Costume Designer Piero Tosi: The Frock Flicks Guide

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Admittedly, I haven’t seen many of the films that Piero Tosi designed costumes for. They’re all Italian, since he famously dislikes travel and has only worked in his native country even though he’s been working as a film costume designer since the 1950s. But images of his creations are everywhere, and they’re so exquisite, the costumes are often mislabeled as authentic historical garments, especially on Pinterest and Tumblr. You’ve probably seen his work without realizing it!

Early in his career, Piero Tosi began working with influential Italian director Luchino Visconti, who was part of the Neorealist movement in film. While movies made in that genre focused on the smaller-scale problems of the common people, the short-lived movement’s insistence on showing hyper-accurate locations, lighting, and how people looked carried over into the grand historical films Visconti began to make with Tosi as costume designer. The director and costumer were like-minded in dressing actors in garments as close to historically true costumes from the skin out. Tosi soon enlisted the tailoring house run by Umberto Tirelli to accomplish these goals, beginning a lifelong collaboration between Piero Tosi and Tirelli Costumi.

Piero Tosi

While Tosi hasn’t designed costumes for film in over a decade, he sometimes works in theater and opera while teaching in Italy. Also his influence continues today through his proteges such as costume designers Milena Canonero (Out of Africa, Marie Antoinette), Maurizio Millenotti (Immortal Beloved, The Happy Prince), and Gabriella Pescucci (The Age of Innocence, The Borgias). Let’s enjoy some of Piero Tosi’s fantastic historical costume work!

 

Senso (1954)

Senso (1954)

Set around 1866 during the Italian-Austrian war of unification.

Senso (1954)

Alida Valli plays an unhappily married countess, Rina Morelli is her lady’s maid.

Senso (1954) Senso (1954)

 

Careless (1962)

Careless (1962)

1920s bon vivants.

Careless (1962)

Claudia Cardinale as the ingenue … maybe.

Careless (1962)

Betsy Blair discovers entanglements.

 

The Leopard (1963)

The Leopard (1963)

The prince’s family.

The Leopard (1963)

The ball scene is filled with gorgeousness.

The Leopard (1963)

Reportedly, Claudia Cardinale was tightly corseted down from a natural waist measurement of 68cm to 53-54cm and had bruises after a month’s filming.

The Leopard (1963)

The 12 layers of organza for the original gown were provided by Dior. This is actually a exact reproduction made by Tirelli Costumi for display because the movie costume didn’t survive long after filming.

 

The Damned (1969)

The Damned (1969)

Charlotte Rampling as the matriarch of a wealthy German family that does business with the Nazis in the 1930s.

The Damned (1969)
The Damned (1969)

Ingrid Thulin is matriarch of another branch of the family.

The Damned (1969)

Helmut Berger is the deviant heir of the family fortunes who collaborates with the Nazis.

The Damned (1969)

The 1930s costumes in this film were seen as a contemporary fashion influence, according to trade magazine, Women’s Wear Daily.

 

Medea (1969)

Medea (1969)

Maria Callas

Medea (1969)

 

Death in Venice (1971)

Death in Venice (1971)

Based on the Thomas Mann novel and set in the 1910s, this film’s costumes are exquisite historical reproductions.

Death in Venice (1971)

Some of the white suits worn by Silvana Mangano (although not this one) were actual antique garments and vintage textiles were used when possible.

In Port Magazine, Piero Tosi remembers the starring actress in Death in Venice:

“Silvana Mangano had this unique gift of wearing a dress and turn it into something very special, thanks to her personality and incredible style.”

Death in Venice (1971)

 

Ludwig (1973)

Ludwig (1973)

Helmut Berger stars as King Ludwig II of Bavaria from age 18 till the king’s death.

Ludwig (1973)

Of course, there’s some magnificent coronation robes.

Ludwig (1973)

Romy Schneider reprises her role as Empress Elisabeth of Austria from the Sissi films to play Ludwig’s cousin.

Ludwig (1973)

On screen, this gown worn by Schneider appears more red; not sure if that’s due to lighting or the actual costume has faded.

Ludwig (1973)

Likewise, this ensemble appears reddish.

Ludwig (1973)

But is brilliant purple on display (it appears the same; note the embroidery and trims).

Piero Tosi, on finishing a complete costume in the LA Times:

“If the face and the hair are not right, then the costume really isn’t successful.”

 

The Night Porter (1974)

The Night Porter (1974)

OK, so sometimes no costume IS a costume. Piero Tosi created this iconic look for Charlotte Rampling in this 1950s-set Nazisploitation film.

 

L’Innocente (1976)

L'Innocente (1976)

Who says red and pink don’t go together?

L'Innocente (1976)

One of the gowns on display at Tirelli Costumi.

