Frock Flicks note: This is a guest post by our friend Maija Hallikas-Manninen. She’s a costumer doing 1870s, 18th century, and late medieval, and she loves to watch period flicks. You can see her work on her blog, Couture Mayah, or her Instagram.
In the first part of this series about the Glamour: Famous Gowns of the Silver Screen exhibition of a selection of Tirelli costumes in the Serlachius Museums located in Mänttä, Finland, we looked at costumes from films set in antiquity through the 18th century. Moving on in time, many beautiful 19th-century creations awaited in the third floor of the museum.
My pictures are taken with a phone camera, so they often don’t do justice to the colors and mood of the costume in its intended lighting. However, several professional high-resolution pictures of many of these costumes are available on the Tirelli website, so I recommend checking that in the remote case that you haven’t already done so!
Editor’s Note: You can click the photos in this post to see larger versions.
In the exhibit, there was a whole section dedicated to director Luchino Visconti’s lavish historical dramas, the collaboration of Tirelli and Visconti being an important chapter in the history of the costume house. The costumes from these movies, all by Piero Tosi, looked eerily like real museum pieces, and not only because several of them actually incorporated pieces of original period garments.
Senso (1954) sounds like an interesting movie that I have unfortunately never seen. Set in the 1860s, it features this beautiful reconstruction of a Victorian era mourning ensemble worn by Alida Valli as Countess Livia Serpieri.
“Female costume composed of a long cape and dress. Cape in black lightweight wool decorated with motif in black jet of varying size. Dress in textured black and dark green lightweight wool. Hat in clack haircloth trimmed with passemanerie in black raffia, lace and velvet, and with long black chiffon veil.” (Glamour: Famous Gowns of the Silver Screen)
It was hard to photograph, but I tried to get some close-ups of the beaded trim that had a very period-true look.
The Leopard (1963) is obviously the most famous of Visconti’s movies. It’s vast in every respect: A long, sweeping epic for which over 2000 costumes were created. In the unforgettable ball scene Angelica (Claudia Cardinale) appears in this gorgeous white ball gown. Not only is it surely the stuff that every little girls’ daydreams are made of, but it’s also hard to even imagine a more perfect recreation of an 1860s ball gown. Many people might disagree with me, but I still say it: Gone with the Wind has nothing on this.
“Ball gown in cream organza with alternating shiny and opaque stripes, mounted on a base of the palest green silk. Neckline with bertha and bow in pale aquamarine silk faille. Replica of the original, made by Tirelli Costumi in 2001 to the design and following the specific instructions of the great master Piero Tosi.” (Glamour: Famous Gowns of the Silver Screen)
The large hoopskirt beginning to lean towards the back with a little train, foreshadowing the bustle soon to come, the voluminous flounces covering the tiny puffed sleeves, the geometrical skirt trimming, everything is perfectly balanced and exquisitely made, down to the gauze tucker at the neckline. The waist does not only seem tiny because of the optical illusion created by the wide skirt and ruffles on the shoulders, it actually measures only 53 cm.
Ludwig (1973) is another long film and a massive production, telling the tragic tale of the “Swan King” of Bavaria. Helmut Berger plays the title role of the eccentric king. The crowning glory of the ambitiously accurate costuming was this coronation mantle, quite literally made with no expense spared.
“Male costume composed of dress uniform and coronation mantle. Magnificent mantle in burgundy velvet embroidered all over with gold bullion wire, and edged and lined with white ermine. Embroidered entirely by hand. Fastening with cords ending in gold tassels.” (Glamour: Famous Gowns of the Silver Screen)
Reportedly this incredible piece cost 25 million livres and employed the seamstresses for over two months. There are no shortcuts, no gold lame appliques that might look “good enough” from a distance, it’s all in the intricate, traditional metal embroidery technique. It’s something you usually see in a museum, and it’s hard to take in that something like this was truly made for a film scene!
Sonia Petrova played Duchess Sophie, with whom Ludwig was briefly engaged.
“Day dress in apricot faille with floral motif in white bugle beads. Skirt embellished with two scalloped bands of the dress material at the bottom.” (Glamour: Famous Gowns of the Silver Screen)
Another absolutely perfect 1860s dress, in suitably subdued color enlivened by the bead embroidery. It has many really nice details such as the belt with beautifully trimmed sash-like tails at the back and the scalloped self-fabric trim at the hem. Perhaps the modesty and primness of the costume reflect Sophie’s character, outshadowed by her celebrated elder sister Elisabeth and eventually rejected by Ludwig.
