Not About Writing

Top 10 Film Costumes

Recently, I posted some images of some costumes from Crimson Peak to Facebook. My followers seemed to like them and, well, I certainly liked them, and you know I’m always looking for an excuse to share costume porn here, so I decided to do my own Top 10 costumes from film.

Here are the rules:

  1. Only one costume per film allowed.
  2. I had to be able to find good quality images of the costume (which ruled out The Artist and Wings of the Dove).
  3. It had to be from a film I enjoyed and would recommend (which sadly ruled out Marie Antoinette, Batman Returns, and the Duchess. It nearly ruled out Titanic but I decided to be lenient).

Here we go then:

10. The Marquise de Merteuil’s Travelling dress, Dangerous Liaisons (1988), costume designer: James Acheson. Genres: Psychological drama; literary adaptation.

This gown has stuck with me over the years despite not actually being on screen that long. It’s a triumphant moment for Glenn Close’s Merteuil as her plans begin falling into place, a powerful gown for a character at the height of her own power.

Honestly, though, all the costumes in this film are amazing and gorgeous. All of them.

9. Claire Fraser’s wedding dress in Outlander (season 1), costume designer: Terry Dresbach. Genre: Time travel; romance; epic; literary adaptation.

Another 18th century style dress. Not only is the gown stunning (my god, the embroidery!) but it symbolizes so much to the characters; Jamie’s hopes for their marriage, the seriousness of Claire’s situation (Jamie’s all in, so it’s going to be hard to go through with deserting him), as well as fulfilling the wishes and dreams of everyone who read the book and had waited years to see this moment on screen. It’s a lot for a dress to measure up to, yet this one does.

8. Romeo and Juliet (1998), costume designer: Kym Barrett. Genres: Shakespeare adaptation.

Almost every teenage girl in the ’90s seemed to be obsessed with this film, myself included. I was already a literature geek, so of course I was going to love this. Even though I suspect this dress owes a lot to Claire Danes’s ethereal beauty, it has a magic that still works on me more than twenty years later. (20 years? Seriously? The ’90s was just the other day!)

7. Satine’s trapeze costume, Moulin Rouge, costume designer: Catherine Martin. Genres: Musical.

Another Baz Luhrman film. There are several gowns I could have chosen but it’s this one that sticks with me. This is the first glimpse we get of Nicole Kidman’s Satine and she manages to do Diamonds are a Girls’s Best Friend with enough style and attitude that I don’t immediately wish I were watching Marilyn Monroe instead (which is a huge achievement in and of itself). It’s just an amazing, versatile, fun and glitzy costume.

6. Rose’s boarding gown, Titanic, costume designer: Deborah Lynn Scott. Genres: Drama.

Say what you like about Titanic (this film is a guilty pleasure for me), the costumes were amazing. I almost chose the red dress she wears when she tries to throw herself overboard. I’ve got to be honest, my choice here is 75% about the hat. That being said, the boarding outfit, inspired largely by a contemporary source gown (see slideshow), is so crisp and smart. It’s an outfit for the woman Rose is trying so hard to become.

5. Edith’s black bow dress, Crimson Peak, costume designer: Kate Hawley. Genres: Gothic horror.

This is the gown that inspired this post. I fully intend to watch Crimson Peak again soon just for the costumes, which are all amazing. I love how everything Edith wears in New York, all beautiful, up to date (for the 1890s) gowns, contrasts with Jessica Chastain’s dresses which, while equally beautiful, all look 10-20 years behind the fashion. Edith dresses like a strong, confident New Woman, but the bow somehow renders her vulnerable. Like a hand might reach out from the dark, take hold of all that fabric, and never let go.

4. Sarah’s ballgown, Labyrinth. Costume designer: Ellis Flyte. Genres: Family film; Musical.

What is that dress made of? It has a definite cellophane-ish quality, yet I love it. Perhaps it’s because I saw this film when I was small. Perhaps it’s because I still love that song they dance to. Perhaps it’s the peak 80s-ness of it all. I don’t even know.

3. Danielle’s ballgown, Ever After, costume designer: Jenny Beavan. Genres: Fairy-tale retelling.

This was a perfect moment. So much so that I’m afraid to re-watch this film as a proper adult in case it doesn’t stand up. The dress, though, will always hold up.

2. Ellen Olenska’s red gown, The Age of Innocence. Costume designer: Gabriella Pescucci. Genres: Pychological drama; literary adaptation.

This is a case of the perfect dress for the scene. Madame Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer) is different from every other character. As wonderful as she is, she doesn’t fit in, and this dress underscores that fact beautifully. Unbeknownst to her, she’s moving around in hostile territory where it might be smarter to pass unnoticed. Of course the fact that she floats around in her crimson gown completely oblivious to this hostility, is why we love her.

1.Anna’s ballgown, The King and I, costume designer: Irene Sharaff. Genres: Musical, literary adaptation.

This dress is largely responsible for beginning my Victorian obsession. It is directly responsible for little Julia insisting her first ever bridesmaid dress have a hoop skirt. It also led to compulsive use of the silver crayon when it was coloring-in time at my primary school. Despite the film’s problems, I still get chills when Anna dances with the king. I love the way the dress looks like liquid as she moves.

