Costume in Heritage Film: An Insight into The Past or a Symbol of the Post-Modern Present - Part 4

Part 4 of my BA Hons Costume dissertation 07/02/2012.

Chapter 3

‘The use of costume as a symbol’

This chapter focuses on the post-modern theory of costume within film as a symbol. The study will examine whether this symbol can give us an insight into the past, and how the symbolic use of costume is constructed through shot composition. This chapter will also look at semiotics in nineteenth century dress and whether these meanings are still relevant today. This chapter shall address how this use of costume symbolism is only picked up by a contemporary audience, because society today is more aware of the use of costume as an art form. This will then answer how costume symbolism is used and whether these symbols are universal or if they only relate to a certain culture or time?

One could class The Portrait of a Lady as partly a feminist film[1] as it focuses more than in the original James novel, on the complex and feisty heroine who is on a journey of self discovery and “chafing at their [the] constrained circumstances”[2] of her marriage and society. Campion’s heritage films including The Portrait of a Lady tend to challenge the audience’s definitions of what a heritage film should be. These films have “probed the dangers of desire and the lives of resilient, occasionally mad heroines”[3] with many of the film’s shots being seen through the female gaze. [4] Campion believes creative women of the 1990s can be “a lot more investigative of the power of eroticism” than their predecessors.[5] This could mean that Campion is aware that she is breaking boundaries with her creative approach to heritage film, but she is only able to do so because of the post-modern age in which she lives and works.

It could be argued that the film uses its nineteenth century historical setting with a society of constraint and imposing and enclosing buildings, to create a visual style of confinement, which in turn helps to reiterates the storyline’s theme of entrapment.[6] One example of how the types of shots reinforce the storyline is when Ralph Touchett is trying to dissuade Isabel from marrying Osmond; Isabel’s line: “If I like my cage, that needn’t trouble you” is echoed by the composition which frames Isabel against bars in the stable, these symbolising the thus mentioned cage.[7] Isabel’s costume during this scene further draws upon the symbolic cage through the wide vertical striped pattern on the fabric as seen in Fig 14.

The theme of desire and the use of eroticism in historical costume can also be seen in The Portrait of a Lady. It could be argued that the designer understands how nineteenth century costume appears to embody what Foucault called modern Puritanism’s “triple edict of taboo, non-existence, and silence”; and how this is “fertile ground for fetishism.”[8] It could be argued that although The Portrait of a Lady does not deal with sexuality in such an obvious manner, the underlying theme of desire is at times present through the characters of Isabel, Osmond, Madame Merle and Casper Goodwood and their costumes. The historically accurate costumes of the 1880s show that despite the moral restrictiveness of the time, the costumes act as a visual erotic language.[9] Steele argues that the fashionable tight fitting princess lined dresses, and their decoration of ruffles and bows on the lower back drew attention to the derriere and to the women’s shapely legs underneath.[10] This could be a more obvious sign to a post-modern audience, rather than during the nineteenth century. To contrast Laver and Flugel argue that the less slim fitting styles such as the crinoline and the bustle are seductive because the garments say “touch me not”.[11] Would this mean that the Countess Gemini and Mrs Touchett’s costumes are more seductive? Bruzzi agrees that the oppressiveness and restrictiveness of Victorian dress can “become the agent through which desire is made possible.”[12] This film uses the post-modern technique of costume as symbols and how these costumes are interacted with. Svendsen states that “symbols are central to all shaping of identity”[13] and that clothes are also semantically coded, but the interpretation of these codes differ depending on the setting, wearer and the audience.[14] Taylor takes this view further as she feels that film costume can exist as a symbol in its own right, not necessarily dependent upon signs of character or narrative. She also argues that audiences learn to interpret “formulaic class, gender and race stereotyping” through the use of these specific costumes and ‘looks’. [15] Calefato interprets the act of wearing clothes as a “non-verbal language that can project and simulate signs for, and about, both the individual wearer and the society that the wearer is from”; the clothed body seems to express and be a part of the surrounding word.[16] Using these theories one could suggest that some of, or aspects of the costumes in The Portrait of a Lady are used as symbols with meanings other than historical accuracy or character. However one also has to assess whether these symbols and their meanings are universal, contemporary post-modern or nineteenth century interpretations.

The Portrait of a Lady uses symbolic close-up shots that focus on a small section of costume, thus adhering to the post-modernist and Cubist stylistic technique of dissecting or fragmenting the image in order to change meaning.[17] The dark net and lace veils that Isabel and Madame Merle wear seem to be negative signs that emphasise how “snared” they both are by Osmond.[18] However during the nineteenth century these veiled headdresses would symbolise a highly fashionable woman, or would show a fashionable way of demurely covering a woman’s face. The bonnet-like hats that Isabel wears when she first arrives in Italy can be considered a practical sun shade to a universal audience; but it can also be seen as a symbol of the nineteenth century’s ideal woman and wife. Laver supports this as he states that the nineteenth century bonnet is “a sign of submission to male authority.”[19] Campion also frequently uses the image of hands in the film. During the nineteenth century it was the norm for women to wear gloves when in public from adolescence, for visiting and eveningwear.[20] In the first scene with Pansy, Osmond and Madame Merle, Pansy is not wearing gloves. This could be interpreted as a symbol of her innocence and naivety because her father is trying to keep her in a protective childlike state; this is evident through the close-up shots of Osmond and Pansy’s un-gloved hands. On the other hand, to a post-modern audience this image of the father embracing his fifteen year old daughter whilst stroking her hands in Fig.15 could hold more sexual connotations than a nineteenth century interpretation would.

