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On this day in 1956, Diane premiered with Lana Turner making an epic try at historical romance. The production was a box-office bomb, but I’m all in for the stunning 16th-century (by way of the 1950s) costumes by Walter Plunkett!
The film’s plot plays fast and loose with the facts of Diane de Poitiers’ biography, boiling it down to a love triangle between Diane (played by Turner), Prince-later-King Henri (Roger Moore), and his wife Catherine de Medici (Marisa Pavan). The fiction isn’t terrible, if you don’t expect historical accuracy, and the acting by the female leads is rather good most of the time. But it’s the costumes that deliver — no, they aren’t historically accurate either, but what 1950s frock flicks get right that 2000s frock flicks tend not to is a certain opulence that really suits the 16th century.
When I look at films like Elizabeth (1998) and Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007), starring Cate Blanchett, one of the things that makes them look modern to me is the stripped-down aesthetic in the costumes. There’s a real lack of trimming, jewels, embroidery, and texture that are found in English / French / Italian court clothing of 1530s to 1600. Perhaps the only recent production that does show this depth of decoration accurately is the TV miniseries Elizabeth I (2005), starring Helen Mirren.
That level of ornamentation may be rare today, but it was a hallmark of historical movie productions in the old Hollywood studio system. There are numerous details in Diane‘s costumes that suggest Plunkett had done some historical research. Looking at the few portraits associated with Diane de Poitiers and of the French court in the 1530s-1550s, it’s easy to imagine he copied the general bodice shapes, hat styles, and added all those pearls and fur and gems. The color story is accurate too — Diane wears the black and white she was famous for, sometimes with her crescent moon icon. For contrast, Catherine de Medici wears envious green, plus Tuscan orange, red, and gold.
A rare portrait of Diane de Poitiers, from the atelier of Clouet.
Period image associated with Diane de Poitiers. The neckline, sleeves, and accessories all show up in the movie costume designs.
Said to be Catherine de Medici before she was widowed. This trim pattern is very reminiscent of the green gown Catherine wears in the film.
Catherine de Medici, 1555. All of this jeweling and trimming is reflected in the movie costumes.
MGM spared no expense on Diane, and Walter Plunkett lavished every costume with pearls, gems, metallic braids, furs, and more to achieve a rich appearance. While he’s better known for Gone With the Wind, he considered this film his best work. I agree, but I’m biased because the 16th century is my happy place. His gowns for Diane are obviously fitted in an 1950s fashion with pointy boobs instead of a 1540s-50s flattened cone-shaped bodice. But the colors, trim patterns, and overall lines and silhouettes are strikingly evocative of the period and even the hats are quite well done (no headband-with-hair-hanging-out or sticking-up-visor French hoods).
I couldn’t get good catalog and screencaps for all of Lana Turner’s 20+ costumes in the film or Marisa Pavan’s additional half-dozen, but I got as many as I could. Here goes!
Diane de Poitier’s Red Gown and Her Husband’s Silver Suit
At the start, Diane’s a faithful (if neglected) wife, and her and her husband’s outfits coordinate pleasingly.
Diane’s Green Gown and King Francis’ Blue Suit
At first, it looks like the king wants to hook up with Diane, but she’s modesty incarnate. Also, it’s only in these early scenes that she wears bright colors like this green.
Note the back of her French hood — most of the hoods look like this, with a sewn-up veil, usually of an opaque fabric. Which is pretty accurate for the period. Yay!
Catalog image of Diane’s gown. I question that strap / necklace thing — for a while, watching the scene, I thought it might be attached to her velvet cape, but nope, it’s attached to the dress. Weird.
Catalog image of King Francis’ suit.
I think this is a promo image from the scene, because he doesn’t remove his surcoat in the film. But it shows the suit nicely.
Diane’s White Gown
In a fictional turn of events, she pleads with the King not to execute her husband.
Promo image. The gown is worn for a pivotal scene, but mostly viewed from the back. It’s the first time Diane wears one of her signature colors (white).
Catalog image of the gown. It’s faded to yellow over time.
Closeup catalog image. So much detailed jewelry for such a short scene! Must have looked great in technicolor on the big screen.
Diane as Prince Henri’s Tutor
Diane teaches the prince how to be fancy (and they’re gonna fall in love). Look how he’s wearing proper court shoes, not boots!
Props to Plunkett for not putting Turner into boy clothes for the fencing scene! That would have been an easy cheat. Instead, she’s in shirt sleeves and has her long skirts tucked up.
Diane’s Black Dancing Gown With White Sleeves
Diane gives Henri dancing lessons (cue more romance). These costumes do move beautifully.
Promo image gives a better look at her gown’s sleeves — not period, but pretty!
Walter Plunkett’s design for the costume — the sleeves seem inspired more by medieval tippets than renaissance sleeves.