There you go; my top 10. I hope you’ll let me know your favorite costumes from film in the comments here, or on Facebook or Instagram.

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Eminent Victorians: Kate and Maggie Fox

Kate and Maggie Fox, via Pinterest.

The heroine of my next book (The Ruin of Evangeline Jones, coming soon from Entangled Publishing) is a charlatan medium. To tell her story, I researched the Victorian spiritualist movement, which is how I found out about Kate and Maggie Fox. These two sisters are in large part responsible for starting the entire 19th century spiritualist craze.

It all began in the 1840s when they were still children. According to the PSI Encyclopedia, “Maggie and Kate Fox were at the centre of a poltergeist-type disturbance in 1848 that led to the emergence of Spiritualism, a religion based on communication with spirits of the dead.”

The sisters claimed to hear strange knocking and rapping sounds through which they could communicate with the spirit of a murdered peddler haunting their home. Spookily enough, searches under the house revealed bone fragments. Tables moved, doors shut spontaneously and the spirit (whom the girls nicknamed Mr. Splitfoot after the devil) urged the sisters to hold public meetings to spread the word about life after death. Visitors descended on their house and eventually, since the spirit seemed to follow the girls wherever they went, they took their show on the road, joined by their older sister Leah (the entrepreneur of the family).

They became a sensation, attracting many famous admirers and, because of their many imitators, spawned a new religion. Not bad for three ordinary Victorian women from a tiny hamlet in New York state.

The Fox sisters in later life: Leah (1814–1890), Margaretta (also called Maggie) (1833–1893) and Catherine (also called Kate ) (1837–1892).

To this day, many believe the sisters to be genuine mediums despite the fact that Kate and Maggie both took to the stage in 1888 to reveal how they accomplished the fraud. The rapping was nothing more than the cracking of toe and ankle joints. At the same time, both denounced the spiritualist movement as a whole and their now estranged sister Leah in particular. Perhaps those who continued to believe in Mr. Splitfoot put this down to a family quarrel that got out of hand and, to be fair, Maggie and Kate, both in dire need of cash, later resumed giving seances. Maggie also renounced her confession.

Even though I think the sisters were charlatans, I can’t help but admire what they accomplished at a time when women had few career options. They attained a level of success few achieved and sparked a movement that took the western world by storm. What may have started as an innocent prank when they were children still colors people’s beliefs to this day.

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Eminent Victorians: Spring-heeled Jack

Urban legend, prank, or supervillain?

This here is Satan, we might say the devil, but that ain’t right, and gennelfolks don’t like such words. He is now commonly called ‘Spring-heeled Jack;’ or the ‘Rossian Bear,’ – that’s since the war.— Henry Mayhew, London Labour and the London Poor

The first sighting of the being known as Spring-heeled Jack occurred in London in 1837. A man jumped out and grabbed Mary Stevens, tore at her clothes, and touched her with claws that were “cold and clammy as those of a corpse.” A clear-cut case of sexual assault. The next day, the same man leaped out in front of a coach, causing it to crash, and, according to several witnesses, escaped over a 9ft wall, babbling and laughing. More sightings followed and the mysterious attacker was even featured in a Times article.

What did he look like? Some accounts describe him in tight-fitting oilskin, others in the attire of a gentleman. Most agree about the claws, voluminous cloak, and general devilishness of his appearance. Accounts of subsequent attacks grew increasingly outlandish. Jack is said to have spewed blue and white flames from his mouth (a professional or amateur fire-breather, perhaps?), possess eyes of fire, and metallic claws that he used to tear women’s clothes. He also once appeared in a bearskin (which I feel gives my fire-breather/performance artist theory even more credence). However, the likeliest suspect in the early attacks is the Marquess of Waterford (commonly known as The Mad Marquess).

In 1838, an arrest was made (not the marquess) but, despite a confession and evidence that he committed at least one of the crimes, the man had to be released because he didn’t know how to fire breathe. Gradually attacks became less frequent until a new wave occurred in the 1840s and again in the 1870s. The last sighting of Jack was in Liverpool in 1904. A copycat? Or–an idea that gained increasing momentum among those who claimed to see him–a ghost?

Illustration of Spring-heeled Jack, from the 1867 serial Spring-heel’d Jack: The Terror of London , via Wikipedia.

One of the problems with parsing the Spring-heeled Jack sightings is that he quickly became a literary sensation, the star of numerous plays and penny dreadfuls. The stories of him running about on the rooftops of London, masked, cloaked and performing supernatural leaps, quickly mixed with and obfuscated genuine sightings of what seems to have been a budding sex offender who enjoyed dangerous pranks or, even more likely, a series of similar criminals. (I’m not one for the ghost theory, but your mileage may vary).

Whatever you believe, the stories themselves, the fiction that grew up around Spring-heeled Jack, have ensured that he’s passed into legend.

