Fashion in the house – c. 1865

I thought this photo was interesting because it’s a rare view for the period of a well-dressed couple in their reception room. Most 1860s photos were done in a studio – this type of candid shot doesn’t become common until cheap brownie box cameras appear around the turn of the century.  The gentleman is in an informal pose with his right foot atop his left knee, creating a place to rest the book he is reading. 

Film and Fashion – Lincoln

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Mary Todd wearing a pearl demi-parure jewellery set

Lincoln is beginning to receive multiple nominations for various awards and it looks like it will be nominated for a best picture Oscar, as well as for a slew of artistic awards including costuming.

Lincoln is a ‘talking’ film – there are only brief glimpses of battlegrounds and the burning of Columbia, South Carolina. The bulk of the action takes place during the month of January 1865 and is based on debates over the adoption of the 13th amendment (the dissolution of slavery) in the House of Representatives, as well as private conversations and backdoor deals. In all cases the scenes are dominated by male characters, but this doesn’t mean boring black suits and coats – every actor is thoughtfully styled to show individuality within the demands of period fashionable conformity. Joanna Johnston, who has costumed several historically set films including War Horse, Valkyrie, Munich, and Forrest Gump, has done an exceptional job of the men’s and women’s costumes in this film.

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Sally Field as Mary Todd wearing a dress partially inspired by the dress worn by Mary Todd in the top image and wearing the re-created demi-parure.

Mary Todd Lincoln’s clothes are intelligent recreations – not necessarily direct copies of known garments but authentic designs ‘Madame President’ would have chosen. A pearl demi-parure was copied from a set known to have been worn by her (see picture above for the original, and picture to the right for the modern copy.) Also worthy of praise is the hair and make-up of all the male and female characters. Transforming well known actors into characters that look like they stepped out of 19th century sepia-tone cabinet photographs is not easy, and the results here are fantastic – it’s easy to forget that Daniel Day Lewis is playing Lincoln.

If I were to find fault with anything historical in the film, it would be with some of the set decorating – a scullery was over-staged to look like a still life, and a Blue Willow meat platter sitting in the middle of a parlour table looks more Martha Stewart c. 1995 than January 1865. In the costuming there was only one costume piece I question – a gilt thread embroidered satin brocade banyan (dressing gown) worn by Secretary of State William Seward, which looks suspiciously grand, exotic, and passe for the character and the era. However, Johnston could have based it on something known to exist in Seward’s wardrobe.

This is a remarkably well costumed film and worthy of the many awards I am sure it will garner. The recreated fashions not only capture the era authentically, they also capture the personalities of the individuals being portrayed. There are several interviews with Joanna Johnston including this Youtube interview that give great insight into the process of the film’s costuming. Johnston has never received an award for her work and she certainly deserves recognition for her stellar work here.