Film Costuming – The Favourite

The Favourite is a beautiful looking film set in c. 1705. There are stunning wide angle shots especially of scenes at the sprawling Jacobean Hatfield House that stands in for Kensington Palace where the real story took place (Kensington was unavailable for filming as it currently houses a dozen or so members of the royal family.) The acting is also excellent, especially the parts played by Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, and Emma Stone. As for everything else — I have some issues…

The trailer implied this was a comedy – it is not. You could call it a dark comedy, but that would mean you find violence, sexual misconduct, bullying and all forms of behaviour that rely upon someone’s misfortune amusing. Also, the story is based on historical truth, but not the facts. The timeline of the actual events is compressed from over a decade to perhaps a year, and period gossip and innuendo is presented as having actually happened (the lesbianism subplot is pure conjecture.) This lack of historical accuracy bothered me at first but there are plenty of clues for the viewer to get that this is a loose interpretation – a re-styled version of history.

Someone who knows the period will spot that this is a superficially accurate period film. The costumes, which are very effective, are artistic re-imaginings of c. 1705 period dress. The costumer, Sandy Powell, uses a strict black and white palette, colours that were used minimally at the time for women’s court dress, and many anachronistic textiles and decorative techniques including laser-cut vinyl. Some gowns are pure imagination. Queen Anne’s white velvet gown with ermine tails was not based on anything the monarch ever wore. There are many images of Queen Anne wearing many different gowns, so this was a conscious decision to distort the truth. 

If you missed the fashion clues, there were other anachronisms and artistic licenses dotting the film. The dance sequence near the beginning includes moves from the gavotte, waltz, disco, and hip hop; the pooled draperies; visible hot air vents; flowers used in arrangements that weren’t yet introduced to English gardens…

So take this film with a grain of salt. It is beautifully styled, but so far from the facts that the only truth that remains are the names of the characters. The usual response to this type of criticism, which I often give, is that ‘It’s not a documentary’, and I agree. But must history be so fictionalized to make it interesting? In our world of alternative facts and truthiness, this film will become history by those who don’t google the facts.

Queen Anne in purple velvet and gold silk, 1702

The House of Eliott – 25 years later

I only saw parts of the House of Eliott when it was originally broadcast 1991 – 1994 because we lived in a building that didn’t have cable. I remember liking the series, and so when a copy of the DVDs came our way, I grabbed it for the museum’s library. We just finished a semi-marathon of watching the series over the past week and although I didn’t love everything, the series is good. The clothing is usually exceptional. Joan Wadge, who did the costuming in series one and three is especially good. There are some problems, especially with hats, in the second series when they brought in a different costumer.

In case you haven’t seen it, the story is about two sisters whose father dies in 1920, leaving them with little formal education and not enough money to survive without working or marrying. The two middle class women set about to ambitiously create a couture house, and, despite a few bumps in the road, their venture becomes prosperous and they become famous.

The series ran for three years but then ended, with no resolve after a season three cliff-hanger finale. The show did become soapier as it went along. The first year is the best in terms of being a really good history lesson about the post World War One world: the economy, society, role of women, and the couture industry. In series two and three, the story drifts at times, introducing characters and unexpected twists and deaths to keep viewers interested. The clothing industry and the two heroines are no longer always the focus. However, even though the two women are often shown as reactionary, quick to anger, and make egregious business mistakes, failing to take sage advice or hire lawyers when they should, you root for them, even when they are arrogant and unlikable at times.

The series is ripe for a reunion movie or series set in the late 40s that picks up the story, this time of middle-aged women in the clothing business in post World War II England. But if it does get revived, I hope they plan to resolve each season, so there are no cliff-hangers!

Costume Designer Piero Tosi

Death in Venice

During the late 1970s and early 1980s, I used to watch the ‘Late Late Show’ movies on T.V. that played into the wee hours of the morning. Many were melodramatic foreign films with fantastic sets and period costumes starring actors I had never heard of. They were usually badly dubbed or had that weird echoey sound like the actors were talking into a jar, but they were mesmerizingly beautiful films.


