Behind the Seams: Patricia and Charles Lester

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I first came across Patricia and Charles Lester, a Welsh husband-and-wife team of clothing designers, while doing research on the Fortuny-style gowns in Wings of the Dove (1997). Since then, I’ve noticed their designs (and what I think are their designs) showing up in other films.

Before we go any further, first thing’s first — I should explain who Fortuny was and why his gowns are such a big deal:

Mariano Fortuny was a turn-of-the-20th-century Spanish-Italian artist who is still admired today for his gorgeous art nouveau textiles. He’s best known, however, for his “Delphos” gowns, which were unlike anything the fashion world had ever seen at the time that they were debuted in 1907.

Left: Natasha Rambova in a Fortuny Delphos gown, 1910; Right: Model wearing a fashionable gown for 1910.

Delphos gowns (also known simply as “Fortuny gowns”) are finely pleated, columnar dresses that echo Ancient Greek peploi and chitons. They came in a range of styles with varying necklines; long and short sleeved; sleeveless; in a variety of lengths; and with optional matching over-tunics, and were embellished with Murano glass beads and stamped silk velvet caftans.

Detail of the tiny pleats and the glass bead “weights”.

The endurance of the Fortuny gown’s popularity isn’t so much that they were beautiful to look at, fun to wear, or preferred by some of the most fashionable women of the first quarter of the 20th century. It’s mainly because no-one alive today, aside from possibly Fortuny’s heirs, actually knows how the dresses were pleated. There are plenty of theories, and even the occasional patent that gives the barest hint as to how Fortuny’s pleating machine worked, but at the end of the day, how Mariano Fortuny achieved the tiny Delphos pleats in his dresses is still a complete mystery.

How the Lesters factor in:

At some point in the 1960s, Patricia and Charles Lester were experimenting with various tie-dyeing techniques and hit upon a method where the fabric was finely pleated, then dyed. Playing around with it, they discovered that if they left the pleats in place after dyeing the silk, it gave the fabric a beautiful textural quality. So, they kept experimenting with the technique and eventually began producing garments that looked suspiciously like the Fortuny Delphos gowns. According to the Lesters, they had no idea what a Delphos gown was at the time; they were simply intuiting the process of making a garment from finely pleated silk fabric.

They had not heard of the artist Fortuny whose pleated work has been compared to theirs — so to them this technique was original and indeed it is nothing like Fortuny’s work having a fluidity that is uncharacteristic of the straighter more rigid Fortuny pleating. — Patricia Lester’s website

“Poison Apple,” 1994. Patricia & Charles Lester. Via V&A collections.

It is true that the Lesters’ couture gowns are much more fluid and use a lot of stitching to manipulate the pleats in really gorgeous ways, but their simple pleated dresses are so evocative of Fortuny’s Delphos gowns that there’s really no sense in arguing that they weren’t the inspiration. And the fact that they are used so frequently in films to stand in for an authentic Fortuny gowns just makes it harder to deny that these dresses aren’t intentionally reproducing Fortuny’s designs.

Left: Patricia and Charles Lester; Right: Mariano Fortuny, c. 1910.

I do want to reiterate that the method the Lesters use to pleat their gowns is, as far as anyone knows, not the same method that Fortuny invented. However, like Fortuny, the Lesters are pretty coy about what technique they use to pleat the fabric. I’ve heard people speculate that it’s likely something like arashi or shibori, but there’s nothing out there to confirm that suspicion. Regardless, the Lesters certainly seem to have embraced their status as the go-to for Fortuny-style gowns on film.

NOTE: The Delphos gowns featured in the final season of Downton Abbey are actually original Fortuny gowns, and not repros. Downton was known for using original garments where it could, and with a huge costume budget, it’s not surprising they featured real Fortunys.

Michelle Dockery in an original Fortuny “Peplos” gown. The Peplos was a two-piece affair, whilst the Delphos gown was one piece.

But back to the Lesters. They don’t get their names in the credits for their designs, so most of the films featuring their work are verified only by a brief list on their website. However, even their website makes it sound as if there are other Lester gowns floating around film and television that aren’t listed. I’ve come across a couple that I’ve included below the list of “official” Lester gowns, but there isn’t any documentation to support my assumptions other than me thinking, “Hey, that really looks like a Lester ‘Fortuny’ gown!”

