Who can resist the allure of imagining oneself about to engage in manoeuvres dans les couloirs, otherwise known as "dirty dealings in the hallway", in the mid-eighteenth century Les Liaisons Dangeureses? You're about to take on the known world as a youthful (and no doubt better looking than the original) Elizabeth I in green velvet. Fashion in Film: Period Costume from the Screen, with a free opening reception at the New Mexico Museum of Art on October 18. (New Mexico Museum of Art, 107 West Palace Avenue, Saturday, October 18, 12 - 2 pm. The event will be hosted by the Women's Board of the Museum of New Mexico.)
The costumes come from London's outstanding costume house, Cosprops Ltd. and will be installed with great flair and that marvelous deft-hand necessary to juxtapose period interpretation, whether clothing or space, in a modern institution. Designers from both the Museum and the Santa Fe Opera have collaborated to create three distinct areas in which to display thirty-six costumes representing five centuries of fashion history-and one undefinable "once upon a time' dress of Cinderella's. The clothing will be augmented by large photomurals of scenes from some of the movies and mis-en-tableaux with appropriate opera props.
Costuming for period film requires a dizzying range of skills. The designer must be a meticulous researcher, delving into what materials were used to dye cloth, how clothing was constructed, and, perhaps most importantly for film, a keen eye for whom wore what. Official and unofficial consumption laws ran (and run) throughout most societies, so in order for a period drama to ring true there must be a fierce eye for details and wide knowledge of the era. She or he must also know how to compromise that precise historicity with the visions of the director, actor and, no doubt, Associate Producer's budgets.
But let's look at some of these confections:
Kate Winslet wore a two-piece wedding dress in Ang Lee's 1995 adaptation of Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility. Made of silk mesh, it is trimmed with straw work, beaded silk embroidery and gauze covered with metal stars. The straw work was popular clothing decoration in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The lines of the dress follow the vogue for things neo-classical sweeping Europe at the time, the mesh a luxe version of muslin.
Designer John Bright was inspired by a dress from the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia which had been exhibited in London in 1987. Bright and his colleague Jenny Beavan were nominated for the Academy Award for Costume Design for Sense and Sensibility.
Judy Moorcraft designed a dress for the mid-nineteenth-century character, Eugenia Young, that Lee Remick played in The Europeans (1979). Directed by James Ivory of Ivory Merchant fame, the adaptation of Henry James' novel is set in the mid-nineteenth century. Eugenia and her brother Felix have come to the New World to meet and "look over" their American cousins. The gown is a one-piece evening dress of lace over a silk lining. The designer incorporated vintage fabrics and embellishments into her costumes for this film. This sometimes required the use of pieces that don't match, like the lace used on the bodice and the skirt of this frock. Rumor (or legend) holds that the lace used in this piece comes from clothing from that other Eugenia, the Empress Eugenie of France.
In 1988, Franco Zeffirelli made a movie named Young Toscanini about the early life of that conductor. Toscanini was known for his technical facility, photographic memory and fiery personality. In the film, Elizabeth Taylor wore a costume in her depiction of opera singer Nadina Bulichoff playing Aida. The designer, Tom Rand describes the dramatic dress made for a star playing a diva this way:
"This dress was meant to be a pastiche of 19th century opera costumes mixed with 1880s fashion. Much of the fabric came from the collection of Franco Zeffirelli and is at least one hundred years old. The new fabric came from dealers in Rome, India and London. The skin-colored sleeves were a feature of many period theatre costumes, as was the use of many different textures and colors."
Flashing forward to Evita's period from the mid nineteen-forties through the nineteen-fifties, Alan Parker's 1996 film adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice's musical had to have over one hundred costumes ranging from Eva days as a peasant girl to her reign as Evita, First Lady of Argentina.
Despite travelling with Madonna, who played Eva Peron in the film, to Christian Dior in order to see the original orders from Peron in the archives, the designer, Penny Rose, felt the need to adapt.
"But when you make a film about a real person, you don't copy what they wore verbatim. You must adapt and suit to the actress. Madonna has a sensational body and understood what it meant for a character to evolve, so we worked together in a very collaborative way.
So go indulge your fantasies, enter into the lives of these characters and enjoy!