My Cousin Rachel, 2017 Edition

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I keep hoping that Trystan will get around to watching the 2017 My Cousin Rachel, the new adaptation of the Daphne du Maurier gothic novel first adapted in 1952 with Olivia de Havilland, since this is the kind of tortured Victorian story she likes, but no dice. So, I’m reporting for duty, although let it be known that Tortured and/or Sad Victorians are not my bag. Hey, at least these ones are English … the French stories are worse!

So the basic set up is that in mid-Victorian England (the film is set in 1840), Philip is taken in by his uncle as a young child. He grows up adoring his guardian who, late in life and not too healthy, goes to Italy for “the cure.” There, Uncle meets and marries an Italo-Englishwoman named Rachel, and writes home to Philip about it. At first all goes swimmingly, then Uncle decides Rachel is trying to poison him and writes to Philip about it, then dies. Uncle has left everything to Philip, but Rachel turns up at the family homestead in England … and things get complicated.

As always, Rachel Weisz (The FountainAgora) turns in a thoughtful, nuanced performance as title character Rachel. I didn’t love all the plot twists the filmmakers came up with for her character (there’s some very UN-Victorian hanky-panky), but Weisz plays them well.

2017 My Cousin Rachel

Rachel Weisz as Rachel

Then you’ve got Sam Clafin as Philip. His performance was good, although the character was such a nitwit that I had a hard time enjoying him … Plus I spent most of the movie trying to decide where I knew him from.

2017 My Cousin Rachel

Sam Clafin as Philip, king of the nitwits

Color me semi-traumatized to realize he played Finnick in The Hunger Games:

Hunger Games

I’m sorry, I cannot take this man seriously.

Also, all of you Iain Glen fans should know he’s in this:

2017 My Cousin Rachel

Yes, from Game of Thrones and Wives and Daughters.

The costumes were designed by Dinah Collin (Pride and Prejudice 1995), and, in general, I thought she did a great job both with the characterizations and getting the details of 1840 costume right … with a few exceptions.

Collin told The Telegraph that they wanted to set the film very firmly in 1840, but they wanted to contrast Rachel, wearing up-to-the minute styles with the out-of-date locals:

“One of the things which came up in discussions was that we thought she should look like something from outer space to the Cornish locals. We went to the National Portrait gallery to establish where in the 19th century her style should be. We wanted her to look really elegant but also classic so we set her in the 1840s.” (My Cousin Rachel: the story behind Rachel Weisz’s hauntingly beautiful costumes)

2017 My Cousin Rachel

Rachel’s main mourning dress is very up-to-the-minute with the fitted sleeves, short oversleeve, and pointed V waistline. The shirred bodice front is also very 1840s-y.

A similar style of fitted sleeve can be seen in this 1840 fashion plate | Metropolitan Museum of Art

2017 My Cousin Rachel

Meanwhile, two well-off-ish local girls wear VERY mid-1830s style dresses with huge puffed sleeves and raised, round waistlines.

Would they really have been THIS out of date? By historical accuracy standards, it’s a bit much, especially given that the styles of 1836-9 would be easy achieve by stitching down those sleeves into pleats (or simply recutting and remaking the sleeves). But I can see that that wouldn’t have had as strong a contrast with Rachel, and they’re not on screen very long.

Compare 1834, with the huge sleeves… | Metropolitan Museum of Art

…with 1838, where the sleeves are generally pleated with a small puff further down. This would be a very easy alteration of those huge-sleeved gowns  | Metropolitan Museum of Art

Rachel’s wardrobe is, of course, characterized by her being in mourning. In addition to the dress above, she has a black riding habit:

2017 My Cousin Rachel

It’s a lovely cut.

2017 My Cousin Rachel

And, tone-on-tone stripes!

2017 My Cousin Rachel
2017 My Cousin Rachel

The main issue I had was that they put her in a black lace veil instead of a bonnet or hat WHILE RIDING. Which, NO. No Victorian lady would wear anything other than a hat for riding. Plus, practicalities — this sucker would blow right off!

