The Danish Girl Gender Bends the 1920s

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There’s NO way you haven’t heard about The Danish Girl, the 2015 and currently-in-theaters movie about Danish artist Lili Elbe, who was born Einar Wegener, and realized she was transgender in 1920s Denmark. The movie is prime Oscar bait, tackling a fascinating subject but coming under some criticism for casting a cisgendered Eddie Redmayne in a transgendered role.

The movie is based on a fictionalized story of Lili Elbe’s life. Neither are completely true to the real story — you can read a great run-down of what’s real and what’s fiction at History Vs. Hollywood. I think the main thing is that they compressed the timeline into the 1920s, while the real Lili (then Einar) married in 1904.* Taking the movie on its own terms, I found it an interesting watch. The story is one of the few that I’ve seen to try to understand the transgender experience, although I’ve seen some criticisms of how that process is depicted. There was a lot of emphasis on Einar’s wife, Gerda’s, experience, which I found fascinating — although I was conflicted as to whether that detracted from Lili’s story. But I’m going to leave the politics to those in the transgender community, and move on to the costumes!

*I’m going to call Lili “Einar” and “he” for the brief period in the movie before she began to realize her gender identity, and “Lili” and “she” once that realization begins. I hope that this is appropriate and accurate to how Lili presented herself.

Costumes in The Danish Girl

The costumes were designed by Paco Delgado (Les Misérables, 2012), and the film is a shoo-in for Oscar nominations up the wazoo, so he’s done TONS of press talking about his designs. The film sets the story beginning in 1926 and then going through at least the late 1920s if not the early 1930s. Overall, I feel like the costume design and execution was very nicely done from a character standpoint but had a few misses in terms of the historical period.

Despite The Danish Girl being a fictionalized take on Lili Elbe’s story, the filmmakers aimed to be true to the real history. When asked about challenges, costume designer Paco Delgado said in one interview, “One of the most difficult ones was being faithful to the story and being respectful to the real Lili; she wasn’t a fictional character, she was somebody who really existed” (Paco Delgado on Dressing “The Danish Girl”: “We Were All Contained by the Bravery of Lili”). I found that an interesting take, given that as you’ll see below, only about 50% of the costumes looked like they were actually IN the late 1920s. We’ll come back around to this point!

When we first meet Einar, Delgado dressed lead actor Redmayne in very tightly fitted, structured, high-collared suits. Delgado said, “Lili was entrapped, that body had to be like a prison for her. And one of the ways we did this was by making a restrained, highly formal costume for Einar, almost an armor” (“The Danish Girl” Costumer Explains Transforming Eddie Redmayne Into Lili Elbe). Although he seems natural, Einar comes across as very restrained physically.

The Danish Girl (2015)

Tightly fitted, high-collared, pinstriped suits are Einar’s key look.

The Danish Girl (2015)

Sans jacket but still buttoned-up.

This works well, character-wise, and seems to align with how the real Einar dressed:

Lili Elbe, 1929, Wellcome Collection.

Lili Elbe, 1929, Wellcome Collection.

The pivotal moment in which Lili begins to realize her true gender identity comes when Gerda asks her to fill in as a model for a portrait that she needs to finish. This is the only costume that was reproduced from reality (Paco Delgado on Dressing “The Danish Girl”: “We Were All Contained by the Bravery of Lili”).

The Danish Girl (2015)

Lili posing for Gerda’s ballerina portrait.

The fabulous thing as a lover of costume porn is that Lili’s process is partially shown through her attraction to feminine clothing. So you get a lot of great close-ups of things like stockings, shoes, and dresses — in particular during this modeling scene. Delgado told Women’s Wear Daily, “That moment really happened in the book [biography “Man Into Woman”] … The whole thing about the stockings was the element of a thing that really awakens something Lili had inside and had been suppressing for so long” (“The Danish Girl” Costumer Explains Transforming Eddie Redmayne Into Lili Elbe).