Everyone’s favorite princess, Sisi (or more formally known as Elisabeth of Austria) also makes an appearance in the movie, played by the one and only Romy Schneider.
“Walking dress composed of sortie and skirt. Sortie in silk ottoman with floral motif in black velvet, plastron and cuffs with cascades of black velvet trimmings; shoulders and back embroidered with tiny jet beads. Original sortie from second half of 19th century from the Fondazioni Tirelli Trappetti Collection. Skirt in black silk satin with bouillonné motif on the front and train in silk ottoman. Hat in black cloth edged with black astrakhan. Small veil in black point d’esprit tulle.” (Glamour: Famous Gowns of the Silver Screen)
The costume embodies the figure of a late 19th-century lady in black, immortalized by painters like James Tissot, complete with the veiled hat that creates an aura of mystery. Faithful to the 1870s, the outfit is liberally scattered with tiny details from beads, chenille, and ostrich plumes to fabric ruching, pleats, and bows. Yet the black color ties them all together into a vision of alluring elegance.
I took a lot of pictures of trains, because they are rarely seen on film in any detail. Yet especially all the layers that go under them give the support that creates the elegant sway, crucial to this period’s look.
Leaving Visconti for a while we will venture into the world of opera. Tirelli has costumed two versions of Verdi’s La Traviata, one for stage and one made into a film. The first mentioned, conducted by Carlo Maria Giulini was performed at Milan’s La Scala opera house in 1955, with Maria Callas singing the title role of Violetta. Here we have another stunning black, jet-beaded dress with a long train and truly enviable curves.
“Evening gown in black silk satin with original late 19th-century embroidery of black jet beads in a floral motif applied to the bodice. Gown restored in 1985 by Atelier Tirelli, to the original design by Lila De Nobili.” (Glamour: Famous Gowns of the Silver Screen)
The antique embroidery takes the well-deserved center space, but the supporting skirt hem decoration and artfully pleated sleeves are also a thing to behold.
They also had this cute little bouquet on view!
The film version of La Traviata (1982), directed by Franco Zeffirelli, had costumes designed by Piero Tosi. It’s set in early 1850s, the time the opera was first performed. This film had soprano Teresa Stratas as Violetta, appearing in even more sparkling beadwork, this time in all white.
“Evening dress in pale aquamarine silk satin completely overlaid with cream point d’esprit tulle. Bertha and short sleeves in cotton tulle with bead fringes and embroidery. Floral motifs in sequins, mother-of-pearl and silver embroidered on the bottom of the tulle skirt.” (Glamour: Famous Gowns of the Silver Screen)
Ice Fairy or Snow Queen, you decide! The bell shape of the skirt rather than the later very wide cage crinoline, as well as the low and wide neckline are perfect for the period. It’s a dress of ethereal, delicate beauty, full of romance yet escaping the “wedding cake” look.
For comparison, here is a bit earlier portrait of the young Queen Victoria by Franz Xaver Winterhalter from 1842. It also has the wide lace bertha and the lower part of the skirt covered in lace.
The Age of Innocence (1993) and Anna Karenina (1997) are films that share many similarities. There were only four years between their release, they are both based on classic books set in late 1870s, both were costumed by the House of Tirelli and while the designers were different the look of the costumes is strikingly similar. Gabriella Pescucci was the designer for The Age of Innocence and Maurizio Millenotti for Anna Karenina. The stories also resemble one another, centering around the theme of doomed love and both challenging and submitting to the strict social norms of the era.
The costumes of both films recreate the elaborate and incredibly feminine fashion of late 1870s and early 1880s, often called “The Natural Form,” to perfection. It was a rather short-lived but interesting period of body-conscious silhouettes with unforeseen figure-hugging skirts, often ending in sweeping trains.
The characters of May Welland in The Age of Innocence and Kitty Alexandrovna Shcherbatskaya in Anna Karenina can both be said to represent the classic Ingenue: They are young, beautiful, innocent and rather traditional. Both Newland Archer and Count Vronsky are initially charmed by these traditionally feminine virtues, but will soon have their heads turned by the more worldly and enchanting femme fatales. Only Konstantin Levin is steadfast in his yearning for family life and Kitty as the idealized figure of a wife and a mother.
This similarity between the characters of May and Kitty is visibly reflected in their ball gowns that both wear in big ball scenes early on in the films. Both are in light shades of peach pink and apricot, classic sweet and demure “debutante” colors. Both are also richly trimmed, fitting with both the character and the fashions of the era.
