfaire to know that all the slutty no-chemise/partlets and open bodices weren’t correct… but I’ve always loved her redheaded lady-in-waiting’s look (okay, mostly the hair):
- I definitely remember seeing Little Women (1994) in the theater and loving it — I’ve loved the book since I was a kid, and reread it multiple times — but it’s not really a shiny movie. The highlights were Meg March’s dressed up ballgown, and adult Amy’s bustle dresses:
- Portrait of a Lady (1996) blew me away costume-wise, but again, a depressing story that I probably wasn’t old enough to really appreciate. I would very much like to take a walk in the rain in a bustle gown along with Isabel Archer and Madame Merle.
So what DID do it for me? What imprinted fundamentally on my consciousness? Hands down, it has to be Merchant/Ivory.
I saw Jefferson in Paris (1995) IN Paris, on my very first trip to France. I had been studying abroad in Scotland for a semester, and afterwards I did a whirlwind two weeks in Western Europe with a college friend. We arrived in Paris and relatively early on, wandered down the Champs-Elysees and saw posters for a costume movie, and I was sold. I remember LOVING everything about the French characters, but of course, the film tries (with only limited success) to explore some darker elements, and that limited success dampened things for me a bit. But dear god, the lushness of the costumes — not just great dresses, but great wigs! Hats (shout out to Mela Hoyt-Heydon, who I think made them)! Accessories! Amazing locations! It was an era I didn’t really know or have much chance to encounter, but probably my love of the 18th century dates from this movie. If only the movie had been focused on Maria Cosway, I think I’d die and go to heaven. Greta Scaachi is an amazing actress, and those shots of her in the Opera scene — just, whoa. (That’s a real fantasy of mine, going to the opera in 18th century costume, but of course I’d want everyone to be in 18th century costume!). I also think (looks-wise) that their casting of Marie-Antoinette is probably as close to the real thing as we’ll ever get. And I modeled my first Lumieres character on the small character of Adrienne de Lafayette (bottom picture).
But more than anything, I think Howards End (1992) and, even more, A Room With a View (1985), were the early epitomes of Amazing Costume Movies. Particularly Room — I wanted (and still want) to dive into that world and just stay there. No matter that it’s not really a costume era that makes my toes curl, but it has Travel! Romance! Humor! Tweedy English locations! “Old world” Italian locations! Stiff upper lips! Intimate family scenes! I love so much about both movies as movies — interesting stories, complex characters, etc. But the costumes in particular were SO well done. They weren’t just gorgeous, they were gorgeous AND lived in. I felt like these were real people living real lives in real clothes, they hadn’t just grabbed something off the theater costume shop rack and put it on. The hair. The accessories. The underpinnings. The hats. The veils. I think it’s the casual day wear that gets me even more than the fancy evening stuff. I love seeing Charlotte walking in her suit. Lucy playing badminton in her blouse and skirt. Mom cutting the roses in the wind and being irritated by Charlotte. Cecil reading terrible fiction (is he not the epitome of PONCY?) while Lucy tries to ignore George. Charlotte and Eleanor sitting in the poppies, while Charlotte hints at some past amours in exotic Shropshire. Eleanor striding about Florence, taking no guff. Every time I go to Florence, I have to go to the various piazzas where they shot, especially the fountain where they tried to revive the dead guy.
And now I can’t remember who it was, but I do recall bonding with someone when we agreed that we’d both tried to get our hair to look like the Italian girl who gets kicked out of the carriage:
Howards End is also up there, although not quite as high (no Italy, no happy romantic ending). I adore the country locations in particular — the bluebells, the Howards End house itself. All the same things about the costuming grabs me — how detailed and ornate and yet lived in it all feels. This is an era that I do like more than the pouter pigeon, and Margaret’s engagement party and lunch suit in particular are the ones I love. Again, just a world I would love to dive into.
It’s funny, because Edwardian never was and (probably) never will be a key costume era for me. But seeing these worlds come to life so vividly, and seeing historical costumes that were really clothes, just blew me away.
So, what about you? What were the formative costume movies for you?
Costume designer: Theodor Pistek
I’m sure I saw Amadeus back when it first came out, but I was young, and didn’t really remember it. Every time I thought about rewatching it I saw a glimpse of the wigs and decided against it. A conversation at the recent Costume Society of America conference, plus a long flight back home, made me think, “What the hell?” So this is a review of a VERY old movie… and I’m immediately going to say that I know it’s probably not fair to judge it by current movie costume standards. I read something where either the director or costume designer was talking about how hard it was to even GET a period movie made at the time, and how foreign all of the costumes seemed to movie execs, so really, I’m sure it was a major coup just to get it made. And then to have it do so well, including winning the Academy Award for best costume design! It must have been a huge accomplishment.