The Danish Girl (2015)

Lili likes these beaded mules, and so do I!

For a large part of the story, Gerda supports Lili’s gender exploration. Lili’s first outing as a woman is at a ball, at which she’s dressed in a very dramatic dress (lots of draped layers) but in subtle colors.

The Danish Girl (2015)

And here’s where I want to start talking about Gerda’s wardrobe as well, because here’s what confused me from a historical standpoint: “They were living a very restrictive, highly morally restrictive society in Copenhagen at the time and we, at the beginning especially, we created for for Gerda and Lili, these high collars, very tailored and really restricted palette with blues and blacks and grays, very like Edwardian fashion [emphasis mine]” Paco Delgado on Dressing “The Danish Girl”: “We Were All Contained by the Bravery of Lili”). Okay, so the designer was trying to show the repression of Lili and Gerda’s lives in Denmark by leaning the costuming a bit more Edwardian. But as I’ve ranted about before, don’t tell me your movie is set in a particular year and then ignore that year in your costumes. If it’s 1926, WHY are there all these natural (and fitted) waistlines?

The Danish Girl (2015)

Both Lili and Gerda’s ball dresses emphasize their natural waists. This is so NOT 1926.

The Danish Girl (2015)

And, okay, Delgado specifically says he was influenced by designer Jeanne Lanvin and her theatrical robe de style styles. Here’s an example of one of her dresses in 1926, and yeah, it’s got a strong natural waistline:

Robe de Style, Jeanne Lanvin, 1926

Robe de Style, Jeanne Lanvin, 1926. The Indianapolis Museum of Art.

Robe de Style, Jeanne Lanvin, 1926

But here’s what most 1926 fashions looked like:

1926 fashion advertisement

1926 fashion advertisement – French evening wear.

1926 fashion plate

1926 fashion plate – American daywear.

Sure, not everyone dresses in the most cutting-edge styles. But while Lili often looks like she stepped out of the early 1920s:

The Danish Girl (2015) The Danish Girl (2015)

… Gerda looks like she’s in 1918-19. Now, I really LIKE 1918-19, and so I quite loved her wardrobe. Just, it’s not 1926, or even 1924, or 1922, or…

The Danish Girl (2015)

Gerda (left) in a beautiful beaded navy party dress — with a 1918-19 silhouette.

The Danish Girl (2015)

Natural, fitted waist.

1919 fashion plate

Compare Gerda’s dress with this 1919 fashion plate.

Gerda also wears a lot of fitted, natural-waisted suits:The Danish Girl (2015)

A much more appropriately-dressed (timeline-wise) character is the couple’s friend, dancer Ulla. She has a very colorful, theatrical wardrobe that Delgado based on the Orientalist designs of Paul Poiret: “We thought out of all of the characters she was a very Paul Poiret, sort of like fashion character” (Paco Delgado on Dressing “The Danish Girl”: “We Were All Contained by the Bravery of Lili”).

The Danish Girl (2015)

Ulla in multi-colored velvet with scarf and beads.

The Danish Girl (2015)

Color!

The Danish Girl (2015)

Stunning gold party dress.

The Danish Girl (2015)

With a fabulous drape at the bottom.

In the second half of the movie, Lili and Gerda move to Paris, where both of their wardrobes modernize. According to Women’s Wear Daily, in “Paris, a place of a ‘more open, accepting society,’ Delgado shifted to brighter colors and more fluid fabrics” (“The Danish Girl” Costumer Explains Transforming Eddie Redmayne Into Lili Elbe).

Probably the best example of this is the mustard-and-print ensemble that Lili wears:

The Danish Girl (2015)

Looser fit, and great colors with the red hair.

The Danish Girl (2015)

Hey look, it’s a proper, late 1920s loose, dropped waistline!

The Danish Girl (2015)

Gerda also gets more colorful and late-1920s-appropriate.

The Danish Girl (2015)

This print is gorgeous.