There was a time from the mid 1960s to the mid 1980s when period costumed films were sumptuously detailed – sure, the actresses almost always wore too much eyeliner and mascara, but the costuming often had meticulous recreations by designers like Piero Tosi – one of the best period costume designers ever (IMHO).

The Damned

Tosi was born in Florence in 1927, and in 1951 he became a costume designer for the film Bellissima, directed by Luchino Visconti. Tosi often worked with Visconti and some of his films, done in the 1960s and 1970s, were stunning. The Leopard (1963) set in Sicily in 1860; The Damned (1969) set in Germany in 1934; Death in Venice (1971) set in Venice in 1912; Ludwig (1973) set in Bavaria between 1864 and 1886; The Innocent (1976) set in Rome in the early 1890s… All of them were beautifully costumed.

Tosi never won an Oscar for a specific film, although he was given an honorary Academy Award in 2013, which he didn’t pick up in person because he fears flying. He did win many other awards for his work, mostly in Europe. Tosi is still with us, but he hasn’t worked in film since 2004.

The Leopard

Sad to hear that Piero Tosi passed away August 10, 2019 at the age of 92.

Fashion Show from late 1929 – Kiddie Revue

This fashion show segment was the finale from a short film called Kiddie Revue, released March 1930 but probably filmed in late 1929, judging by the costumes. The film Kiddie Revue was originally a segment from the unfinished musical March of Time that was to be released in September 1930 about the history, present and future of humour. The film was never finished and segments were released in other productions, or as in this case, as a stand alone short film.

2017 Academy Award Costume Nominees

I did it! For the first time I have seen all five Academy Award costume nominated films so I won’t have to judge from stills and trailers:

Beauty & The Beast

Jacqueline Durran has been nominated for two films this year – Beauty and the Beast, and Darkest Hour. She has been nominated for several films in the past: Pride and Prejudice, Atonement, Mr. Turner — and she won for Anna Karenina. I have not always been a fan of Ms. Durran’s work because historical accuracy has not been her strength, or so I thought… While Beauty and the Beast has a delightfully costumed opening number with a ballroom of dancers in white 18th century dresses, the rest of the costuming is typical ‘Disney’ fare and I am not sure why it was nominated. I can see an art direction win, but not costuming. However, Darkest Hour is exceptionally well done. The historical accuracy for place and period (London, May 1940), and its rich palette of colour and texture creates the perfect mood for the film.

The Shape of Water

Other than the film Flash of Genius, and a few T.V. episodes of Being Erica, I am not familiar with anything Luis Sequeira has done. To be perfectly honest, I am not sure why he was nominated for The Shape of Water unless it was for the sea monkey costume, which is well done but I thought was more likely the result of  special effects and make-up. Otherwise, I find the green palette of the film heavy handed, and the difficulty level of a fantasy world inspired by 1962 Baltimore less challenging than an episode of Mad Men. I must be missing a technical reason for why it was nominated because there were a lot of worthy films this year that were not nominated: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets; Battle of the Sexes, Viceroy’s House, Murder on the Orient Express, Dunkirk, Wonder Woman, The Last Jedi, Blade Runner 2049, and ESPECIALLY Tulip Fever, which would have been my first choice to win this year.

Victoria & Abdul

I liked the costuming for Victoria & Abdul a lot. The costumer, Consolata Boyle, has been nominated and won many costume awards, but never an Oscar (The Queen, Florence Foster Jenkins, Angela’s Ashes…) There is a spectacular banquet scene at the beginning of this film, and the costuming for Victoria is recreated beautifully. However, I felt the film lacked the feeling of a passage of time. It is supposed to occur between 1887 and 1901, but there is nothing to suggest there is anything more than a couple of years passage at most. I can’t blame Boyle for what is a directorial issue, but there was a lost opportunity here that costuming could have solved, so as much as I liked the costuming, I wouldn’t vote for it.