But, of course, I can’t help but review it through my current lens, as that’s all I’ve got! And lemme tell ya…. SIGH!
There are many good things about the movie. There’s tons of energy, great performances, lots of sparkle. Tom Hulce certainly turns the idea of a staid composer on its head, and F. Murray Abramson as Salieri does a very good job seething. Even if the whole idea of a rivalry between the two conductors is made up, I get the desire to have a different lens on the biopic — it allows the movie to only cover a few years, without the endless sprawl that can happen to some biopics, where you’re like, “Yeah yeah, something else happened. Whatevs.”
But let’s talk costumes, shall we? There’s certainly lots to like — lots of fabric, lots of wigs, a definite 18th century aesthetic (at least when compared to our modern times). It probably paved the way for amazing feats like Dangerous Liaisons, which was four years later.
But… (and you knew it was coming)…
THE PRINCESS SEAMS.
THE VICTORIAN CORSETS.
(Can’t find a pic, but when Salieri tries to seduce Constanze and she strips down, she’s wearing a Victorian corset. With a front-closing busk. Which she pops open, to remove the corset.)
THE FAUX-FRANCAISE BACKS. (And the NUMEROUS dresses that laced up the back).
WHY DOES SALIERI HAVE MARCEL WAVES IN HIS WIG. AND WHY IS HIS WIG A LACE-FRONT, WHEN THEY CLEARLY SHOW HIM WITHOUT HIS WIG IN SOME SCENES. Like the crazy stripes, though!
So, was it worth watching? Sure! I enjoyed it! Was it probably groundbreaking for its time? I’m sure it was! Are there some problems with the costumes? Oh yes indeedy!
Have you seen the trailers for three exciting costume movies that are coming soon?
The Invisible Woman trailer — Charles Dickens’s (Ralph Fiennes) relationship with his mistress (Felicity Jones). Altho I find mid-Victorian a total snooze, the costumes look very accurate. Costumes designed by Michael O’Connor. Coming to the UK in February 2014, US will probably be sometime after that.
Maleficent teaser trailer (only a teaser, but it looks great!) — the story of Sleeping Beauty told from the evil fairy’s perspective, starring Angelina Jolie. Costumes by Anna B. Sheppard. Will be released in May 2014.
Belle trailer — the one I’m most excited about! Based on a true story, about a mixed race girl who grows up with an aristocratic English family in the 18th c. Costumes by Anushia Nieradzik. Also coming in May 2014.
Wondering what other costume movies are in production/coming soon? Check out my Upcoming Movies page.
Starring Anna Maxwell Martin and Rachael Stirling. Costumes designed by Anna Robbins.
I’m so behind on costume TV/movie reviews, that I’m going to filter it down to just those that I really have something to say about!
This ITV miniseries was really great, from the script/story to the acting to the costume design. Anna Maxwell Martin (who you may know from Becoming Jane or Bleak House) is a stunningly talented actress — one of those you should pay to watch read the phone book. She stars with three others (including Rachael Stirling from Tipping the Velvet) as four women who worked as codebreakers at Bletchley Park (the center of the British codebreaking effort) during World War II. Now the war is past, and they are all trying (and frequently failing) to settle into a “normal” life — harder to do, because they aren’t allowed to talk about their war work. Martin plays Susan, who is following a series of murders being publicized in the newspapers, and who recognizes a pattern that the police aren’t seeming to catch. She gathers her former co-workers and they set about trying to solve the murders, once their attempts to notify authorities are disregarded.
The story is a great mystery that will have you in suspense the whole time, and that’s layered with the interesting backstories of the war codebreaking, plus the difficulties the very different characters face as they try to navigate life, plus the general sexism of an era in which the idea of women being brilliant was laughable.
The costumes are VERY well done, showing a nice range of early 1950s wear, with differences among the characters showing through their clothes. No fall-over-yourself ballgowns or anything, but fabulous daily wear done RIGHT.
It was recently announced that it was renewed for a second season, which I’m very much looking forward to!
My review: 5 (out of 5)
If you like this era, you might want to check out my other 20th century costume movie reviews. For more 1940s-50s done right, I recommend Bride Flight (2008), Enigma (2001), Glorious 39 (2009), and Hope & Glory (1987).