James Acheson: The Frock Flicks Guide

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James Acheson may be working on Spider-Man movies now, but he’s got a long and distinguished resume in historical film and TV. Two words: Dangerous Liaisons. Six more words: he did that on a budget. ‘Nough said.

As I usually do with my costume designer guides, here’s some images from Acheson’s historical productions, as well as quotes (where available) from/about him on the costume designs.

Note: Acheson also designed the costumes for The Last of the Mohicans, although he left the production over frustrations with the director (Elsa Zamparelli took over and received screen credit; see this article at the LA Times for more dirt).

 

The Prince and the Pauper (1976)

The Prince and the Pauper (1976)

That’s a pretty damn great Edward VII.

 

Time Bandits (1981)

“We assembled a kind of arsenal of clothes, different periods, different things that we thought might be useful … as we collected these bits and pieces, the actors were able to use them and find their characters sometimes through the things they were wearing…” (Costumes and Sets of Time Bandits)

Ian Holm in Time Bandits (1981)

It’s a time travel movie – here we’re visiting Napleon.

1981 Time Bandits

Hanging with Sean Connery in ancient Greece.

 

The Meaning of Life (1983)

1983 The Meaning of Life

Yup, the Monty Python classic!

 

The Last Emperor (1987)

“You know when a designer is using a film to display his talents and I don’t like that kind of design. Everybody thinks that The Last Emperor is a spectacular film. Yet what everyone remembers is one shot that lasts for 10 to 15 seconds, when the little boy walks past his courtiers to the massed crowds. For me, there are moments that have given me pleasure, such as the coronation of the baby emperor, which was extraordinary — to see all those people standing in the right place at the right time…” (Designing Man With Two Oscars Now To His Credit, Designer James Acheson May Become As Well-known As His Costumes).

“He was responsible for 9,500 costumes on less than a $2 million dollar budget. Although the film took place in the elaborate Chinese court, he could not afford to embroider the costumes, or to make them of real silk. Painting the motifs would appear too flat, and not rich or interesting enough to be royal robes. Acheson is well known for his fondness for using theatrical techniques to fool the camera. To add complexity and depth to the Chinese court robes, the construction crew first used photographic silk screens on rayon fabric, and then made aluminum casts of embroidery motifs. The casts were coated with metal plating and attached over the silk screened patterns for dimension. ‘The head dresses are made of tea strainers, bits and pieces,’ Acheson confessed” (Seeing With Three Eyes).

The Last Emperor (1987) costume review

Beautiful 1930s wear, and a gorgeous military uniform.

The Last Emperor (1987) costume review

Love this traditional/modern mash-up!

The Last Emperor (1987) costume review

SO BEAUTIFUL.

 

Dangerous Liaisons (1988)

“It wasn’t supposed to be a showy costume piece… The first thing [director Stephen] Frears said to me was that he wanted the characters to be more accessible. If we’d been rigid to the time, it would’ve been ‘Barry Lyndon,’ with big wigs and big hats — that ‘incroyable’ look where everyone looks like they’re about to fall over. The 18th century was a period that was all about presenting oneself. The opening scene in the film shows that…” (Dangerous Designs, Women’s Wear Daily, March 27, 1989).

“‘Glenn Close was corsetted to within an inch of her life. We got her waist down to 24 1/2 inches. To be restricted like that was quite confronting for all the actresses involved. It’s a very sexual image that has gone on for centuries, the notion of the corsetted female body.’ But even John Malkovich is held in by whalebones under his clothes to give him an authentically laced-up posture. The stiff, unyielding period clothes in the film don’t at once appear to invite the sexual frollicking that forms the basis of the plot, but Acheson feels that the erotic frisson lies with the clothes’ bondage-like appeal – difficult to get into, and even harder to get out of. ‘That’s the excitement,’ he says. ‘We set it back in period 20 years to make the silhouettes stronger. If we’d set it later, it would have all been very big wigs and hats and layered, billowing bodices. We wanted to make it simpler, stronger and less elaborate. We experimented with a more powdered, made-up look, but it’s difficult when the whole film is shot in close-up. So the artificiality of Glenn Close is left until the end, and used as a dramatic statement'” (Dresser to the stars – James Acheson‘s work is seen by millions of moviegoers. His latest accolade is an Oscar nomination for his costumes for Dangerous Liasions, The Guardian, March 6, 1989).