Phantom Thread

Phantom Thread by Mark Bridges is THE fashion film of the year. Annoyingly, no date is given in the film, although there are clues to suggest 1953/54 – the first client acquires a dress for what has to be a Coronation gala (June 2, 1953), and a scene late in the movie has an October 1954 issue of UK Vogue I recognize from the cover. Bridges, who has been nominated before for Inherent Vice and Boogie Nights, and won an Oscar for The Artist, deserves this nomination because the high fashion clothes he created for this film are, in a word, mumsy – and that’s good. The fashions are typical of English couture of this era – the John Cavanaugh and Norman Hartnell type of dresses the young Queen wore that were elegant but dowdy. I hope that was intentional because Mr. Bridges got it bang on. I suspect it was, since there is a scene where the word ‘chic’ is discussed disparagingly. However, there were little problems that bothered me (an olive green silk dress featured in a fashion shoot didn’t seem to fit the actress very well, some extras wore hats that looked odd for the era, most underwear was nude coloured, which seemed strange for the mid 1950s…) these were all small details, but detracted from the success of the costuming.

Darkest Hour

To recap: Beauty and the Beast is a throw-away; I don’t see why The Shape of Water was nominated but I might be missing some technical reason; Phantom Thread captures a look extremely well, but overall has little issues; Consolata Boyle is overdue for a win and may get it for Victoria & Abdul; but if I was handing out the award, I would pick Darkest Hour. Jacqueline Durran captured the mood and did it authentically – I enjoyed her costuming the most out of all of these films because it had an effortless elan

Added March 5: And the Oscar went to — Mark Bridges for Phantom Thread. He did a great job at creating dowdy couture. It’s not easy to sing off key on purpose and still look good! The BBC did an interesting follow-up on the film regarding the authenticity of how the London fashion business worked and it’s worth taking a look.

That time Chanel went to Hollywood…

Garbo and Chanel, publicity meeting, March 1931

On January 19, 1931, the New York Times reported film producer Samuel Goldwyn’s announcement: “After more than three years of constant effort, I have at last persuaded Madame Gabrielle Chanel, fashion dictator, to go to Hollywood to co-operate with me on the vexing question of film fashions.”

Chanel’s resistance to work in Hollywood was quashed by the realities of the Depression that had dramatically reduced the number of orders being placed with her atelier. The lure of a million-dollar contract and a studio with over a hundred workers at her command was too appealing to turn down. The New York Times outlined the deal: “She will reorganize the dressmaking department of United Artist studios and anticipate fashions six months ahead, solving thereby the eternal problem of keeping gowns up to date…Thus, Madame Chanel may reveal the secret of all impending changes and the American women will be enabled to see the latest Paris fashions, perhaps, at times, before Paris itself knows them.”

Madge Evans in suit by Chanel, 1931

Chanel arrived in Hollywood in March 1931, in the middle of production of Eddie Cantor’s Palmy Days (1931). She created a few garments, mostly for the star Barbara Weeks, including four versions of the same dress with small differences so that the dress looked its best from different angles and positions.

Chanel then went to work on creating thirty outfits for Ina Claire, Joan Blondell, and Madge Evans who were playing gold diggers in The Greeks Had A Word For Them (released February 13, 1932). The film was set in the late 1920s, so Chanel created contemporary looks with a nostalgic flair – not something fashion was doing at the time.

Her next job was to create gowns for Gloria Swanson in Tonight or Never (1931) which was released two months before The Greeks Had A Word For Them.  This was a frustrating experience for both women as Chanel had to contend with Swanson’s unplanned pregnancy during filming. Swanson’s shape had changed in the six weeks between fittings, requiring Swanson to wear a girdle that ended at her knees in order to fit Chanel’s gowns.

With her contract fulfilled, Chanel collected her million dollar cheque and left Hollywood in a huff, never saying anything nice about the experience for the rest of her life.

Film & Fashion – Wonderstruck

Sandy Powell is no stranger to awards for her costume work. She has received three Oscars for The Young Victoria (2009), The Aviator (2004), and, Shakespeare in Love (1999), as well as nominations for: Carol, Hugo, Cinderella, The Tempest, Mrs. Henderson Presents, Gangs of New York, Velvet Goldmine, Wings of a Dove, and Orlando. So I wasn’t surprised to find out why the costuming for Wonderstruck was so good when I learned Sandy Powell had done the costuming.

