Frock Flicks Guide to Costume Designer Cecil Beaton

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Cecil Beaton was many things, and in some ways, the least of them was “costume designer,” especially historical movie costume designer. His artistic life began with photography as a child, and the vast majority of his career was consumed by fashion, royalty, and society photography, with some war photography thrown in for World War II. He took the official wedding photographs of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor on rather short notice, and he took portraits of Queen Elizabeth II on her coronation day, among other things.

In the 1930s, Beaton started designing costumes and sets for theater and film, and his most successful work tends to have been in historical settings. He won Tony awards for Best Costume Design for the 1870s-set Quadrille (1955) and the 1912-set My Fair Lady (1957). The later, of course, lead to Beaton working on the film version, which he won both an Academy award for Best Costume Design and for Best Art Direction.

Having studied history, art, and architecture at Cambridge, Cecil Beaton did bring an understanding of historical shapes and styles to his costume work. He also brought his photographer’s eye for drama, and he knew how to make a particular actress look insanely good in clothes on film, regardless of what the historical style might have dictated. His work has a fashion designer’s stamp more than a historian’s — he creates clothing art to tell a historical story, but he does not recreate historical clothing. Sometimes this works beautifully, sometimes not. Like any art, it’s up for interpretation!

 

 

The Remarkable Mr. Kipps (1941)

Cecil Beaton - The Remarkable Mr. Kipps (1941)

Hard to find much about this black-and-white film with an Edwardian setting.

Cecil Beaton - The Remarkable Mr. Kipps (1941). Photo by Almay.

Photo by Almay.

 

 

The Young Mr. Pitt (1942)

Cecil Beaton - The Young Mr. Pitt (1942)

Biopic of William Pitt the Younger, British Prime Minister at the time of the French Revolution, Napoleon, & the Battle of Trafalgar.

Cecil Beaton - The Young Mr. Pitt (1942)

Shiny!

 

On Approval (1944)

Cecil Beaton - On Approval (1944)

A romantic comedy set in the late Victorian period.

Cecil Beaton - On Approval (1944)

With some fabulous gowns! Check out all that embroidery — even in black & white, it looks amazing.

 

Beware of Pity (1946)

Cecil Beaton - Beware of Pity (1946)

This sounds like a total downer of a flick — a man takes pity on a woman in a wheelchair, she falls in love, he’s not into her, she commits suicide.

Cecil Beaton - Beware of Pity (1946)

The film is set right before World War I begins, in the 1910s.

Cecil Beaton - Beware of Pity (1946). Photo by Shutterstock.

Photo by Shutterstock.

 

An Ideal Husband (1947)

Cecil Beaton - An Ideal Husband (1947)

I wish I could find / get screencaps of the actual film instead of just promo pix because it’s in full technicolor!

Cecil Beaton - An Ideal Husband (1947)

The costumes look rich & elaborate, even though they were made in post-WWII London when rationing was still going on so getting enough fabrics was difficult.

Cecil Beaton - An Ideal Husband (1947)

Reportedly, Cecil Beaton used his own Brussels net curtains for one gown (not sure which).

Cecil Beaton - An Ideal Husband (1947)
Cecil Beaton - An Ideal Husband (1947)

While much of the 1890s fashions work, sometimes a very 1940s piece slips in.

Cecil Beaton - An Ideal Husband (1947)
Cecil Beaton - An Ideal Husband (1947)

Check out full-color clips of the film on TMC.

 

Anna Karenina (1948)

Cecil Beaton - Anna Karenina (1948)

Cecil Beaton designed the costumes for Anna Karenina & An Ideal Husband back to back — both were by the same producer & were made in the same studio.

Cecil Beaton - Anna Karenina (1948)

This is the gown worn underneath that velvet shawl.

Cecil Beaton - Anna Karenina (1948)

This gown is pale lilac (although the movie was filmed in black & white).

Cecil Beaton - Anna Karenina (1948)

Side view of the ‘lilac’ gown.

Cecil Beaton - Anna Karenina (1948)

*Swoon!*

Cecil Beaton - Anna Karenina (1948) Cecil Beaton - Anna Karenina (1948)

 

 

Gigi (1958)

Gigi (1958)

Leslie Caron starts the movie in this ‘schoolgirl’ plaid outfit.

Cecil Beaton - Gigi (1958)

Catalog image of the costume.

Gigi (1958)

Aunt Alicia (Isabel Jeans) wears a lot of pink!

Cecil Beaton - Gigi (1958)

The gown on display (colors can shift due to lighting, age, or monitors, of course!).

best costume oscar
Cecil Beaton - Gigi (1958)

Another of her pink gowns, catalog image.

Gigi (1958)
Gigi (1958)

Gigi’s ballgown.

Cecil Beaton - Gigi (1958)

Gigi’s final costume — a modern fantasy version of 1900s.

 

The Doctor’s Dilemma (1958)

Cecil Beaton - The Doctor's Dilemma (1958)

Another film I have no interest in watching! A doctor in 1906 London decides whether or not to save a dying artist, thinking his wife (Leslie Caron) would make “a darling widow.”

Cecil Beaton - The Doctor's Dilemma (1958)

Also, the costumes are weird — one bit is standard Edwardian, then Caron’s character gets all “artsy,” I guess?

