Costume in Heritage Film: An Insight into The Past or a Symbol of the Post-Modern Present - Part 3

Part 3 of my BA Hons costume dissertation, 07/02/2012.

Chapter 2

‘The use of costume to convey character’

This chapter focuses on how costume is used to convey authentic or false character and personality in heritage film, as well as the cultural symbols of nineteenth century dress and examining what they communicate about women, to both a contemporary post-modern audience and as to what it expressed at the time. This study will then assess whether the communication of character through costume is more important than historical accuracy, even in heritage film.

The main character, Isabel Archer, is a modern, headstrong, confident, single young woman who wishes to explore the world and broaden her understanding, yet at times she reveals a naivety in her attitude to men and her understanding of the social codes of nineteenth century upper class to which she belongs. Campion and Jones explained that to develop Isabel’s character they had to understand her in her nineteenth century world as well as in their own modern pasts, in order to create a character that is universally understood.[1] Patterson states that she has designed other female characters in heritage films, “with a sense of homage to how young women behave—then and now.” [2] There is evidence in the film’s original screenplay to suggest that the contemporary young women in the prologue scene are all metaphors for Isabel herself. These women are “independent, impatient, unacquainted with pain, [have] a confidence at once innocent and dogmatic, spontaneous, full of theories, with delicate, desultory, flame like spirits, facing their destinies”.[3] During Isabel’s first few scenes, she is represented as this confident, “flame-like free spirit” that is fighting against order and restriction[4]. This is seen through her vibrant energy in her movement, during her opinionated discussions with the Touchetts and Henrietta Stackpole.[5] Before Isabel marries, her costumes tend to be looser with softer lines in predominantly black or white, they are similar to late 1860s and early 1870s fashions; echoing the free-spirit like and innocent qualities. Isabel’s costumes when she first arrives in Italy [Fig.7] show similarities to the 1868 muslin dress with small skirt ruffles in Fig.6. [6]

These costumes reflect upon McFarlane’s assessment that she is seen as “light in dark places”, however once she marries Osmond there is little sense of this as her costumes and her “openness to life becomes constrained”. Her costumes become an object to hide behind; in the novel Ralph Touchett notices this change in her when Isabel visits him for the first time since her marriage:

“Something fixed and mechanical in the serenity painted on her mask. He had played the wrong card, and now he had lost the game. He should see nothing, he should learn nothing; for him she would always wear a mask. …the free keen girl had become quite another person; what he saw was the fine lady who was supposed to represent something. What did Isabel represent?”[7]

During this scene in the film Isabel is wearing a hat with a dark net veil partially covering her face [Fig.8 and 9], this could be seen to clearly create “her mask” in order to conceal Isabel’s true emotions and personality. Is Isabel informing Ralph that she has changed and is unavailable to him, echoing the modesty of the lace mantilla for the un-chaperoned woman visiting a man? Is she using the black widow’s veil[8] to symbolise her mourning the freedom and the friendship that they once had? Is it a sign of Isabel’s innocence and naivety like the bridal or religious veil,[9] as she is unaware of her feelings for Ralph and to her loveless marriage to Gilbert Osmond? The colour palette in The Portrait of a Lady starts off bright and open with stark contrasts within costumes, however this changes to shades of blue and brown, especially within interior shots to help create a claustrophobic and tense feel to the film after the marriage of Isabel and Osmond.[10]

This film is seen as obsessed with enclosure and entrapment; this is most obvious through the character of Gilbert Osmond who is a collector who is driven by ownership and control.[11] He can be interpreted as a follower of the Aesthetic Movement as he uses his many “artefacts for self-definition” so as to “please himself by exciting the world’s curiosity”.[12] One could go so far as to argue that Osmond saw Isabel as a suitable acquisition for his own collection, and could convert her into his own ‘Portrait of a Lady’ who wears the latest fashions, he can then show off this cultured ‘Lady’ to his admirers and she can adorn his salon.[13] His costumes are fashionable for a man in his marital and social status in nineteenth century Italy, but they tend to be a little ‘bohemian’ or ‘aesthetic’ in styling. In Osmond’s first scene he is wearing a paisley shirt, baggy trousers and an open eastern inspired banyan [Fig.10]. This relaxed attire can express his artistic nature and it contrasts with the other characters’ more rigid and fashionable nineteenth century costumes. His costumes are a Romanticised version of exotic dress. The Romantic Dandy differed from the early nineteenth century Dandy as this later stereotype were more authentic in their choice of dress, whereas the earlier form tended to use their clothing to create a self-constructed identity. Osmond as an Aesthetic follower and a Romantic Dandy, could be seen as ironic because he has two contrasting costume personas, he is constantly deceiving people. Campion bluntly described Osmond as “an evil character with no redeeming features.”[14] He is well practised in the art of deception, scheming and seduction; however he never forgets to wear the appearance of being graceful and tender. In private his costumes reflect the artistic and the exotic, however his public costumes tend to adhere more to the strict fashions of the time. During scenes when he is angry or intimidating he remains calm and collected, and his costumes tend to be more formal or use heavier and darker fabrics.