One of the most prominent uses of costume as symbolism in The Portrait of a Lady is with the many close-up and trailing shots of Isabel’s skirt hem and train throughout the film [Fig.16 and 18].[21] The length and the amount of decoration on her skirt train increases with her marital status. This could be seen as a universally obvious sign of her growth in terms of wealth and social status; however this could also be interpreted as a post-modern symbol for the restricted life she leads as she is heavily laden with superficial flounces and frills. Isabel’s skirts become tighter through the film, and this added with the increasing weight of fabric and decoration in her skirt train means that her lower body movement is limited. This weighty skirt train could also be seen as a symbol of the pressure her character is under from her controlling husband and the constrictive nineteenth century society. This is supported by the scene where Osmond deliberately trips Isabel up by standing on her train as she flees from him, after he has interrogated and lectured her about what her role is as his wife and step mother to Pansy [Fig.17]. This image could symbolise the nineteenth century belief that the husband was higher and more important than the woman, and how the woman must obey him.[22]

Franch suggests that Isabel’s “dress is like some fin-tail, a strange remnant, reminding us of the origins of her species in this moral and emotional evolution.”[23] This could be referring to the way in which a contemporary post-modern audience may view the clothing of nineteenth century women; this “remnant” could refer to how their restrictive costume reflected the status and lives of women from the time. This could also be viewed as a feminist idea as the “evolution” could be understood as how women’s lives had evolved from what they had been in the past and how they were in the nineteenth century. The physical movement of the skirt train changes through the course of the film; when Isabel is an unmarried, ‘bright eyed’ young woman her wider skirts are lighter and float. Once she marries, her tighter skirts drag heavily behind her or the train frantically flips from side to side, mimicking the movements of an unhappily caged animal. During the final scenes, her skirt loosens slightly and a little of their weight is removed so that the long skirt train glides over the ground. This could show that some of the weight from her loveless marriage has been lifted and that Isabel is trying to go back to the free-spirit that she once was. These suggestions tend to be examples of post-modern contemporary symbols, however critics who opposed the fashion of tight fitting skirts with their excessive trains during the nineteenth century, may also have agreed with them.

The Portrait of a Lady uses the post-modern technique of symbolism within costume and how the composition of the shots reinforces the costume symbolism. It can be argued that these costume decisions stand as both symbols of characterisation and narration, but they also hold their own stylistic or semiotic interpretation. These symbols include references which in turn allow a symbol to communicate with the audience.

[1] Bruzzi, S., Undressing Cinema: Clothing and Identity in the Movies. London: Routledge, 1997, p.62

[2] Solway, D., Jane Campion. W Magazine [Online]. February 2010, [9/10/11]. Available from World Wide Web: <> p.1

[3] Ibid, p.1

[4] Bruzzi, p.62

[5] Ibid, p.57

[6] Bruzzi, p.130

[7] Polan, D., Jane Campion. Trowbridge: The Cromwell Press, 2001., p.130-134

[8] Bruzzi, p.39

[9] Ibid, p.37

[10] Steele, V., Fashion and Eroticism, Ideals of Feminine Beauty from the Victorian Era to the Jazz Age. New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985, p.64

[11] Bruzzi, pp.41-42

[12] Ibid, pp.53-61

[13] Svendsen, L., Fashion: A Philosophy. London: Reaktion Books Ltd., 2006, p.63

[14] Ibid, pp.70-71

[15] Taylor, L., The Study of Dress History. Manchester & New York: Manchester University Press, 2002, p.182

[16] Calefato, P., The Clothed Body. Oxford: Berg, 2004, pp.96-97

[17] Rewald, S., Cubism. Thematic Essays – The Metropolitan Museum of Art [Online]. [25/01/12] Available from the World Wide Web: <>

[18] Franch, L., ‘On the Brink’ in Vincendeau, G. (ed), Film/Literature/Heritage. A Sight and Sound Reader. London: BFI, 2001, p.84

[19] Bruzzi, p.60

[20] Grimble, F. (ed), Fashions of the Gilded Age, Volume 2, Evening, Bridal, Sports, Outerwear, Accessories, and Dressmaking 1877-1882. San Francisco: Lavolta Press, 2004, pp.346-347

[21] Franch, p.84

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

[23] Franch, p.84

Recent Posts