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Eminent Victorians: Sarah Forbes Bonetta

Full-length photograph of Sarah Forbes Bonetta taken in 1862.
Sarah Forbes Bonetta by Camille Silvy, 1862, via Wikipedia.

People call her Queen Victoria’s black daughter, but Sarah Forbes Bonetta’s story is more complex than that. Was she, as Wikipedia would have it, a West African princess, Omoba Aina? And did Queen Victoria really adopt her?

Unfortunately, we may never know the truth about Forbes Bonetta’s origins. She was silent on that subject in her letters and never referred to any royal lineage. And, in the circles in which she sometimes moved, it would probably have rated a mention. Captain Frederick E. Forbes, the man who brought her to England when she was seven, and after whom she’s named (Bonetta was for his ship,) suspected she was from a good family. But she herself had only confused recollections of her past.

Sally (Sarah) Forbes Bonetta, aged about 13.

The Captain was visiting King Ghezo of Dahomey as part of an anti-slavery mission on behalf of the British Empire. Personally, I have my doubts as to how successful the meeting was, with regard to its stated aim, since Sarah was given to Forbes as a gift to Queen Victoria or, as Walter Dean Myers put it, “a present from the King of the blacks to the Queen of the whites.” Charming!

To be fair to the Captain (not to mention Queen Victoria,) Forbes Bonetta would have been put to death if the “gift” had been refused. Still, it’s perhaps a bit of a stretch to call this process an adoption. On a happier note, Victoria paid for Sarah’s education (the Captain called his young charge “a perfect genius”) and took a warm interest in her well-being. After an unsuccessful stint in a school in Sierra Leone, Sarah was sent to Kent where she lived with the middle-class Schoen family. It was Mrs. Schoen, not Victoria, whom Sarah addressed as “Mama” in her letters.

Having been brought up as a proper English lady, Sarah was expected to marry like one. Though initially unenthusiastic about the match, she obeyed Victoria’s wish that she marry Captain James Pinson Labulo Davies, a British naval officer originally from Sierra Leone.

A portrait of James Pinson Labulo Davies and Sara Forbes Bonetta, 1862, by Camille Silvy .

Despite this inauspicious beginning, the marriage seems to have been happy. Together they had three children, one of whom, Victoria, was named for the queen and became her goddaughter. Sadly, Sarah died of tuberculosis when she was only 37. The queen settled an annuity on her small namesake.

As for Davies, he erected a monument “IN MEMORY OF PRINCESS SARAH FORBES BONETTA.”

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19th Century Fashion Primer (aka another excuse for costume porn)

So I was reading a book the other day when I came across the following (paraphrased) sentence:

“The empire line dress she wore accentuated her small waist.”

No. No, it didn’t. Because this is what empire line dresses actually look like.

And, you’ll notice, the one thing they don’t accentuate? Yup. The waist. They do wonders for the bosom though.

Now, I am by no means an expert on 19th century fashion (or any fashion, if we’re being honest) and I’m sure I make plenty of mistakes in my books when it comes to clothes. But this was an egregious error for someone writing in the regency era to make. So, thought I, let’s track those waistlines and other major fashion developments in a handy beginner’s guide using lots of pretty pictures of extant dresses and movie costumes. That way, we still won’t get it right all the time but hopefully we can avoid any major howlers. And, lo, this post was born.

I think women must have breathed a bit easier in those empire-line gowns. Their corsets wouldn’t have needed to be cinched quite so tightly. Unfortunately, by the 1820s, waists had dropped again and skirts were fuller.

By the 1830s, when Queen Victoria took the throne, the waist drop is complete, corsets are cinched tight again, and the skirts are taking on the bell-shape we associate with the Victorians.

In the 1840s, necklines became lower (note the fichu in the image on the left below, which preserved a lady’s modesty despite “plummeting” necklines) and waists narrowed to a V. See how the waistline has continued to descend?

The 1850s is when the first artificial cage crinoline was invented and, not coincidentally, the decade in which skirts got really, really wide. And you did not want to stand next to an open flame while wearing one of these:

The silhouette of the 1860s is very familiar to people because of films like Gone with the Wind. Skirts got narrower at the top, but even wider at the bottom and fuller in the back.

The 1870s are when the bustle era began. Skirts slowly narrowed and the backside ended up piled with fabric. The costume from The Age of Innocence below is perhaps my favorite film costume of all time.

The bustle had a resurgence in the the early 1880s and became more shelf-like. One well known caricature shows women re-imagined as snails. At the same time, the reform dress movement was catching on, which resulted in a more natural shape as with the tea gown in the middle below.

Which brings us to the 1890s when the bustle and crinoline were both abandoned completely. The waist was extra small but skirts followed the natural line of a woman’s body. It was also the decade of massive sleeves.

Now in a work of fiction, most of this doesn’t matter, first because fashion-sense varied then just as it does now, and, second, because how much detailed description of dresses do you really need to include? But if you say a gown has an empire waist, don’t also say that it accentuates the wearer’s waist because that’s… well, it annoys me and, more importantly, it might take your reader out of the story.

Mostly though, I just wanted to post pictures of pretty dresses.