The Danish Girl (2015)

Although it’s not all bright colors…

Some of the most interesting outfits were the suits that Lili wore in Paris that seemed to represent an in-between moment for Einar and Lili. The looks were gender neutral, which gets Lili into trouble, and I thought they did a great job creating an androgynous, 1920s-appropriate look.

The Danish Girl (2015)

One of Lili’s gender-neutral suits.

The Danish Girl (2015)

And another.

And when Lili heads off to Germany to begin the operations that will physically change her gender, she has a FAAAAABULOUS printed green velvet ensemble.

The Danish Girl (2015)

SO GORGEOUS.

Near the end of the film, Lili and Gerda return to Copenhagen, and Lili’s look mellows out a bit as she becomes more comfortable in public.

The Danish Girl (2015)
The Danish Girl (2015)

It’s sweet to see Lili get a job in a department store and be “just one of the girls.”

Gerda also sticks with the late-1920s, dropped-waist silhouette:

The Danish Girl (2015)

A few thoughts about the hair: in general, I liked the styling. In Denmark, Gerda has long hair that she always wears up in a nice 1920s faux-bob.

The Danish Girl (2015)

At home, when she has her hair down, she has awfully modern, beachy waves … but this is a quibble, as she never goes out with her hair like this.The Danish Girl (2015)

Lili begins in a bright auburn wig, but eventually grows out her own hair into a nice, waved bob. According to an article in Vogue, “Many transgender women have said they experienced a period of hyperfeminization when they first appeared publicly as female — ‘It’s your first moment to express yourself,’ Redmayne says — and [makeup artist Jan] Sewell decided that Lili would wear the loud wig at first. (Later, as the character settles into womanhood, Redmayne’s wigs grow more naturalistic.)” (Eddie Redmayne on Transforming into The Danish Girl).

The Danish Girl (2015)

Auburn wig.

The Danish Girl (2015)

Probably a wig on Redmayne, but meant to be Lili’s own hair grown out.

Finally, there’s been a ton of great press interviewing costume designer Paco Delgado. Beyond the articles mentioned above, here are a few more that are worth reading if you’re interested in the film:

And finally, I just need to mention that my favorite actor in the movie was Pixie the Jack Russell, who was in scene after scene and totally stole the show as far as I’m concerned!

The Danish Girl (2015)

HOW CAN I FOCUS ON ANYTHING WHEN THIS LITTLE FACE IS LOOKING AT ME??!!

If you’re a dork like me, you can learn more about Pixie in this video:

So, if you’re interested in the 1920s and/or the history of gender, or you want to be up on what is so obviously going to be nominated for a Best Costume Design Oscar, check out The Danish Girl!

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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.

19 Responses

  1. opusanglicanum

    I honestly have little patience with the fuss over who gets the role, casting goes to who has most potential. I find this almost as pathetic as the fact that some countries have banned the film for its subject. the costumes do look interesting though

    Reply
    • NPHooks

      “casting goes to who has most potential”

      Sure it does. Just ask the people of color who continue to be snubbed by Hollywood.

      “I find this almost as pathetic as the fact that some countries have banned the film for its subject.”

      Finding people rightfully outraged by transphobic casting (“trans women are really men, so let’s cast a cis male actor as one of the most famous trans women in history!”) as “pathetic” as transphobic countries is… certainly your prerogative. But false equivalency and a broad indifference to history sure seem out of a place on a comment on a blog about historical accuracy.

      Reply
      • opusanglicanum

        It’s pathetic because narrow-mindedness is always pathetic. If you say that only a transgender actor can play a transgender role, then by definition you’re also saying that that same transgender actor can only ever play transgender roles, and they can never take a role as a straight man, a gay woman, etc. It’s the same as saying that the only shakespearian role a black actor can have is Othello, never Macbeth.

        to act is to become something you’re not, to find sympathy, commonality, but to become other than oneself. acting is about becoming fluid, other, about letting the role and the director shape you into something new. So if you say that an actor can only play something they already are, then you’re saying they can’t act, and that you have no idea what acting actually is.

