Top Five Historical Movies for Those Who Sew

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All of us who write for Frock Flicks also sew, and we know that many of you do too. For us, there’s nothing better than a historical movie or TV series that features sewing as a craft! So here, in no particular order, are my top five* historical costume movies or TV shows that feature sewing.

*Okay, my four, with one addition from our Sarah

 

Bright Star (2009)

As someone who mostly just doesn’t get poetry, this Jane Campion-directed movie about Fanny Brawne, lover of poet John Keats, set in the Regency period could have gone badly for me. Luckily, Fanny sewed, which is featured in the film (and quite beautifully too). The best upshot of this is that she frequently made her own wardrobe, so instead of your usual little white dresses you get some really interesting costumes on Fanny, like this evening dress with dramatic Renaissance-revival ruff and the fabulous pink ensemble below.

Bright Star (2009)

This spencer jacket is beautiful and could totally be worn today! Here Fanny is making a ruff…

Bright Star (2009)

… which she’s wearing here. Drama! Fabulous!

Bright Star (2009)

I think it’s the hat that makes this outfit so gorgeous.

 

The Time in Between (2013-14)

El Tiempo Entre Costuras is a Spanish TV miniseries about a dressmaker who lives during the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s. Through various trials and tribulations that I don’t want to spoil, she ends up in Morocco making dresses for the Nazi elite’s wives while also spying for the British. There’s a TON of sewing and dressmaking scenes, including an extended bit where Sira makes a faux-Fortuny gown that turns out beautifully. Sira herself is dressed fabulously, of course, but the clothes she makes are also great. It’s a beautifully costumed soap opera that features love, heartbreak, and sisters doing it for themselves.

"The Time in Between"

Sira sews while her assistant does the ironing. I like this arrangement!

"The Time in Between"

Sira dresses super chic, naturally.

"The Time in Between"

There’s smart day wear but also elegant evening wear.

"The Time in Between"

And oodles of glamour!

 

The House of Elliot (1991-1994)

Normally I can’t stand pre-mid-1990s British TV miniseries for one reason — low production values.  That makes it all the more significant when I say that in spite of the fact that this is shot on video, I REALLY loved it!  Two upper-middle-class sisters left destitute by their shmuck of a dead father during the 1920s must make their own way in the world, and happily for us they do so by starting their own fashion house! I enjoyed both the nice 1920s costuming as well as the soap opera-esque stories of their lives and loves.

The House of Eliott (1991–1994)

Beatrice (left) and Evangeline (right) rock the 1920s.

The House of Eliott (1991–1994)

They totally get 1920s glamour!

 

The Dressmaker (2015)

This 1950s, Australian-set film starring Kate Winslet has gotten a spotty release, and I know a lot of us have been dying to see it and wondering when the hell that will be. Well, it just got released on DVD in the UK and Australia, so now may be your chance! (Still TBA for the U.S. — bastards). I finally got to see it, and I will do a longer review whenever it does get more widely released in the states, but for now…

The movie has been described as “Unforgiven [a famous Clint Eastwood Western] with sewing machines,” and seriously, fuck yeah. Kate Winslet plays an Australian woman whose small rural town turned its back on her as a child. She ended up eventually in Europe, where she worked for famed couturiers Vionnet and Balenciaga. Now, she’s back in her hick town to reconnect with her off-her-rocker mother (played by Judy Davis), figure out what really happened to her as a child, and get her revenge. In short, Winslet rocks the acting, the dressmaking plot is FABULOUS — Tilly (Winslet) turns women who look like they’re living in the 1930s Oklahoma Dust Bowl into Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face, and she has a cute romance with a local boy (played by Liam Hemsworth, who I guess a lot of people are hot for but I’d just give him a B- for dreaminess).

The Dressmaker (2015)

Tilly sewing with her mother’s assistance.

The Dressmaker (2015)

Tilly’s back in town, bitches.

The Dressmaker (2015)

Picture your image of 1930s Dust Bowl housewives and then imagine them turned into THIS. Yeah.