“It’s an attempt to show two people dressing for battle. This is a ritual of dressing, as if they were putting on armor like a samurai warrior. It’s the whole idea of protection and presentation, as they present themselves in an extraordinarily controlled image. It’s the only time we see them with their servants. After that, they are left alone with each other… It’s a film that doesn’t dwell on furnishings or fabrics, so it’s funny when people remark on the costumes. Frears had a very clever idea in making the film. There are very few moments when he took the camera back and showed the characters in long shot or midshot. The film is very much a chamber piece. We also measured original garments to see how they were made. We had 3 1/2 weeks to do all the research — it was really kind of a race to get it done… We had a lot of trouble with the fabrics. We couldn’t find 18th century patterning in fabrics. We used sari fabrics, which are individually woven… I worked with women between the ages of 18 and 83. Even Mildred Natwick was corseted. The thing about all that structuring is that if it’s done properly, your body can relax into them. Your body learns to cope with that stricture, which governs the way you walk and sit and move… There’s a richness there, but it’s controlled. Costumes in the paintings of Boucher and Fragonard are more elaborate, but we chose not to do it because you don’t want to give an actor something so elaborate that he has to act out of it” (Designing Man With Two Oscars Now To His Credit, Designer James Acheson May Become As Well-known As His Costumes).

Dangerous Liaisons (1988)

You know this fabric! Okay, so there’s princess seams and back-lacing… This is the one (minimal) clunker!

Dangerous Liaisons

Two dresses almost straight out of portraits of Madame de Pompadour.

Dangerous Liaisons

The fan-shaped trims on Swoozie Kurtz’s (left) gown!

Dangerous Liaisons

Perfect rococo S shapes…

Dangerous Liaisons

Gorgeous fabric, GREAT trim.

1988 Dangerous Liaisons

A beautiful effect!

Dangerous Liaisons (1988)

Costumes that capture characters AND history … IT CAN BE DONE.

Dangerous Liaisons (1988)

BRINGING. IT.

 

Wuthering Heights (1992)

Wuthering Heights (1992)

The first part is set in the 1780s, and the costumes themselves are really quite great — but the darkly shot film doesn’t show them off well.

Wuthering Heights (1992)

You just have to ignore Cathy’s (Juliette Binoche) bangs.

Wuthering Heights (1992)

!!!

 

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994)

“The shadow of (Karloff’s) image, which is so universally well known, is very difficult to compete with, even though it was contemporized for the 1930s. I also envisioned the Creature would be very fast, not lumbering like Karloff, but like a spider who would crawl over rooftops. We knew there was always going to be a coat, but over a period of two months I did about 40 drawings for De Niro and made little models to decide on things like different heights of collar, different coat lengths, textures” (Beautiful, Not Beastly).

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

Beautiful embroidery on Elizabeth’s (Helena Bonham Carter) ball gown.

Branagh looks great, minus the mullet.

1994 Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

Another film whose costumes haven’t been photographed/documented well.

1994 Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

A beautiful corset that doesn’t end well…

 

Restoration (1995)

“Actress Polly Walker’s costume (top) is proof of Acheson’s keen ability to collaborate with set designers and cinematographers. The golden glitter of her gown accents the rich background. Subtle lighting intermingles with deep shadows to play off the set decor and costume” (Costuming for the cinema: the work of Academy Award winner James Acheson, Fiberarts, March/April 1997).

“People have this idea that, with historical costuming, you’re rushing to the library and re-creating history. You’re interpreting history and hopefully using styles and fashions from that particular period to support characters being portrayed… One of the things I learned was how to deal with the very real problem of trying to give people an easiness with their clothes, to make them look slightly dishevelled. It was quite fashionable to wear a shirt in an unbuttoned way, with it pulled out — to project a sense of deshabille” (Costume expert rips fashion excess, The Ottawa Citizen, Feb. 1996).

“Especially with a period film, you must know the facts before you can detour from the truth. So, while we looked at every English and Dutch painter of the period and then went to the Museum of London, where we were able to examine and videotape actual garments worn at that time, the fashions are not completely fastidious.

“I didn’t take liberties, but I was less reverent than one might be for a true documentary. … But my task was to create a mood. We had very little money, and had to revamp some costumes and reuse pieces for new costumes. And some of that lace that you see is actually made of a rubber substance that’s been painted on with a tube of puff paint similar to what you’d find in a craft store. And of course, we couldn’t make the shoes by hand like they would have been in that era. But since they didn’t make shoes for the left and right foot in those days, it would have been very difficult for the actors to walk in. As it was, they had to learn to walk in high-heeled shoes, very tight jackets and petticoat breeches” (Clothes Make the Man or Woman: Designers build character into their movie costumes).