So, here’s a list of the films the Lesters have listed on their website.

 

Lester “Fortuny” Gowns in Period Films:

Caravaggio (1986)

Costumes designed by Sandy Powell. She appears to the first big budget movie costumer to use the Lester’s dresses, and she will use them again in Wings of the Dove several years later.

Carravagio (1986), starring Tilda Swinton.

 

Hamlet (1996)

Gertrude (Julie Christie) wears a gold Lester dressing gown when Hamlet (Kenneth Branagh) confronts her in her bedroom. The film is set in the 1890s, so it’s a tad early for the Delphos gown, but I don’t think they were going strictly for historical accuracy with this scene.

 

The Wings of the Dove (1997)

There are a number of Lester gowns in this film, but the most familiar to everyone are probably the two that were featured on the movie posters and video/DVD covers.

The Wings of the Dove (1997) movie costumes

The Wings of the Dove (1997)

 

Great Expectations (1998)

This one isn’t a pleated dress, but it is another variation on a Fortuny-style, the block printed velvet kimono coat. Worn by Anne Bancroft.

 

Jack and the Beanstalk: The Real Story (2001)

I have a vague recollection of watching this. At any rate, Daryl Hanna wears a Delphos-style gown by the Lesters.

 

These Foolish Things (2005)

I honestly cannot find any good screenshots of this film online, let alone screenshots of the Lesters’ work in it. It’s got Anjelica Huston and Lauren Bacall in it, though.

 

The Ten Commandments (2006)

Padma Lakshmi wears several different Lester gowns in the role of Princess Bithia.

 

Belle du Seigneur (2012)

This is one of those films where I look at the photos and think “That’s supposed to be period?” It takes place in the late-1930s, allegedly, but you could have fooled me.

This film should also get special mention for the first Jonathan Rhys Meyers film where he doesn’t make my skin try to crawl off my skeleton and hide in a bleach bath.

 

Unverified Lester “Fortuny” Gowns on Film:

 

La Reine Margot (1994)

This one is the one I’m least sure of, but the chemise worn by Asia Argento as Charlotte Sauve when she is sent to sleep with/assassinate Henri sure looks like it could be a Lester design.

 

The Last Mistress (2007)

I feel reasonably comfortable that this dress (also worn by Asia Argento, coincidentally) is probably a Lester gown.

 

Video for The Eurythmics’ “There Must Be an Angel (Playing with My Heart)” (1985)

Could this be the earliest Lester gown to appear on film?

 

Are you a fan of Patricia and Charles Lester? Have you spotted their work in other films? Share it with us in the comments!

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About the author

Sarah Lorraine

Website

Sarah discovered her dual passion for history and costume right around the age of twelve. Dragged kicking and screaming to her first Renaissance Faire at Black Point, she was convinced she was going to hate it, but to her surprise, she fell head over heels in love with the world of reenactment and dress up immediately. Her undergraduate degree is in Clothing & Textile Design, and she has a Master's in Art History and Visual Culture. When she’s not hauling crap to SCA events and ren faires, Sarah enjoys reading true crime books, writing fiction, and sewing historical clothing from the Middle Ages through the 20th-century. One of these days, she might even start updating her old costuming blog again.

18 Responses

  1. Daniel Milford-Cottam

    Holy sh*tballs! I actually think I own that Tilda Swinton dress!! Exact same colour and cut and everything. Bagged it on Ebay for something like £16 or 18 YEARS ago – and even got free postage cos the seller remembered selling something to me the previous year that I had totally forgotten about…

    The Belle du Seigneur dresses are SCARY GOOD Fortuny lookalikes. I would have sworn they were kosher from those pics, and even that the wine-coloured dress was the one Lady Mary wore in Downton Abbey.

    Reply
      • Daniel Milford-Cottam

        No pics to hand, sadly, and it’s in storage at my mum’s. But basically, it is long panels of this gorgeous mushroom-coloured silk, so light and buttery, pleated super-tightly, with a rippling texture that seems to be inherent to the pleating process. There’s beading at the neckline, I think, which I can’t tell if it is present on Tilda’s dress, but it anchors the dress around the neckline and then the fabric just clings and moulds naturally as it hangs down, going by how it behaved on my mannequiin when I tried it on her. Basically it’s just a very simple rectangular dress with a bit of beading and a LOT of pleating.