“Evening gown with bodice in oyster pink silk satin with Bertha collar in pleated point d’esprit tulle. Skirt with draped panel in original 19th-century tulle with roses embroidered in silver, mother-of-pearl, god and oyster pink sequins and beads.” (Glamour: Famous Gowns of the Silver Screen)
This gown worn by Winona Ryder as May Welland is rich with details and textures created by combining different materials and techniques of ruching and pleating them. The bertha alone combines two different sequined nets, both spotted and plain tulle with decorative woven edge, satin tape, and beadwork. The cute little bouquet on the neckline is the final touch.
Speaking of trims, both these productions used a lot of trimming on trims, often in the shape of satin ribbon sewn on the ruffles and pleatings. They really help to bring out the three-dimensional effect of these trimmings that might otherwise not be very visible on screen. While the period examples usually have a bit plainer look, especially in neck- and sleeve ruffles, these elaborate and creative additions give a wonderfully rich and layered look.
Mia Kirshner plays Kitty in Anna Karenina (1997) wearing another lovely ball gown.
“Evening dress in self-striped oyster pink silk. Plastron and the skirt front embroidered with small pearls of the same colour in a floral motif.” (Glamour: Famous Gowns of the Silver Screen)
The more simple bertha of Kitty’s dress is formed of artfully pleated dress fabric and swathed in a cloud of tulle. The cut of the pleated basque skirts at the back of the bodice is amazing, and it’s a shame I didn’t get a good picture of the back of the dress. Many Frock Flick readers will remember that back-lacing dresses were not as common as the film industry might make you believe, so it’s worth noting that in this era back-lacing was used a lot in tight ball gowns, especially in one-piece princess-style gowns. I’m not totally sure about combining back-lacing with elaborately pleated tails, but it doesn’t look too out-of-place either.
The pleated and gathered bustle, edged by the swirling trimming of pleated silk and tulle poufs continuing all round the train is simply lovely. Again, I’m fascinated by all the layers and richness of the train and its supporting structures.
The nice thing about this gown is that you actually get to see it in all its glory for a whole scene when Kitty enters the ball, and see how that lovely sweeping train moves. The sad fate of many utterly gorgeous movie costumes is to be only barely glimpsed on screen in close-ups centering on the actors faces or even appear in a scene that ends up cut off. Of course, a film is not intended to be a fashion show, but sometimes I, as a costume enthusiast, just itch to see the whole costume closer.
Meanwhile, Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer) in The Age of Innocence and Anna Karenina (Sophie Marceau) are both in their way partly the seductress of the story and partly a victim of the society they live in. Without their own intention they end up being the competitors to young, proper, and marriageable girls and suffer the consequences of forbidden love, one by boldly embracing it to the bitter end and the other by stepping aside and choosing loneliness.
“Evening gown with burgundy satin bodice embroidered with beads of the same colour. Floral figured silk satin in dark burgundy.” (Glamour: Famous Gowns of the Silver Screen)
This gown worn by Ellen Olenska for the exclusive Van der Leyden dinner is the classic “Red Dress” of a fierce and unconventional heroine. Another less flattering interpretation is the image of the morally suspicious “Scarlet Woman.” Ellen unwittingly chooses this striking color to wear for an occasion orchestrated to restore her compromised reputation, highlighting how out of touch she still is with the strict social norms of her new surroundings. On the other hand, it also expresses her lively, passionate nature and makes May, dressed in pristine white, fade in the background both in the visual view and Newland’s mind.
While the cut follows the similar, fashionable lines as the two previous ballgowns both the color and trimming set this apart from the more girlish styles. While it incorporates many of the same elements such as fabric ruching, pleated hem borders and beadwork the effect is very different in the shades of red and black. The skirt pleats are also larger and wider, giving a less frilly and more solid look. Particularly the absence of tulle gives this dress a more grown-up, sophisticated look.
In terms of cut and fabric manipulation the dress has many interesting details. The back drapery, creating a bow-like formation is a true piece of art, and the complicated sleeve decoration is also noteworthy. This is in my mind a brilliant example of creating a historically believable screen costume that fits seamlessly into the world the film inhabits, while at the same time giving insight to the character and displaying unique designer talent.
Another of Ellen’s costumes on view was this beautiful, informal house dress, which she wears at her home, her own space.