Diane’s Black Silver-Trimmed Gown
Gorgeous bling trim on the gown and hood. More 1950s than historical in design. Have I mentioned Lana Turner’s so-very Lana Turner platinum blonde hair and 1950s makeup yet? At least her hair is mostly covered throughout the movie.
Interesting scalloped edge on the otherwise Tudor turnback sleeves gives it a more medieval look. Plunkett mixing eras again.
Catherine de Medici’s Red Marriage Gown
Catherine rides into the scene with Henri after their marriage and just the top of this gown is shown.
Catalog image. No skimping here, even if the rest of this dress isn’t seen!
Catherine’s Pink Reception Gown
When the leading ladies first meet, Catherine wears this innocent, sweet pink and white outfit with rigid, bulky sleeves and skirt as she sits in state between her husband and father-in-law. Diane wears sparkling black. Contrast, much?
Catalog image of the pink gown, although missing the fur and petticoat.
Diane’s Sparkly Black Reception Gown
Way to meet your rival = head-to-to black glitter. “Are you a widow?” “No, I just want to bang your new husband. Bye!”
I could NOT get a decent screencap of this gown after a zillion tries. Just imagine all the black satin with a sparkly pettiocat and sleeve turnbacks. It’s magnificent, modern materials and sweetheart neckline notwithstanding
Diane’s Black Gown With Purple Sleeves
This simple, elegant gown is so obviously inspired by the actual portrait of Diane de Poitiers, I’d bet money on it.
Catalog image of the gown, looking a little worse for the wear, unfortunately.
Catherine’s Green Velvet Gown With Fur Sleeves
Just a little something I threw on to meet the chick I now know my husband is totally in love with. Is this sending a message? Ya think?
The gown on display. It may be the most elaborate costume in the film! So much trim on all those layers.
Closeup shows that those pearls are sewn on — no quickie glued-on jewels here. A ton of work went into this movie’s costumes.
Catherine toys with Diane — ‘will I poison you?’ Maybe, maybe not.
Diane and Henri Flaunt It
They are not subtle. Neither are their costumes.
Catalog image of Henri’s gold and black suit.
Catherine is not happy. But she’s wearing a gold lame ruff and partlet, so that’s something.
This is a promo image, but it’s evocative how they keep meeting up, professing their frustrated feelings, and kissing, while Catherine spies on them. Nice period cutwork on his white doublet
Catherine’s Orange Velvet Gown
This style is about 20 years later than the events of the film, but it would be great for that period.
Catherine’s Green Satin and Velvet Gown
Catherine gets accused of poisoning the Dauphin (Henri was the second son; this makes him King). Green is a suitably poisonous color, also evoking envy, this time of power and position, not just love. The design is a bit of a mashup for a period-oid affect.
Promo image shows a few more details.
Catalog image for full length.
Diane’s Black Traveling Gown With White Fur
She wears this elaborate outfit for a hot second onscreen, when returning to town and greeting Henri and Catherine’s boys, who call her “aunt.”
Could NOT get a good screencap because she just walks through the scene, never stands still. But get a load of all the trim!
The fur trim is so striking and really reminiscent of everything I’ve read about Diane de Poitiers’ fondness for black and white clothing.
William Plunkett’s design for this costume was the first image I ever saw from this movie and why I had to track it down. I was immediately in love! And a little disappointed that it turned out to be in such a throwaway scene.
Catalog image of the costume. Not as elaborate as Catherine’s green velvet gown, but still pretty amazing.
King Henri’s Feast Before the Final Tourney
It’s difficult to see any of the costumes in this scene, but it’s yet another example of tons of elaborate gowns shoved into throwaway scenes. OMG. Visual feast (see what I did there?). Also, note that the banner uses Diane de Poitier’s historical symbol of three entwined crescents since Henri has called her the “Queen of the Lists” for this tourney (which is a direct affront to his wife). Most of the heraldry in the film is fairly generic, using a lot of fleur-de-lys for French royalty, so it’s cool that they did use Diane’s actual symbol.
The Final Tourney
The movie — and Diane’s real history — ends with King Henri dying after fighting in a tourney. For this event, Catherine is Queen of the Sun, wearing gold and orange, Diane is Queen of the Moon in black and silver lame.
I know, shitty sceencaps, they were far away and moving too much, but this just gives an idea of their gowns.
Catherine’s Gold Tourney Gown
Her sleeves are encased in gems.
Diane’s Black and Silver Tourney Gown
She has a crescent moon on her cap and “D” motif at her bodice.
Catalog image of the gown. Either the silver has tarnished to gold over time or it looked different on film. Same for the black looking purple here.
Diane’s Black Mourning Gown
Promo image. Finally wearing black for mourning after Henri dies.
There is just barely enough story to hang these stunning costumes on, but Walter Plunkett worked like hell on this one!