Thursday, 20 June 2013

Period Fancy Dress

I'm a little bit obsessed with period fancy dress, especially when they dress up in the costumes another period. To me there's something endlessly fascinating about the blending of two periods as one era blends historic ideas with their contemporary aesthetic.

Take this photo of Prinzessin Viktoria von Preussen aka “Moretta” from the 1880s.The silhouette and neckline is unmistakeably 1880s, but the frills, sleeves and pannier skirt loops (without the shaping undergarments) show us that she is dressing in her interpretation of a Rococo costume. What I particularly like is the hair, the front curls are very late Victorian, but the height is, what we would call, Rococo 'inspired'.

Here is a dress from the 1760s, the sort of style she is imitating
This is an 1880s evening gowns from Charles Worth, the style she might have worn to a normal evening party.

Here's a few more period fancy dress gowns:

Princess Louise of England in rococo costume. 1865 - note the 1860s crinoline: once again the silhouette is entirely contemporary, but the hair is more authentic and she has the elbow length sleeve with lace. I wish we could see the front!

Queen Maude of Norway does 17th C style fancy dress 1897. I love the fabric choice here but the proportions look so odd with the the large shoulders and narrow skirt: much more 1890s the 17th Century. The collar is superb though.

A Lady's 17th C Dutch servant girl fancy dress - Charles Worth C1900. This costume feels very romanticised fairy tale character, and apart from the severe corseting, not unlike the sort of thing you would find in a Simplicity pattern

It seems that it's hardest for Victorians to accurately interpret pre-1800 costumes, when the corsets were more angular and petticoats more dramatic. The dead giveaway though is the Victorian curved corsets, as opposed to the straighter style used in previous decades.

Not everyone would have had family portrait galleries to use as inspiration. Here's some fashion sketches for fancy dress parties that would have been available, much like we would use fashion magazines for inspiration. They've done a pretty respectable job with the ones below.

1845 Fancy Dress Costume of 1700s
Duchess of Devonshire from 'Fancy Dresses Described; or, What to Wear at Fancy Balls,' by Hold, Ardern, 1896

Dress of Tudor Period from 'Fancy Dresses Described; or, What to Wear at Fancy Balls,' by Hold, Ardern, 1896
For me part of the fun is dating the actual period when the costume was designed. I like this one, because I don't know the date. I'm guessing it's probably from the 1870s or 1880s trying to do Elizabethan, soldier, and I can't even hazard a guess on the pink gown. I'm tempted to say Moulin Rouge, but given that she appears to be a child, it doesn't seem appropriate.

Please don't think I'm criticising these costumes, if anything I'm admiring them. This is the real anthropology of costumes, an insight into how previous periods perceived other eras. We romanticise the fashions of Victorian times, who in turn also romanticised previous periods. And we are no means immune to editing period fashions to suit contemporary ideals (but that's a post for another day).

This one below is my absolute favourite: Yes that does say Marie Antoinette period: she is of course famous for her leg-o-mutton sleeves. There is a slight nod to a panier petticoat and split front skirt but apart from that there is no resemblance to anything Marie Antoinette would have worn. Perhaps there was a different Marie Antoinette who lived in 1895???

Thursday, 6 June 2013

Titanic: Switched at Birth Part II

Regular readers will know I'm fascinated about where the line falls in costume design between being inspired by others designs and creativity. After my post on the similarities between Amidala and the Cobra Woman you'll understand my excitement when the picture below appeared in my facebook feed yesterday.

1912, Les Modes (Paris)
Tailored suit for the afternoon by Linker & Co.
Kate Winslet as Rose in Titanic
Costume design by Deborah L. Scott

Obviously they are the 'same' outfit, but equally obviously changes have been made. I much prefer Scott's use of black on the collar and the stiff man shirt collar and tie underneath, very necessary for a film costume where the area framing the face is the most important part. Equally I think her skirt is a much neater, geometric shape and the thinner stripe of the fabric is much cleaner. However I do think something has been lost in the sizing down of the buttons, and while I think it was a wise costume design choice to lose the fur trim, I am an absolute sucker for vintage fur and part of me is disappointed by the choice to remove it. Almost unbelievably, Winslet's (or should I say Scott's) massive hat appears to be a scaled down version of the original, but is a much more opulent design.

I was blown away by how beautiful this ensemble (the Titanic one) was when I saw it at the V&A Hollywood Costume Exhibition. My major memory of this look is the famous shot of that amazing hat as her head turns to reveal her face, but the actual outfit below the neck is far more striking.

While studying I was lucky enough to be taught a class in costume design by Australian costume designer Margot Williams - probably most famous for costuming 'The Proposition' (2005). She used a moderately successful horror film that she worked on called 'Ghost Ship' (2002) as an example piece for us. The IMDB blurb for the film reads as follows: A salvage crew that discovers a long-lost 1962 passenger ship floating lifeless in a remote region of the Bering Sea soon notices, as they try to tow it back to land, that "strange things" happen... 

 If you're not too squeamish, here's the opening sequence of the film on YouTube. And believe me when I tell you that working with both vintage styling and blood together is the sort of thing most costume and makeup professionals dream about (as long as they don't think about the stressful practicalities too much). Not being a fan of the horror genre, I wasn't that interested in the rest of the film, but I love the opening 4 1/2 minutes.

I'm not unaware of the similarities between the two films: ocean liner where majority on board die, modern day crew revisit the remains... a happy coincidence used to illustrate my point.

Because of the practicalities all the 1962 costumes had to be made from scratch. Noone wants to get blood (even of the fake variety) on vintage clothing, but also they needed multiples: clean ones, bloody ones, half ones (or sometimes both halves at the same time for different actors) and whole ones.

I remember her telling us that she did extensive research into designs and styles of the period, and then drew all the dresses from memory without any first hand material in front of her to distract her. All the designs, though inspired by historical accuracy, were her own.

That has always stuck with me as how good costume design works. In theory.

However in practice it's never that simple.

How is copying a vintage design any different from choosing and styling an actual vintage piece from hundreds of other pieces, because it perfectly suits your vision? Or even buying a dress from the high street for an actress to wear? 

Scott made some very conscious decisions on customising the dress to suit her purposes. Nobody could accuse her of making a direct copy. But it's definitely an 'inspired by' piece. Either way it's fascinating to see the inspiration.

What are your thoughts? Is this clever costume design or downright plagiarism?