“Day dress in aquamarine silk satin with floral motifs in pink, blue, mauve, and golden yellow. The skirt, draped at the hips, terminates in a deep, pleated flounce, accentuated at the bottom by bands of narrow orange satin ribbon. The dress is embellished with original pieces of ethereal cream lace.” (Glamour: Famous Gowns of the Silver Screen)
The scene begins with Newland Archer wandering through her house and admiring the exotic, unconventional objects she has decorated her home with. They seem to strongly trigger his yearning for a wider world of freedom outside the suffocating, claustrophobic New York parlors and the narrow-minded people who occupy them. The fresh aqua color and oriental pattern of Ellen’s dress feels like a continuation of this, as she becomes the embodiment of his escapism. The abundant lace makes the dress also irresistibly feminine, and may also suggest Ellen’s vulnerability, though in this scene she turns out to be morally the stronger of the two.
The above mentioned satin ribbons (two orange ones with one in mauve pink) are used to great effect on the skirt pleats, which for once are seen close up on the film!
Here are two of Gabriella Pescucci’s sketches for other costumes for Michelle Pfeiffer as Ellen Olenska:
Anna Karenina is mostly dressed in rather simple and elegant styles, often in a dark or monochrome palette. I liked that because it’s how she was described in the original work, her simple dress drawing attention to her great natural beauty. For example her black ball gown follows the book description. The temptation to dress her as a leading lady in bold, dramatic colors all the time must have been strong.
That being said, there exists hardly anything with as much bold style and drama as this iconic walking dress. Anna wears this stunning style in the Tsarskoje Selo races, where she is highly in view while betraying her emotions for Count Vronsky.
“Female suit composed of jacket in cream faille with narrow black stripes, black satin lapels and black silk bow at the neck. Softly draped skirt in cream organza with pattern of small squares in matching colour.” (Glamour: Famous Gowns of the Silver Screen)
Reminiscent of Audrey Hepburn’s famous black and white day dress in My Fair Lady, it’s a stunning creation, perfectly balancing all the different decorative elements it combines. It’s a look that is both richly detailed and sharp, tailored and incredibly feminine. The skillfully cut jacket features many elements of period fashion: The imitation vest front, the back tails, contrasting collar, bow, and lapels, contrasting piping edging and the cuffs with another turned-back detail in black.
The skirt with an incredible amount of drapery, gathering and small pleating in sheer and fragile silk organza is a feast in frivolous extravagance. On a close look you can see that it actually has two different kinds of organza combined: One with spots and another with stripes.
The frills are again trimmed with satin ribbon and edged with narrow black lace, which creates a nice sharp contrast to the frothy, creamy mass of organza. The satin foundation under the sheer overlay is edged with black piping and several rows of stitching. It seems to function both as another design element and also protecting and giving shape and structure to the softer frills on top.
Another of Anna’s costumes was this striped day dress. It’s fairly briefly glanced on the film, and perhaps because of this I never fully appreciated its genius before seeing it close up.
“Day dress in faille with black stripes alternated with other featuring gold, burgundy and black geometric motifs. The lower part of the skirt has a slight drape, secured by black satin bow, and it terminates in a black flounce with another in pleated fabric below. The neck is trimmed with ruches in cream tulle and black lace.” (Glamour: Famous Gowns of the Silver Screen)
The main style is very similar to Ellen Olenska’s house dress. What really defines the character of this costume is the bold black stripe, exquisitely cut to follow the lines of the dress. Not only creating that stunning waist curve and the chevron v-shape at the bodice back, it’s also shaped to follow the train shape with many clever fabric joins that you really have to look out for to notice them. This detailed and ambitious stripe placement was actually not usually seen in the period, but you’ll have to appreciate the perfectionism of creating that for a film costume nevertheless.
The striped material is also utilized in the skirt pleating for an interesting effect. Another thing that is easy to miss on screen is how intricate the patterned stripe really is. The dress is trimmed with black silk and lace, which balance the design and keep it from producing the dizzying visual effect that sometimes happens with stripes. The lace also softens the look.
The neck and sleeve ruffles were elaborate again, combining black and gold satin ribbon and black and white lace.
This costume reminds me very much of this dress (1878-1880) from The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
I would like to thank Serlachius Museums for their kind permission to use my photographs from the exhibition and quotations from the Glamour: Famous Gowns of the Silver Screen book. If you would like to purchase this book, full of gorgeous photographs and a good look on the history of the House of Tirelli, please contact the museum at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Check back next week for the final post in this Glamour: Famous Gowns of the Silver Screen exhibit review!