L'Innocente (1976)

Tosi’s sketch for a black ballgown in the same vein.

L'Innocente (1976) L'Innocente (1976)

 

Beyond Good and Evil (1977)

Beyond Good and Evil (1977)

Set in the 1880s, the film is about the “intense friendship” between 1880s between philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (Erland Josephson), psychoanalyst Lou Salomé (Dominique Sanda), and author Paul Rée (Robert Powell).

Beyond Good and Evil (1977)

 

Lady of the Camelias (1981)

Lady of the Camelias (1981)

Set in the 1830s.

Lady of the Camelias (1981)

Isabelle Huppert portrays the real courtesan Alphonsine Plessis, inspiration for a novel by Alexander Dumas.

Lady of the Camelias (1981)

Piero Tosi in Port Magazine, discussing his attitude toward historical research:

“I believe that an actor’s costume has to mirror the character wearing it, and also life. Therefore, it is especially important to know the historical period where the movie is set and to research into traditions.”

Lady of the Camelias (1981)

One of the costumes on display and in the film.

Lady of the Camelias (1981) Lady of the Camelias (1981)

 

La Traviata (1983)

La Traviata (1983)

A film version of the opera, with soprano Teresa Stratas.

La Traviata (1983)

And tenor Placido Domingo.

 

Sparrow (1993)

Sparrow (1993)

Set in the 1850s in Sicily.

Sparrow (1993)

One of the typical print gowns.

Sparrow (1993)

This white dress, worn by Mia Fothergill in the film, is often shown online as an authentic period gown, but it was designed by Piero Tosi and made by Tirelli Costumi.

 

 

What’s your favorite historical movie costume designed by Piero Tosi?

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About the author

Trystan L. Bass

Twitter Website

A self-described ElderGoth, Trystan has been haunting the internet since the early 1990s. Always passionate about costume, from everyday office wear to outrageous twisted historical creations, she has maintained some of the earliest online costuming-focused resources on the web. Her costuming adventures are chronicled on her website, TrystanCraft. She also ran a popular fashion blog, This Is CorpGoth, dedicated to her “office drag.”

18 Responses

  1. picasso Manu

    Set in 1330? My, my, late middle ages has never looked so frilly before! LOL

    And those are all magnificent. See, Hollywood, that’s what doing your homework and acting on it looks like.

    Reply
  2. Nzie

    These are just stunning. And that last gown in particular I love. Amazing! (And no shortage of hairpins for the most part, either!)

    Reply
      • Nzie

        it shows! can we, like, make an award and send it to him? and other worthy designers? I mean, these are just fantastic.

        Reply
  3. Andrew Schroeder

    Marcel Escoffier actually designed Alida Valli’s costumes in Senso, which is why they look more “Hollywood leading lady” than all the others which were designed by Tosi.

    Reply
  4. Amy Carolyn Watson

    Are the costumes in the first two pictures of Tosi designed by him for the theatre? Do you know what production they were for? They (as all of these) are incredible!

    Reply
      • hsc

        No, this was Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1969 film “Medea,” which was Callas’ only film. Piero Cicoletti and Gabriella Pescucci worked on the costumes as well.

        It’s on YouTube in an English-dubbed version.

        Reply
  5. Susan Pola Staples

    My favourites of Piero Tosi costumes are Il Gattopardo, Ludwig and L’Innocente. But all are so incredibly awe inspiring that I’m literally kneeling in adoration.
    He is the benchmark for costume designers as Mr Tosi dresses his actors including the extras from head to toe. They look right bc of this.

    Reply
  6. Melanie

    The Leopard is hands down one of the most gorgeous films ever. I think Coppola pulled a lot from it for The Godfather.

    Reply
    • A Reader

      I read in a book on clothing through the ages, about the film “The Leopard”, that some of the shots were composed so the people were arranged like they appear in contemporary paintings of that era. They really tried with the verisimilitude of that film. I was surprised how much I liked it, and I still remember it though I saw it many years ago. I was just entranced by watching it.

      Reply
  7. Kathleen Norvell

    I’ve actually seen a lot of thee films and remember the costumes fondly. I think my favorite is Ludwig. I’m so glad there is a designer out there who believes in head-to-foot design.

    Reply
  8. hsc

    Thank you for this look at Piero Tosi’s magnificent work. I saw a number of these films in the theater back at the time, and it was nice revisiting them.

    Reply
  9. Cheryl Washer

    I wish the male costumes in Il Gattopardo had received more coverage. Burt Lancaster as the patriarch had it all — the clothes, the posture, the hair. His character spoke so little during the performance (good thing as he was dubbed), yet his look, especially at the ball scene, conveyed so much emotion. One of my favorites, and it’s a hoot on the DVD extras to hear the director Sydney Pollack basically drool over Lancaster’s dressed by Tosi.

    Reply

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