        Reply
  2. gilliancrafts

    This reminds me of something I always want to share but don’t know who would give a damn (perhaps you!) I work with Mennonite students who often wear tightly pleated skirts (1cm wide parallel pleats) and when I asked how they made the pleats, this is what they told me:
    1. Iron the fabric by hand, with no pleating board
    2. Wrap in damp towels
    3. Bake in the oven on low for a few hours!

    Is that a normal approach to pleating? The idea of baking polyester to set it in shape totally blew my mind!

    Reply
    • Daniel Milford-Cottam

      That does make a lot of sense – Issey Miyake’s amazingly pleated dresses are made by pleating the paper-thin polyester in layers between sheets of paper and setting the pleats using heat – I once saw an exhibition where they showed some of the dresses and garments stacked together like the layers in an onion, with some layers peeled apart and some of the paper torn away to show the colours emerging.

      Reply
  3. LadySlippers

    swoon

    I’ll come back when I’m not an orgasmic puddle of goo….

    (Some of these creations are divine!!!)

    Reply
  4. Cynthia

    Fabulous! Recently read a discussion in which it was posited that Fortuny was using permanent wave chemicals to set the silk, as those burst on the scene a few short years before the pleated gowns were invented. Somewhere I found a sketch of an alleged pleating machine of his, but have been unable to find any provenance for it. I have a used copy of the huge deOsma book, so I’m hoping there will be more in there.

    Reply
  5. Susan Pola Staples

    I absolutely adore, worship and love Fortuny. So yes, I’m a Lester fan for their Fortuny-like garments.
    And I spied what looks like one of Fortuny’s Stenciled Coats also on Downton Abbey’s last season. It was worn by Lady Rose Aldridge née MacClare.
    I thought I saw Essie Davis in Miss Fisher’s Murder Mystery wear a Fortuny dress, but I am not sure their budget was enough to rent it. So a Lester?

    Reply
  6. Charity

    Interesting. I’m curious how they manage to produce the pleats, but I wouldn’t share the secret either, if I had it! ;)

    I feel like this sort of costuming choice could go very right or very wrong, depending on the shape of the garment and the actress wearing it. I think it looks better with a belt, myself, instead of just hanging / clinging there. Hmm…

    Reply
  7. Broughps

    Could they have used something like a smocking machine and then set the pleats somehow?

    Reply
  8. Black Tulip

    Interesting that by Belle du Seigneur the dresses have acquired what look like beads along the edges. When I was researching Fortuny, the dresses in Wings of the Dove really bugged me because they didn’t have the corded and beaded seams (yes, I AM that nerdy).

    I actually got to handle a Delphos dress a couple of years ago – I was beside myself with excitement!

    Reply
    • Daniel Milford-Cottam

      I’m still not absolutely convinced that the Belle du Seigneur dresses aren’t originals. (well, the cloak and dress underneath do look Lester, but the other two depicted do look absolutely spot on…)

      Reply
  9. Janet Nickerson

    I was watching the British ‘Antiques Roadshow’ several years ago and a woman brought a Fortuny gown she bought in Amsterdam approx. 12 years before. A tiny production assistant modeled the gown. I believe the owner paid approx. 80 pounds for the gown. It was gorgeous.

    Reply
  10. K.

    There was a Fortuny exhibition at the Hallwyl museum here in Stockholm the other year, and they displayed his patent for the technique, which just gives the bare bones, as well as some other material. It seems that the silk was finely pleated by hand and the pleats were then set in two steps, first vertically, then horizontally, IIRC (or possibly the other way around), on a contrapment that allowed warm water, and possibly some sort of chemical solution, to run evenly through the fabric somehow. You can clearly see the fainter horizontal crimping over the vertical pleats on both Fortuny gowns and, I notice, the Lester garments if you look closely. Fortuny offered a sort of re-setting service too, apparently – the pleats become rumpled and messy when you sit and move about in the garments.

    Reply
    • K.

      The fabric was pleated both vertically and horizontally, to clarify, not just set both horizontally and vertically.

      Reply

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