 

¡Three Amigos! (1986)

I was debating what should be my fifth entry in this list, when Sarah suggested ¡Three Amigos!. Despite being a huge Steve Martin fan, I confess I’ve never seen it, so I asked her to ‘splain to me why it should be here, and this is what she says:

Just in case anyone was wondering, ¡Three Amigos! is actually a period film. It takes place in 1916. Steve Martin, Chevy Chase, and Martin Short play three actors who are mistaken for actual heroes by a young woman desperate to save her town from the local Mexican warlord, El Guapo. The sewing scene in question happens during the build-up to the big showdown with the bad guy. The Amigos concoct a plan to use the skills of the tiny town of Santa Poco, and that skill happens to be … sewing. Thus, our three heroes embark on their mission to sew their way to victory against the enemy, leading to one of the most amusing scenes (from a costumer’s standpoint) featuring women toiling away at treadle sewing machines with no thread, “sewing” randomly at the fabric. And of course, there’s Martin Short’s iconic and impassioned urging of one very unimpressed old lady to, “Sew, very old one! Sew like the wind!”

On a side note, I think this movie deserves more love for the amazing costumes that the Amigos wear. All that soutache and sequins!

Sarah

¡Three Amigos! (1986)

I blame this film for my love of mariachi suits. — Sarah

¡Three Amigos! (1986)

This scene always plays in my head when I’m rushing to finish a project at the 11th hour. — Sarah

¡Three Amigos! (1986)

You gotta love the old Singers they used in the film. Even if no one in the scene knew how to actually use them. — Sarah

 

 

Any other great sewing scenes in historical costume movies or TV you’d recommend?

18 Responses

  1. mmcquown

    By happy coincidence, Kate WInslet was just on the Graham Norton show and they had a clip from “The Dressmaker.” If you’ve never seen the show, it’s the last real classical talk show in which all the guests come on at the same time and interact. Great guests, everybody who is anybody, usually a mix of international and British stars and a big musical number with superb production values. BBC America now on Thursday nights.

    Reply
      • marcela

        It’s a 1950’s -60’s based Spanish series about a department store/fashion house in Madrid. The heroine is a seamstress in love with the owner’s son. Available on Netflix streaming!

        Reply
  2. Al

    in the costume shop where I work they often exhort us to “sew like the wind”. It’s funny until you hear it at 10pm after not having a day off in two weeks. Then you just want to smack a bitch.

    Reply
  3. Lorrie Hickey

    I loved Velvet. A more recent Netflix original, Atelier, is about exquisite lingerie. Lots of sewing, fitting and designing.

    Reply
  4. Sara

    Maybe not sewing, but I love the opening credits in the Tailor of Panama. As the credits roll, the tailor (using proper tailor-speak) marks and cuts out pieces for a suit.

    Reply
  5. Jilly

    There are a number of great fashion documentaries out. Dior and I, Iris, September Issue, For sewing can’t leave out Perils of Pauline, plus I love to watch movies like Top Hat, Zigfield Follies etc. just for the costumes. How about Gone With the Wind, Cinderella? Would love to have some mice help me out in the sewing room from time to time. Especially hemming.

    Reply
  6. Penny Roxon

    The Dressmaker is a lot of fun, even if it is predictable and and full of cliches. The opening scene will make any seamstress laugh though- Kate walzes into town swinging a suitcase in one hand and her 1950s Singer in the other. Anyone who has worked with one of thoses machines knows how much they weigh – she would have dislocated her shoulder in the first 15 seconds.
    Another fun (old) sewing movie is the 1980s Winnona Ryder vehicle ‘ How to Make An American Quilt’, in which a large number of terrific American actresses manage to quilt for hours without ever puttinga hand underneath the quilt they are working on.

    Reply
  7. Jenny Ketcham

    I just got finished rewatching Hose of Eliott again, and loved it all over again! But, is it just me, or are the clothes on the leads so much better than the clothes that they were designing for their fashion shows! The runway show costumes are almost laughably amateurish….probably because they’re trying hard not to be the direct copy of any real 1920’s designers. My only real gripe, though. I like Velvet, too!

    Reply
  8. Maria D.

    The Time in Between is really great – I’m about half way through the series and just love the sewing and the story. I too feel like I’ve been stabbed in the back by not being able to see The Dressmaker with Kate Winslet yet – and yes they are bastards! – I’m going to have to add The House of Elliot and Velvet to my list at Netflix – and i just can’t do The Three Amigos – I love certain Steve Martin movies but this one just doesn’t do it for me no matter what….lol

    Reply
  9. Maria D.

    oh I forgot to mention that I also loved the TV movie “Coco Before Chanel” or Coco avant Chanel – it has Audrey Tautou and Alessandro Nivola and I just love it – there are a lot of sewing scenes in it and I have to admit that I find it interesting that so many designers/seamstresses smoke in movies at least…lol

    Reply

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