It could be argued that Osmond likes to be in control, specifically over his wife; therefore he could be imposing his beliefs and desires into her costumes. This could be seen through the way that Isabel’s costumes change and become similar in style to Madame Merle’s once Isabel and Osmond are married. This could be an outward expression of Isabel’s psychological journey from the single, naïve, young American to the cultured woman in an unhappy marriage that she doesn’t understand. Her costumes will also reflect those of the key characters she most interacts with and is influenced by; hence costume similarities to Madame Merle and Osmond. This could be supported by Laver’s statement that “man in every age has created woman in the image of his own desire” and that “a woman’s clothes are a function of her relation to man”.[15] Some men in the nineteenth century believed in bio-reasoning, the idea that because of women’s sexual and reproductive roles, their bodies could disrupt society and that their bodies and opinions needing to be observed and restrained.[16] This in turn led many men to have an input into the clothing choices that their wives and family members made. This could be evident through Isabel’s costumes being of a similar colour scheme to Osmond’s and how Pansy Osmond’s costumes are in more naive and childlike colours; maybe this accounts for why Patterson decided to use early 1880s styles of dress for Isabel as they are examples of restricted clothing as a result of Osmond’s belief in bio-reasoning? During the nineteenth century, the tightness of your corset often reflected your social status; the extreme tightness of the costumes could be viewed as a symbol of wealth and social freedom instead. Kunzle argues that tightly laced corsets were mostly used by sexually assertive women in the nineteenth century as a way for them to express their sexual identity and power[17]. This theory would be similar to a contemporary post-modern audience who may interpret these tighter women’s costumes as symbols of sexuality due to the figure being obvious, rather than the stereotypical nineteenth century’s symbol of oppression and obedience.

The Countess Gemini is an example of freedom as her early 1870s costumes are unrestrictive and her husband seems to have very little to do with her costumes. She has a flighty personality and is eccentric yet stubborn. It could be argued that the Countess at times, comes across as some what garish, shown through her brightly coloured and highly decorative costumes that allow her strong personality to stand out within the shots. The new invention of aniline dyes created new and richly coloured fabrics, similar to those used in the Countess’ costumes seen in Fig.11.[18] Although these colours were only available to the richest and most fashionable class, the wearers of these colours were often ridiculed, despite their status. These new inventions and the people that used or wore them were frequently mocked in newspapers and cartoons during the late nineteenth century. Patterson may have used these as inspiration for the Countess’ extravagant costumes, so as to best portray the character’s stupidity and the way which other characters view her. The Countess Gemini is thought ridiculous by most of the characters in the film and her uniquely bright and elaborate costumes help to support this opinion.