Rachel also has a black evening gown with pretty sheer fabric at the neckline and lace at the sleeves, which she wears to a Christmas party. Collin says of the necklace:

“The pearls are a big subject matter. We had them made based on a painting we found from 1835. They were supposed to have been worn by his mother but we didn’t want it to be fussy.” (My Cousin Rachel: the story behind Rachel Weisz’s hauntingly beautiful costumes)

2017 My Cousin Rachel

Of course, since Rachel’s character is mysterious and dark, the fact that she’s wearing mourning allowed for some great, gothy veil usage:

2017 My Cousin Rachel

The primary issue I had with Rachel’s costumes was the fact that she came out of mourning waaaay too soon and in totally the wrong way. Victorian mourning had very set rules about length of time and the use of color. A widow should be in full black for two years, and there’s no way two years elapsed over the course of the film … and after “full mourning” would come “half mourning” in which one could wear grey or lavender, not suddenly bust out in fun colors as Rachel does. I can see how strong colors would read more as a contrast to a modern audience who wouldn’t know any of this, I’m just nitpicking here.

2017 My Cousin Rachel

Out of nowhere she goes from all-black to this cranberry and blue ensemble.

2017 My Cousin Rachel

Then rocks this blue dress.

Holliday Grainger (Tulip Fever, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, The Borgias, Great Expectations) plays Louise, the young woman who lives locally and is Philip’s friend and, most people assume, future wife. She’s all light colors, floral prints, and practical outfits as a strong contrast (healthy happy country girl!) to Rachel’s black (dark, tortured, mysterious woman):

2017 My Cousin Rachel

A lovely print and perfect style lines for the era, even if I have questions about the hair.

2017 My Cousin Rachel

Another light printed dress, more weird braids. Is she Pippi of Cornwall?

2017 My Cousin Rachel

A practical yet still light suit.

2017 My Cousin Rachel

She seemed awfully casually attired in this scene, given that there’s a MAN around (a may-an!).

There’s a nice behind-the-scenes featurette you can watch on YouTube that discusses the costumes:

 

Have you seen the latest My Cousin Rachel? What’s your take?

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About the author

Kendra

Website

Kendra has been a fixture in the online costuming world since the late 1990s. Her website, Démodé Couture, is one of the most well-known online resources for historical costumers. In the summer of 2014, she published a book on 18th-century wig and hair styling. Kendra is a librarian at a university, specializing in history and fashion. She’s also an academic, with several articles on fashion history published in research journals.

5 Responses

  1. Lisa

    Thanks for writing this. I love this story, but the film underwhelmed me. Costumes, however, were beautiful, and Rachel looked fantastic. 1830s sleeves look very silly to us, so I feel that was also a motive in dressing those girls.

    Reply
  2. Trystan L. Bass

    Philip is required to be an idiot in this story. At least, he was in the first movie. I haven’t read the book, but it does seem like a story that’s out to show, in a twisted, tragic way, that men are stupid when they get all suspicious about women.

    Reply
  3. Polly Fawlty

    du Maurier claimed in an interview that she wrote “My Cousin Rachel” as a way for emotional closure from two soured lesbian relationships She combined the two different
    women into “Rachel” and she herself embodied the character of “Philip” – which is why he appears so stupid and gushing – she was writing how she felt as a closeted and upper crust bisexual woman in the early 20th century.

    When you read the book with that in mind it makes more sense.

    Reply
  4. Alden O'Brien

    Interesting that Louise gets flared sleeves which don’t appear til the LATE 1840s, making her more up to date than Rachel. Two more nitpicks (but hey that’s what we do): that red and blue ensemble would never fly as a riding habit–VERY limited colors prescribed for those–like, forest green and black and MAYBE Navy. And, another reason the lace veil is absurd for riding is, it would be far too expensive to risk wearing for sport where it could get muddy or torn!

    Reply

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