Costume in Heritage Film: An Insight into The Past or a Symbol of the Post-Modern Present - Part 2

Part 2 of my BA Hons costume dissertation, 07/02/2012.

Chapter 1

‘Period costume in film: Is it ever historically accurate?’

This chapter aims to assess how historically accurate the costumes are in the heritage film The Portrait of a Lady. It shall explore the ideas of how historical costume can help to define ‘structural character’ and social status as used both in the film, and during the film’s 1870s European setting. Eventually deciding on whether there is more importance in the creativity of the designer Janet Patterson, rather than in creating historical reproductions.

The success of Campion and Patterson’s previous heritage film and its use of mostly historically accurate costumes may have inspired Patterson to use historic references again for the costume designs for The Portrait of a Lady.[1] However, although the costumes are largely historically accurate themselves, in the context of the film’s setting they are partially inaccurate. The film and the novel are set in 1870s Europe, whereas after comparing the costumes with fashion plates and existing garments from this time[2] [3], it would seem that the majority of the film’s costumes are more accurately dated to early 1880s Europe instead.

It could be argued that Patterson may have taken more historical inspiration for the main characters’ costumes from this later time period rather than the 1870s; because the tighter and more restrictive women’s clothing, along with the more starched and tailored menswear helped to reflect the society in the film, as well as the film’s themes of desire, obedience and entrapment. Polan would support this idea as she comments that in the film Isabel Archer is; “swaddled in the tight clothes of her class” in a society that is “stifling… [and]…oppressive in its dark overbearing inevitability”.[4] References from the time show that the fashions of the late 1870s and early 1880s focused on the slimmer, princess line women’s dress. A female writer for The Ladies’ Treasury magazine commented in 1876; “…that dresses are tied still ‘tighter’ round the figure…our skirts are now so tight that our sitting and walking are seriously inconvenienced; and the sleeves of bodies are so closely fitting to the arms that we can hardly raise them, even to half their usual height…”.[5] The American women’s magazine Harpers Bazar commented that in female dress by 1881 [Fig.2] “…the knees had become so constricted by inner ties and construction that walking was reduced to small, mincing steps.”[6] Isabel’s costumes increase in tightness throughout the film, getting significantly tighter after she marries Gilbert Osmond. Following on from Polan’s ideas, one could see this change in costume to symbolise the nineteenth century husband’s power and influence over his wife and how he controls her life[7], even limiting her movement through her dress due to the inner ties [Fig.1].

This choice of costume could be as a result of Patterson’s knowledge of the nineteenth century social structures, and how this affected costume. Men and women in the nineteenth century were considered to be living in different social spheres, men in the political, employment and business sphere; with women in the domestic and private sphere, which was characterised by family, nurturing, morality and virtue.[8] Both men and women, had to follow strict dress codes regarding different outfits for certain times of the day and occasions, both in private and in public life, as well as the types of colours, fabrics and decoration used for each time or occasion.[9] In public, women were expected to show off their husband’s wealth and power, along with his influence through their own dress. If Patterson used this historical social structure as inspiration for her designs, this could be evident through Isabel’s costumes becoming more fashionably tight and elegant, as well as using a darker yet richer colour palette, similar to Osmond’s costumes.

To contrast, Mr and Mrs Touchett’s and the Countess Gemini’s costumes seem to have taken more inspiration the early 1870s. This could be because the Touchetts are examples of older characters who, in the nineteenth century would commonly be wearing outfits from a few years earlier, in this case the late 1860s and early 1870s, as they were less likely to follow the most up to date fashions. The Countess Gemini however, would be expected to be wearing the popular fashions of the time due to her aristocratic status. She would be considered to be one of Veblen’s “Leisure Class” who would have followed and led the fashions of the time.[10] It could be argued that Patterson exaggerated Jones’ screenplay description of the character of having “features that suggest a tropical bird, her fashionable plumage shimmering and elegant”[11]; by deliberately designing the Countess’ costumes with the exaggerated silhouettes, rich fabrics, mixed textures and the highly decorative 1870s fashions. The Countess’ costumes can be considered to be similar to the decorative styles of 1872 where the figure was “buried under a morass of drapery and trimmings” as seen in Figs.3, 4 and 5.[12] This style of dress could be seen as helping to express her wealthy, eccentric and ‘silly’ character.