The story takes place in New York in 1927 and 1977. All the 1927 scenes are filmed in black and white, and most take place in crowded streets where everyone is dressed similarly and walks at a fast clip. There are some scenes that take place in a theatre where actors are performing a dress rehearsal. The actors wear 18th century style costumes but with a 1920s sensibility of shiny lame and satin fabrics and too much make-up. The look is completely different in texture to the dull monotone scenes of everyday streetwear.

The 1977 scenes are the exact opposite of 1927. Vibrant, saturated colours with individual looks juxtapose the two New Yorks brilliantly. What is so incredibly difficult to figure out is if all the 1977 scenes are recreated or if original clips of film were spliced in – that’s how good the 1977 costuming is. As Sandy Powell would have been about 17 at the time, I suspect she is partially inspired by her memories of 1977 for capturing the feeling of the era. I am about her age, and it looks exactly how I remembered it!

It’s also a good story!

John Mollo, 1931 – 2017

Costume designer John Mollo died October 25, at the age of 86. Before becoming a costume designer, Mollo specialized in historical military uniforms, and wrote several books on the topic. He acted as an historical advisor on films including  The Charge of the Light Brigade and Barry Lyndon.

His first costume design job was for 1977’s  Star Wars. Darth Vader’s costume was inspired by a combination of World War 1 trench armour, and Nazi helmets. Mollo was awarded the Oscar for best costume design in 1977 for Star Wars, and again received an Oscar for best costume design in 1983 for Gandhi. Mollo also created the costumes for Alien, Cry Freedom, Chaplin and The Empire Strikes Back.

Fashion Hall of Obscurity – Marit Allen

Edwardian evening dress designed for The Secret Garden, 1993

Marit Allen’s career in fashion started at the age of twenty at Queen Magazine in 1961. She created a column called ‘About 20’ that showcased young designers with young fashion ideas – perfect timing for the burgeoning Mod movement. In 1964, Allen moved to British Vogue where she launched ‘Young Idea’ pages, featuring up and coming designers like John Bates, Foale and Tuffin, and Ossie Clark. Allen remained at Vogue until 1973.

Marit Allen wearing a John Bates silver trimmed coat on her wedding day, 1966

Introduced to the film world through her husband, Allen dabbled with costume design until her marriage ended in 1983 and she took on film costuming as her full time occupation. Although she didn’t necessarily specialize in period films, Allen did exceptional historic costuming in films like White Mischief, The Secret Garden, Brokeback Mountain, and even Little Shop of Horrors. In 2008, she posthumously received a BAFTA award and an Oscar nomination for her costume designs for La Vie En Rose – the biopic of Edith Piaf. Allen died from an aneurysm in 2007.

Film & Fashion – A French Village

Thierry Delettre with costumes from A French Village

The past few weeks I have been binge-watching Un Village Français – a French television series (in French with English subtitles) that originally aired between 2009 and 2016. The series was filmed in various locations around Limousin, but set in the fictional town of Villeneuve in eastern France, located somewhere around Besançon near the Vichy demarcation line, during World War II. Currently available on MHz in Canada and Netflix in the U.S., two or three episodes of this series have been filling my October evenings. I am currently about half way through the series (and thus halfway through the war because, like Mad Men, every season represents a year) and I am consistently impressed by the quality and accuracy of the costuming.


Historian Jean-Pierre Azéma, a specialist in the Second World War, was an historical adviser for the series, and you can tell accuracy was a goal for the production. In the quest for authenticity, costume designer Thierry Delettre explained in an interview with a French newspaper that he referred to Dominique Veillon’s book ‘Fashion Under Occupation’ for his fashion information. I also detect a lot of research in period fashion mags including L’Officiel, which the character Mme Schwartz seems to follow religiously (that’s her above in the grey and white tartan pattern suit, and black and white hat). Delettre was not interested in reinventing wartime French fashions, his goal was to recreate it. “I am a conductor. I have a team with me of dressmakers, tailors, bootmakers. However, the costume designer is not, as in fashion, a designer of clothes. He provides the silhouettes for the characters and participates in the artistic development of the film” explained Delettre.

From military costumes and couture to guerrilla armbands and yellow stars, Delettre recreates a wide swath of characters who all struggle with their ‘shades of grey’ moral involvement with the war, from collaboration to resistance. If you liked Mad Men and Foyle’s War, you will like Un Village Français.