        Reply
        • NPHooks

          “It’s pathetic because narrow-mindedness is always pathetic.”

          It’s interesting that you classify it as “narrow-mindedness” to make sure that trans actors, an overlooked marginalized group, get to play trans characters rather than a cisgender actor who has more options.

          “It’s the same as saying that the only shakespearian role a black actor can have is Othello, never Macbeth.”

          That’s blatant false equivalency, as you’re claiming that the whitewashing that takes place in Hollywood (and elsewhere in media) to deny Black actors and all actors of color opportunity is the same as saying that a marginalized character (in this case, a trans woman) should be played by a actor from the same marginalized group (in this case, a trans woman).

          “So if you say that an actor can only play something they already are, then you’re saying they can’t act, and that you have no idea what acting actually is.”

          You’re being deliberately obtuse about this and about casting as a whole. It’s less about the acting ability and more about casting and who is called upon to display that acting ability.
          Should a great, talented white actor get to play a Black role, particularly when it’s a famous Black person, like Martin Luther King jr, even if that actor is talented? Absolutely not. Because Black actors get few enough chances as it is. The same goes for trans actors, to say nothing of the fact a cisgender man is being cast as a trans woman (if they’re going to cast a cisgender person, why not at least a cisgender WOMAN? Oh right, because that doesn’t support the ignorant mindset that trans people aren’t ~really~ the gender they say they are, they’re whatever gender cis people call them).

          There are a great number of extremely talented trans actresses that have little enough opportunity and that deserve to have this role over Eddie Redmayne.

          Reply
          • NPHooks

            Since for some reason it’s not letting me reply to your comment, I have to reply to my own.

            I was really stepping away from this because I try to keep my debates on particular forums (both online and otherwise) and enjoy Frock Flicks for lulz, reviews, and people that wonderfully nitpick historical accuracy in costuming as much as I do. However, the Frock Flicks team is smartly socially aware and sharp in their reviews (such as The Help and this one, for two examples that immediately spring to mind) in noting bigoted tropes, problematic casting, and other pieces of injustice. Given that that retelling of history is frequently a highly politicized affair (the series about why historical inaccuracies happen gets into some of this, particularly the failings of proper historical education), this is bound to happen and I’m really glad to see the authors on this site address it.

            “So these extremely talented trans actresses you mention- do they audition exclusively for trans roles?”

            Do Black actors audition exclusively for Black roles? Absolutely not, nor should they! Should a Black actors be the only ones considered for Black roles? Absolutely! Same principle applies here.

            I’m going to offer some reading that articulates better than I can why trans women should play trans women (and cis men shouldn’t):

            When Will Hollywood Let Trans Actors Play Trans Characters?

            The Danish Girl’s Intentions are Good — But Trans People Deserve Better

            While Heartfelt, “The Danish Girl” Recycles Tired Trans Tropes

            “The Danish Girl” Has An Emotional Hole at Its Heart.

            Shallow Progress: What “The Force Awakens” and “The Danish Girl” Have in Common

            White Cisman Hires Same to Play Trans Woman (Again)

            Reply
          • opusanglicanum

            And you can’t see how your affirmative answer to my question reduces all your other arguments to the “because I say so, so there!” Of a spoilt toddler?

            Talent is no guarantee of success. There are plenty of talented actors of all flavours who never get thier big break, it’s just tough, it’s how the real world works and grown ups learn to cope. If these people of whom you speak really are as talented as you say they are did it occur to you that perhaps they’d rather get a job because of that talent rather than because of thier identification?

            Complaining about discrimination then demanding others be discriminated against just doesn’t do anyone any favours.

            Reply
          • NP

            Let’s see here… I’m presenting information, via perspectives from this group of marginalized people, including how this casting hurts their community.

            YOU’RE presenting false equivalencies and name-calling.