Pansy Osmond epitomises the quietly innocent and devoted daughter, she has no will or power to resist her father and would be easily crushed if she tried. She is a blank white page, without art, nor guile, nor temper, nor talent yet tender.[19] The screenplay makes minor suggestions as to what Pansy’s costumes should be, these help to strengthen this view of childhood purity and loyalty; she is described as “fifteen, in hat and white muslin”, “nineteen…in a blue dress, looking like a Velasquez Infanta”, and as wearing her ball gown with its many “vaporous skirts”. It is evident in the film that Patterson used these suggestions as guidelines as she has designed all of Pansy’s costumes using a pale colour scheme. There is historical evidence from paintings by J.J. Tissot [Fig.12], P.A. Renoir [Fig.13] and other popular artists of the time that these colours were popular during the 1870s and 1880s especially among children’s clothing, summer clothing and ball gowns.[20] However heavier fabrics, darker and brighter colours and bold striped patterns were also considered fashionable at the time.[21] Patterson’s decisions to use these lighter and simpler colours and to ignore the other popular styles of dress, could be seen to be deliberately accentuating Pansy’s role as the female “easy victim” to the fate that her father had created for her One could argue that during the nineteenth century, women especially unmarried young women, had very little freedom when it came to clothing as their parents, and ultimately their husbands would set the rules economy of dress for them.[22] Meaning that to a nineteenth century audience, the fact that Pansy and Isabel’s costumes are heavily influenced by Osmond would not be considered so unusual or unpleasant. Her personality and identity has been created and maintained by Osmond, this is an example where costume helps to highlight a constructed identity. This however is an unusual form of constructed identity as normally the wearer creates their identity themselves, through their own choice of clothing and in the way in which they wear clothing. On the other hand one could argue that Pansy is an example of a constructed identity, but that she did have her own input into her costume choices, although she may have chosen her clothing knowing that it would appeal and adhere to her father’s wishes.

Costume can help to visually construct an identity, however at times this may be seen as a false identity. Mosley argues that dress, both “defines and de-individualizes us”[23] and Kuhn states that dress has a crucial performative function, as it acts as a masquerade that can be used to “reconstruct the wearer’s self”.[24] Countess Gemini and Osmond’s costumes seem to be examples of constructed identities; however the costumes they wear in public society are more conforming to the fashions of the time than their private costumes. Pansy and Isabel’s costumes could also be seen as identities constructed by Osmond and Madame Merle, however their costumes are also the most suitable for women of their status. Street argues that film costumes not only relate to the characters who wear them in the film, but also to the audiences who watch them.[25]

One could argue that Patterson has used her creativity as a designer as well as her knowledge of nineteenth century social order and dress to design costumes that best suit the characters personalities and reflect the nineteenth century symbols, fashions and ideals that would apply to these characters. The result shows a designers understanding of the audience’s “assumed embodiment”[26] so that the audience may then invent their own ideas of what the characters and their costumes mean. In the end, the novel and the film The Portrait of a Lady are not historically accurate or factual based productions, they are creative works set in a historical era, meaning the costumes should be inspired by historical accuracy but should more importantly visually communicate character.

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

[2]Hong, C., Five Minutes with Bright Star Costume Designer Janet Patterson. W Magazine [Online]. January 2010, [9/10/11]. Available from World Wide Web: <>, p.1

[3] Ibid, p.1

[4] James, H., The Portrait of a Lady. Harmondsworth: Penguin. English Library, 1984, p.105

[5] Polan, D., Jane Campion. Trowbridge: The Cromwell Press, 2001, p.134

[6] Bradfield, N., Costume in Detail: Women's Dress, 1730-1930. Hawkhurst: Eric Dobby Publishing Ltd, 2007, pp.221-222

[7] James, pp.443-444

[8] Ibid, p.501

[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 p.90

[10] Polan, pp.130-134

[11] Ibid, p.139-140

[12] McNeil, P., Karaminas, V. & Cole, C. (ed), Fashion in Fiction, Text and Clothing in Literature, Film, and Television. Oxford: Berg, 2009, pp.130, 134

[13] Wood, R., The Wings of the Dove, Henry James in the 1990s, London: BFI, 1999, p.15

[14] Polan, p.125

[15] Bruzzi, S., Undressing Cinema: Clothing and Identity in the Movies. London: Routledge, 1997, p.41

[16] Ibid, p.24

[17] Ibid, p.44

[18] Fukai, A., The Colors of a Period as the Embodiment of Dreams [Online]. [8/12/11], pp.2-4. Available from World Wide Web: <>

[19] Jones, p.145

[20] Wood, C., Tissot, The Life and Work of Jaques Joseph Tissot, 1836-1902. London: Orion Publishing Group, 1995

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

[22] Vicinus, M., Suffer and be Still: Women in the Victorian Age., p.ix

[23] Moseley, R., ‘Introduction’ in Moseley, R. (ed), Fashioning Film Stars: Dress, Culture, Identity. London: British Film Institute, 2005, p.6

[24] Street, S., Costume and Cinema, Dress Codes in Popular Film. London: Wallflower Press, 2001, p.3

[25] Ibid, p.7

[26] Street, S., Costume and Cinema, Dress Codes in Popular Film. London: Wallflower Press, 2001, p.7

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