And, a third film where you really need to watch it to see the glories of Acheson’s designs!

(Crappy) photos don’t do it (or Robert Downey Jr.) justice.

1995 Restoration

Polly Walker looks AH-MAZE-ING.

1995 Restoration

A rare shot that shows the detail work on these costumes.

 

Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride (1996)

1996 Mr. Toad's Wild Ride

Haven’t seen it, got nothing!

 

The Man in the Iron Mask (1998)

So the film itself looks cheeseball, but the costumes are 1. stunning and 2. perfect for the 1660s.

Hey, a role I might not hate Depardieu in? Plus, Jeremy Irons!

Look past the mullet and focus on the embroidery instead.

I know, bobby pin rationing started early.

But you have to admit that’s gorgeous.

 

The Mists of Avalon (2001)

Mists of Avalon (2001)

So the series was TERRIBLE, but the costumes?

Mists of Avalon (2001)

Basically my platonic ideal of fantasy medieval.

Mists of Avalon (2001)

 

Which is your favorite of James Acheson’s historical costume designs?

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About the author

Kendra

Website

Kendra has been a fixture in the online costuming world since the late 1990s. Her website, Démodé Couture, is one of the most well-known online resources for historical costumers. In the summer of 2014, she published a book on 18th-century wig and hair styling. Kendra is a librarian at a university, specializing in history and fashion. She’s also an academic, with several articles on fashion history published in research journals.

14 Responses

  1. Gail

    Years ago James Acheson was the Keynote at CSA in New Orleans – he was great. Charming and funny and honest about how he did what he did. He even relayed his early days at the BBC and how he got into costuming,including Daleks made out of egg crates. (and yes, when asked about the Fourth Doctor scarf, he said ‘we had a bag of wool, gave it to a woman who knit, and she came back with the [now iconic] scarf’). He was great.
    Thanks for highlighting his work.
    Just realized that was in 2008!

    Reply
  2. Frannie Germeshausen

    Yummy yummy yummy, all of it. Thank you for putting this together!

    Reply
  3. Kathleen Norvell

    In no particular order:
    Last Emperor – bored me spitless, but it WAS gorgeous.

    Dangerous Liaisons – the best of the best.

    Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein – I admire any costumer who can make Helena Bonham-Carter stand up straight and not slouch.

    Restoration – Only Sam Neill can NOT look like a total prat wearing petticoat breeches. Who knew Robert Downey Jr. was so pretty? And what WAS that plume attached to in that one (infamous) scene?

    Man in the Iron Mask. Awful, but Jeremy Irons. The costumes (and Jeremy Irons) were the best things about the movie.

    Reply
  4. Charity

    Gorgeous. I’ve always loved the costumes in Dangerous Liasons AND Man in the Iron Mask. (Jeremy Irons steals the show in that, btw…(

    Reply
  5. Rori

    Holy, i didn’t know he did the costumes for The Last Emperor. The costumes in that movie were drop dead gorgeous and accurate.

    Mine are definitely this and Dangerous Liaisons.

    Reply
  6. Janette

    Wow. the Masque of Mandragora costumes were designed by the same individual as Dangerous Liaisons and The Last Emperor. I am impressed.

    Reply
  7. Peacoclaur

    Dangerous Liansons is the movie that got me into costume films. I saw it on video when I was way too young (about 11 i think) and had no idea what the plot was simply because I wanted to see the dresses they were wearing. I still consider it to be one of my favorite movies in no small part because of James Acheson’s costumes. Proof that good costumes can change your life :)

    Reply
  8. M.E. Lawrence

    The young king pictured is Edward VI, and Acheson is a genius, apart from the priestesses’ ritual robes in the M of A, but Ancient Pagan Ritual stuff is not usually convincing.* (And I would have cast Linda Hunt as Viviane.)

    My favorite is still “Dangerous Liaisons.”

    *The costume and make-up in “Britannia,” especially the druid facial prosthetics are not bad, though I saw two episodes on Virgin Atlantic coming back from England last month, and am more than ever convinced that Zoe Wanamaker is.the Goddess incarnate.

    Reply
  9. Karen K.

    Dangerous Liaisons — I’ll never forget Glenn Close’s final scene. Absolutely heartbreaking, why has she NOT won an Oscar yet? And the costumes are brilliant.

    And why doesn’t everyone look that fabulous playing tennis???

    Reply

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