Do you love turn-of-the-20th-century costume? If you don’t, you may be inclined to overlook The Importance of Being Earnest (2002). You’d be doing yourself a disservice, though, because not only is the film packed with Legit Acting Cred(TM) in the form of Dame Judi Dench, Rupert Everett, Colin Firth, Frances O’Connor, and Reese Witherspoon, the costumes are fabulous. Maurizio Millenotti, best known in the English-speaking historical costume film genre for his work on Anna Karenina (1997), Immortal Beloved (1994), and Hamlet (1990), pulls together a lovely palette of early 1900s frocks suitable for Oscar Wilde’s lighthearted and witty dialogue about two wealthy upper-class gentlemen and all the shenanigans that ensue when they both fall in love with two women whilst using the same alter ego.
I’d even go so far as to say that this is the better film compared to Rupert Everett’s other Oscar Wilde ride in An Ideal Husband, which we’ve already reviewed. After all, Earnest gives us this scene:
Also, Rupert Everett and Colin Firth have the cutest bromance ever:
This film also gives us a nice array of gentleman’s clothing as modeled by Rupert Everett and Colin Firth:
Of course, since this is set in the early 1900s, the menswear, while elegant, is not very exciting. What IS exciting are the costumes worn by the women in the cast. Here’s a run-down of the principal female characters and their costumes:
Gwendolen’s Costumes in The Importance of Being Earnest
Gwendolen (Francis O’Connor) is the love interest of Jack (Colin Firth) and the sister of Algernon (Rupert Everett). She is smart, sophisticated, and ready to get busy with Jack as soon as her mother, Lady Brucknell (Dame Judi) is out of earshot. She’s the film’s Bad Girl, but because this is Oscar Wilde, she’s delightfully edgy rather than full on bitchy. Her color palette is fairly monochromatic for most of the movie, limited to combinations of black and white, white and black, and dark blue.
The archery dress:
Seen for only a brief moment, but look at that fit!
Calling on Algy for tea:
An elegant black and white frock with lace insertion. I would not be surprised if this outfit incorporated vintage pieces, such as the blouse. If it’s not an actual 1900s blouse, it’s a damn good repro.
Showing up at the gentlemens’ club:
Sadly, we don’t get to see much of this outfit, but I think it may be the same skirt as the above dress, paired with a different bodice and jacket.
The tattoo outfit:
One of my favorites, but again, only seen for a hot second in the film. I love the chevron stripes on the bodice, paired with an elegant black skirt and a smart knee length coat. I feel the need to mention that the hats in this film are all fabulous. Love the net veil pulled over her face to give her some semblance of anonymity.
The motoring outfit:
Again, this outfit is seen only briefly, when Gwendolen makes off in the early morning for a surprise rendezvous with “Earnest” at his country estate. It appears to be a long natural linen duster, perfect for keeping the mud and flies off of her dress. The driving goggles and gloves are a nice touch, too.
Meeting with Cecily in the garden:
Gwendolen’s surprise visit has unforeseen consequences. She lights a cigarette and proceeds to get bitchy with “Earnest’s” new fiancee, Cecily. She does so wearing a smart linen suit with dark red edging and fantastic thread wrapped buttons on the collar and sleeve cuffs.
The violet femme:
This is where Gwendolen is given a color other than black and white to wear. Notice the hole in her lace sleeve? Another indication that this was probably a vintage piece that ripped too easily. It’s barely seen in the film, you really have to keep your eyes peeled to catch it for a split second.
Cecily’s Costumes in The Importance of Being Earnest
Cecily (Reese Witherspoon) is the young ward of Jack. She spends her days fantasizing about being rescued from her idle country life by a knight in shining armor, so when Algy shows up under the guise of “Earnest,” Jack’s fictitious wayward brother, Cecily is all over that like white on rice. Whereas there’s a distinct color evolution for Gwendolen from dark to light, Cecily’s color palette is a bit all over the map, however there’s a strong flower-y theme that seems to run in almost all of her outfits. Also, she never once has her hair done up, but as she’s living in the country and a bit of a hopeless romantic, I think it’s not a horrible transgression especially as she’s supposed to be just shy of 18 and still slightly girlish.
Practicing her German:
A smart little red and white outfit. The skirt is barely seen in full length, but it is actually not white, but a natural-ish colored linen or cotton. I really love red and white in general, and so this is definitely one of my favorite costumes of hers.
Cecily’s tea gown:
Loose and flowing, we only see this dress for a few scenes. It’s interesting, however, as it looks an awful lot like a nightgown, but she’s wearing it in the middle of the day. I’m not sure if it fits in the category of “tea gown,” but it’s the only other option I can think of.
The blue and white “meeting cousin Earnest for the first time” dress:
Cecily receives a note informing her that her uncle Jack’s wayward brother has suddenly arrived, and she’s determined to intercept him before Jack has the chance to realize it’s Algernon.
Green walking outfit:
Cute dress, seen for a split-second before disappearing forever. White cotton lawn bodice with grass-green accents and a sprigged lawn skirt.
Pink dinner dress:
Things are starting to heat up with “Earnest.” This outfit is another one of those that strikes me as actually a vintage piece. For one thing, it has a tiny little pigeon breasted front to it, which is one of those wacky details you see in the period but rarely see replicated in modern costumes.
The engagement dress:
Cecily, being the practical girl she is, decided months ago that Earnest had proposed to her and she had accepted. So when she reveals this to Algy (still posing as Earnest), he’s apparently fine with it and, bam, they’re engaged! Another red and white dress, but I love the dotted net pleated over a red under-bodice. Super pretty.
Blue balls, er, bells:
The secret is out. There is no “Earnest” only Alergon and Jack, and the ladies quickly make up and decide to make them suffer a bit for their deceptions.
Lady Bracknell’s Costumes in The Importance of Being Earnest
Lady Bracknell (Dame Judi Dench) is Gwendolen and Algernon’s mother. She is extremely wealthy, velly velly posh, and highly disapproving of her children’s love interests. In one of the film’s best scenes, she delivers a fantastic take-down of Jack’s intentions towards Gwendolen that is pretty much every man’s worst nightmare when attempting to secure his engagement.
Purple all the time:
Lady Bracknell’s color palette for nearly the entire film incorporates various hues of purple.
The purple tea gown:
I’m a sucker for the “Watteau back” that was popular on tea gowns for the last couple of decades of the 19th century. The purple/green changeable silk taffeta gown with a very subtle stripe is one of my top favorites in this film.
Lunch with Algernon:
We are lucky that this particular costume was preserved on the internet at some point. The costume was apparently created by Italian costumiers Tirelli Costumi, and the level of obsessive detail is fantastic.
The Quick Brown Fox attempts to end the shenanigans:
There’s still a good use of purple as an accent color in the feathers of her hat, but this is clearly a Serious Business outfit. One of the most interesting aspects of it is the wide, “falling ruff” collar in white silk, edged in black lace. I don’t know why, but I’m intrigued by it…
Miss Prism’s Costumes in The Importance of Being Earnest
And finally, we would be remiss not making mention of the hapless Miss Prism (Anna Massey), Cecily’s tutor and unwitting catalyst for the entire plot falling together. She wears very proper, very prim cotton and linen shirtwaist dresses, with the one exception of her brown velvet dinner dress.
Are you Wilde about The Importance of Being Earnest? Which is your favorite costume from this movie?