This heritage film as a contemporary interpretation of characters and their costumes is inevitably affected by post-modern popular culture.[13] However the costumes have to still appeal to the audience and their contemporary ideas surrounding gender, beauty, wealth and sexuality. This could involve the use of aspects of modern clothing mixed with historical costumes[14]. Within the film The Portrait of a Lady, Isabel and Madame Merle’s costumes are tighter and display lower necklines when seen with Osmond, so as to ‘sex up’ their costumes and express Osmond’s influence over the women. Could this again have been why Patterson used the early 1880s as historical reference, to enable the film’s audience to understand the references to desire and male dominance in a less subtle way than 1870s costumes may have?

Ultimately the film has to appeal to the target audience and the film critics, in the case of heritage cinema, this was perceived to be a ‘middle-class’ adult audience rather than the ‘working-class’ or ‘family’ audience.[15] This audience was considered to be more intellectual and cultured, and more likely to be able to relate to the storylines and characters. This target audience may have more knowledge about the film’s historical setting and costume, meaning that the designer may feel pressured into having to use historically accurate designs to avoid criticism. On the other hand, the designer may hold the opinion that this audience may be able to understand and appreciate the decision to use historical inaccurate costumes.

However according to Pidduck[16] and Monk, The Portrait of a Lady could be defined as a film from the ‘post-heritage’ genre, because the film is more ‘self-conscious’ and has stronger themes of unconventional violence and sex[17] as seen in the opening sequence of this film. This post-heritage style of film was meant to appeal to a younger, more modern audience; thus breaking away from the ‘high-brow’ audience stereotype. This younger and broader audience, like the older middle-class audience, may also be able to acknowledge and accept historical inaccuracy in film costume. Greimas follows this idea by arguing that the audience will only agree to these inaccuracies as long as the costumes still “stimulate the viewer’s imagination and are credible both in a textual and in a intertextual manner”, she names this as the “veridiction contract”.[18] This relationship between audience and designer, could allow Patterson the creative freedom with costume decisions in terms of historical accuracy.

Although the majority of the main character’s costumes in The Portrait of a Lady can be considered to be mostly historically accurate for the early 1880s, they are historically inaccurate to the film’s 1870s setting. This chapter has addressed the reasons why Patterson decided on this discontinuity; the main factor being that this later time period helps to better create a visual description of their ‘structural character’, including their marital status, wealth and social importance, than the 1870s costumes would have. This is understood by the audience as part of the “veridiction contract”. In the context of The Portrait of a Lady, Patterson has been able to use historical costume references creatively to develop post-modern interpretations which go beyond historical reconstruction.

[1] Caranicas, P., Bright Star Costumes in Focus. Variety, December 15, 2009. [Online], [9/10/11]. Available from World Wide Web: <>

[2] Bath Fashion Museum, 22 July 2011

[3] The Totnes Museum of Costume, Fashion and Textiles, 26 January 2012

[4] Polan, D., Jane Campion. Trowbridge : The Cromwell Press, 2001, p.135

[5] Waugh, N., The Cut of Women’s Clothes 1600-1930. London: Faber and Faber Ltd., 1968, p.222

[6] Blum, S. (ed), Victorian Fashions and Costumes From Harper’s Bazar 1867-1898. New York: Dover Publications Inc., 1974, p.77

[7] Vicinus, M., ‘Introduction’ in Vicinus, M.(ed), Suffer and Be Still, Women in the Victorian Age. Bloomington & London: Indiana University Press, 1973, pp.vii-xv

[8] Fuchs, R.G. & Thompson, V.E., Women in Nineteenth-Century Europe. Basingstoke & New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005, p.2

[9] Grimble, F. (ed), Fashions of the Gilded Age, Volume 1, Undergarments, Bodices, Skirts, Overskirts, Polonaises, and Day Dresses 1877-1882. San Francisco: Lavolta Press, 2004, pp.346-347

[10] Wilson, E., Adorned in Dreams, Fashion and Modernity. London: Virago Press Limited, 1985, pp.50-53

[11] Jones, L., The Portrait of a Lady, Screenplay based on the Novel by Henry James. London: Penguin Books, 1997, p.44

[12] Blum, p.3

[13] Wilson, p.170

[14] Ibid, p.172

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

[16] Pidduck, C., ‘Elizabeth and Shakespeare in Love: Screening the Elizabethans’, 2000, in Vincendea, G. (ed), Film/Literature/Heritage. A Sight and Sound Reader. London: BFI, 2001

[17] Vincendeau, pp.xx-xxi

[18] Calefato, P., The Clothed Body. Oxford: Berg, 2004, p.92

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