            Read the articles, because I know you haven’t.

            Reply
          • NP

            ADDENDUM:
            then demanding others be discriminated against

            Uh, was this about “discriminating” against cis actors by saying that trans characters should only be played by trans actors and that it’s really problematic to cast a cis man as a trans woman? THAT’S “discrimination” to you? Yeah, you didn’t read the articles I provided. Please do so and educate yourself.

            Reply
          • opusanglicanum

            I’m actually trying to argue for true equality, which you can’t have if certain groups are excluded on the basis of gender/ race. Which is what you’re advocating by saying only a trans actor should be allowed to play a trans part, but that same actor can also play cis

            I assure you’ve i ve read the argument, but I’m capable of having my own mind.

            I don’t suppose you’ve read today’s article about the like of tatchel, Greer, and beard being banned from speaking in universities because neo liberal entitlement means people cannot bear a dissenting opinion to thier own. Tatchel equates it to Stalinism.

            Bored now

            Reply
          • NPHooks

            “I’m actually trying to argue for true equality”

            No, you’re arguing for the reinforcement of privilege. “True equality” only comes when we recognize that not all groups have been or continue to be treated equally and take measures to correct that.

            “I assure you’ve i ve read the argument, but I’m capable of having my own mind.”

            Uh, given that I provided the links to six different articles, you haven’t read “the argument”, you would’ve read (if you’d read them) SIX arguments, seven if you count my own. Your “own mind” is capable of clinging to your prejudice and bigotry and preserving your own privilege and entitlement (“if marginalized groups get ‘special treatment’ because they’re so marginalized, what will become of these poor oppressed cis actors!!!”).

            “neo liberal entitlement means people cannot bear a dissenting opinion to thier own”

            Thanks for showing your hand. Hilarious that you pot the kettle black when it comes to “entitlement”.

            “Tatchel equates it to Stalinism.”

            Tatchel is apparently unaware that Stalin used to torture and murder people, but this is again the same sort of ridiculous false equivalency and persecution complex that you’ve displayed throughout what I’ll generously call this debate.

            Look, I can present you with the correct information and why what you’re saying is bigoted and transphobic, but I can’t force you to apply critical thinking.

            This has gone on far too long (damn my need to educate!), so let’s leave it here.

            If the last word is important to you, it is yours. Have a pleasant day.

            Reply
          • opusanglicanum

            The quote you label me pot kettle black for was from the article, not from me. I thought you might have found the article interesting because they interviewed a lot of people who’ve done so much for feminism and gay rights etc than you or I ever will.

            And you can label me trans phobic for believing in equality if that’s what you need to do. ( you nothing about me) but to the day I die I will believe that all animals are equal. I will never believe that some animals are more equal than others( and nor do any of my friends in the lgbt community, possibly because they are all old, wise, and somewhat jaded)

            Nobody is such a special little snowflake that they deserve to get what they want handed to them on a plate

            Reply
  2. decrepitelephone

    This movie is on my list of things to see – for the subject matter but also for the fact that a friend of mine did some embroidery work on one of the pieces in the film – although I’m not sure if it made it into the final movie – his work is exquisite and he’s a fun guy on top of that as well – so I just want to give a little shout out to him: https://www.facebook.com/JoeMitchellEmbroideries

    And I have to completely agree about the green velvet ensemble – it’s like… to die for gorgeous.

    Reply
  3. Sarah Lorraine

    I just finished mainlining “The Pillars of the Earth” and now I want to do nothing but watch Eddie Redmayne forever in everything. Tom Hiddleston better watch out.

    Reply
  4. Susan Pola

    I had this movie on my ‘Movies to Definitely See’ list. I knew it was going to have great acting, it has Eddie Redmayne in it, but also for the subject matter. The costumes put it now up after Joy. (Major move, taking care of sick mother and catching her cold & cough, have delayed my seeing Joy).

    Pixie is adorable.

    Reply

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