Costume in Heritage Film: An Insight into The Past or a Symbol of the Post-Modern Present - Part 1

While I was studying for my BA Hons Costume degree I discovered a great passion for and a deeper understanding for fashion history and theory; this is most visible in my final dissertation with discusses Costume in Heritage Film with the focus on 'The Portrait of a Lady'. 07/02/2012

I have decided to publish this work along with some of my accompanying research as part of this blog. I hope you all enjoy!


In order to begin to answer the question; Costume in heritage film: an insight into the past or a symbol of the post-modern present, one must first understand what the term ‘heritage film’ means. Vincendeau states that the term heritage cinema refers to costume films made since 1980, which draw on a wider popular culture heritage that includes historical figures, moments, music and paintings; many of which, are usually based on popular classic literature.[1] Cook holds the broader opinion that heritage cinema is any film set in the past[2], including historical reconstructions, ‘Gainsborough’ style costume dramas, and Epics. However this dissertation will be using Vincendeau and Higson’s definitions of heritage film as post 1980. The genre of heritage film is not defined by a type of narrative, nor a unified iconography, nor an affect, except for the presence of a period setting and costumes. These films are more about creating a historically accurate mise-en-scene than previous historical costume films, in order to create a “museum aesthetic” but at the same time, they celebrate, rather than investigate the past[3]. Heritage cinema is a genre where imagery is highly important in order to create narrative, theme and a sense of time; the use of historical costume is central to the genre. When viewing heritage film, one expects to see elaborate historical costumes, some could argue that the imagery of this genre is one of the factors that make heritage cinema so popular.[4] Critics of the genre see it as too idealistic and conservative, as well as nicknaming the films as “women’s pictures”[5]. However, in effect one could argue that the aim of heritage film is to create an insight, albeit a ‘rose tinted’ insight, into the past.

Using examples of heritage cinema, specifically The Portrait of a Lady (1996)[6] directed by Jane Campion and designed by Janet Patterson, as well as other examples of heritage film by Campion and Patterson; this dissertation plans to expose and analyse some of the factors that can affect the way in which a costume designer designs for heritage film. Chapter One aims to answer the question of whether costume in heritage film can ever be historically accurate? This will involve assessing how much popular culture during the time of the film’s production can affect costume design in film, using Wilson, Calefato and Higson’s theories as key references. Chapter Two examines the ideas surrounding designing and the importance of character, ultimately questioning whether character inspires the costume or whether the costume creates the character. Direct references to the The Portrait of a Lady original novel by Henry James[7] and the film’s screenplay by Laura Jones[8], as well as the work of Bruzzi and Polan will help to support this debate. The final chapter addresses the post-modern creative technique of using costume as a symbolic expression of character, with reference to works by Bruzzi, Church Gibson and Barthes. This chapter will discuss how heritage film is partly a reflection of the symbols and society from the time in which it was made, in this case the post-modern present and whether these symbols are historical or universal to any audience. This dissertation aims to apply these theories and debate to the analysis of these films so as to answer whether costume in heritage film, particularly heritage films by Campion, is an insight into the past or a symbol of the post-modern present?

[1] Vincendeau, G., ‘Introduction’. in Vincendeau, G. (ed), Film/Literature/Heritage. A Sight and Sound Reader. London: BFI, 2001, pp.xvii-xviii

[2] Higson, A., English Heritage, English Cinema, Costume Drama since 1980. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008, p.9

[3] Vincendeau, pp.xviii-xix

[4] Ibid, pp.xviii-xix

[5] Ibid, pp.xix-xx

[6] Dir. Jane Campion, The Portrait of a Lady, 1996. [DVD]

[7] James, H., The Portrait of a Lady. Harmondsworth: Penguin. English Library, 1984

[8] Jones, L., The Portrait of a Lady, Screenplay based on the Novel by Henry James. London: Penguin Books, 1997

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