Cecil Beaton - The Doctor's Dilemma (1958)

No clue.

 

 

My Fair Lady (1964)

My Fair Lady (1964)

Cecil Beaton & Audrey Hepburn

My Fair Lady (1964)

Well obviously.

My Fair Lady (1964)

Here’s a hot take: Cecil Beaton’s designs are often the Bridgerton costumes of their day. My Fair Lady is the ultimate example.

My Fair Lady (1964)

He takes period shapes & stylizes the hell out of them, using his own visual language to create a world that makes sense within itself.

My Fair Lady (1964)

You can see the historical references; but these are not historically accurate costumes in a historical story.

My Fair Lady (1964)

And sometimes it works!

 

 

On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (1970)

Cecil Beaton - On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (1970)

And maybe sometimes it doesn’t! Or at least, this hasn’t aged well — it draws a lot from then-contemporary fashion as much as English Regency.

Cecil Beaton - On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (1970)

Here, it’s the hair. From the neck down, this makes sense.

Cecil Beaton - On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (1970)

And you know Beaton was going for the neoclassical Portrait of Madame Récamier by Jacques-Louis David from 1800. The costume would be reasonable if not for THAT HAIR.

Cecil Beaton - On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (1970)

Yeah, Bridgerton is nothing new!

 

 

 

What’s your favorite historical costume movie designed by Cecil Beaton?

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About the author

Trystan L. Bass

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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.”

21 Responses

  1. Constance

    Several of these films are on Youtube…could not find The Doctor’s Dilemma though…darn.

    Reply
  2. Lori427

    You need to add “Bonus: Christopher Plummer in a velvet jacket” on that one “Husband” still. Because: CP!

    Reply
  3. the StoryEnthusiast

    LOVE the comparison to Bridgerton. Great point.
    I just finished watching On Approval recently. Such a witty film about relations between men and woman. Sarcastic and funny.
    Also, the white dress Paulette Goddard has on in The Ideal Husband instantly reminded me of the on Leslie Caron wears in Gigi. So many similarities.

    Reply
  4. susan l eiffert

    Those garments on Caron in the non-Gigi flick appear to be emulating the avant garde free flowing dresses designed by Klimt for Emilie Floge, and by designers from the Wiener Werkstatte.

    Reply
  5. MsNomi

    Although very Bridgerton-like, I adore all of Steisand’s costumes in On A Clear Day. But then, I adore all of Lady Danbury’s costumes in Bridgerton.

    Reply
    • M.E. Lawrence

      I really like Streisand’s Clear Day costumes, too. The hair in that last shot wouldn’t be bad if there were about 60% less of it; the French liked those curly little “classical” dos.

      Reply
      • Dancergal

        I also love Streisand’s costumes. As an aesthetic device he piled her hair high to balance her rather sizeable nose. In some of the costumes one can see how wide her back is which denotes large lungs. It’s one of the reason’s she can sustain such long notes and it gives her voice great power. Sorry but I’m a huge fan of hers. I’ve loved her since I first heard her voice when I was 10 years old.

        Reply
  6. Boxermom

    Every time I see anything Gigi-related, I can’t help but think of Tom & Lorenzo’s review. Hilarious!

    Reply
  7. Sharon in Scotland

    Beware of Pity and Anna Karenina are SO depressing, I wouldn’t watch even with Cecil Beaton’s lovely costumes.

    Reply
  8. Lily Lotus Rose

    Honestly, 99% of the women’s costumes are much of a muchness, in my opinion. That said, some of the costumes on Vivien Leigh from Anna Karenina are my faves pictured here. The men’s costumes are more appealing to me–maybe because they’re not SO over the top. Plus, Louis Jourdan (in the Gigi pic) always looked good in anything. Regarding the My Fair Lady costumes…I’m getting an Erte vibe. Like Louis Jourdan, Audrey Hepburn always looked good in anything.

    Reply
    • Roxana

      Audrey supposedly loved Beaton’s costumes so much she voluntarily posed in those Ascot outfits.

      Reply
  9. Martina

    The white satin Gigi ball gown looks like Madame X in reverse for me, so I love it.

    I worked in a theatre sophomore year in college, and the touring company of My Fair Lady (with Rex Harrison!) was one of the shows. The costumes were the Cecil Beaton designs, and they were glorious. So, so, beautiful.

    Reply
  10. Addie

    The Anna Karenina costumes are all amazing, though I’m just a sucker for the 1870s in general. That black striped gown is such a great use of the geometry of a bustle.

    Reply
  11. florenceandtheai

    They’re all lovely. However, I saw My Fair Lady when I was 13 and it remains my favorite because of nostalgia. Of the others, I’ve only seen Gigi. I always thought Aunt Alicia’s lace head wrap looked like a toothache dressing, and the whole birds on Gigi’s shoulders ruin (for me) an otherwise flawless look. I’ve read Anna Karenina. Does that count?

    Reply
  12. Roxana

    Beaton’s costumes are always beautiful if not historically accurate.
    His diaries and letters are valuable historical sources.

    Reply
  13. Jose

    I read Cecil Beaton Vivien Leigh’s Anna Karenina came immediately to my mind I love that picture and I found it enormously beautiful wish you reviewed it I remember you didn’t even mention it on Vivien Leigh’s birthday post 😥

    Reply

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