So many readers have requested that we review The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982), and the few photos floating around the interwebs intrigued me. Famed art-house director Peter Greenaway’s first full-length film is set in 1694 and filmed at Groombridge Place, a 17th-century manor near Kent, England.
The contract of the film’s name is between the draughtsman Mr. Neville (Anthony Higgins) and Mrs. Virginia Herbert (Janet Suzman), as she requests drawings of her home estate to impress her negligent husband. Part of the contract, however, requires that she sexually service the artist, which she’s not particularly happy about. Halfway through the contracted period, her married daughter adds a secondary agreement, based on certain suspicions. There’s a mystery at the heart of the story, which is left ambiguous, and the whole thing is incredibly arch, artsy, and deliberately obtuse. This is really one of those flicks where you need to sit back and let the art wash over you.
Costumes in The Draughtsman’s Contract
The film is set at a specific date for plot reasons, but the costumes are an exaggerated style that just riffs on the period. According to director Peter Greenaway in The Guardian:
“The year is 1694, a significant year in English history for lots of reasons. It’s the year the Bank of England is founded. It’s several years after the battle of the Boyne, so the Dutch Protestant aristocracy is now firmly in place in England. That year also saw the introduction of a comparatively minor law that was very significant for women and very significant certainly for this film: the Married Woman’s Property Act. This finally meant that women could inherit property and have limited control over inheritance, their own children and certainly property. The film revolves around these ideas of female and male inheritance.”
The costumes evoke the period but they do veer away from it. Greenway expressed this, in the same article, as: “We tried very hard to create a sense of artificiality about this community, by taking the costumes of the period, but extending them and exaggerating them.”
As such, only the outlines of the actual historical fashions are necessary. For example…
Unfortunately, it was hard for me to discern a ton of details in the DVD — the movie was originally filmed on Super 16mm, blown up to 35mm for theatrical release, and digitally remastered, so there’s a distinct loss of fidelity. For example, I could see there was plenty of lace, but not what quality or historical appropriateness. Greenaway had said in The Guardian: “For women, lace was hugely important. The more lace a woman could display, the richer not only herself but her husband and her husband’s estate.”
Towards the end of the film, one of the characters comments on “these black and white contracts” and Mr. Neville repeats about these words “set down in black and white.” This makes it clear why all the costumes are black and white. At first, all the characters wear white — the women in white gowns and the men in white suits and white/blonde wigs — except for Neville, who wears a black suit with white linen and black wig. Then, after the one death, most of the characters dress in mourning black, both women and men (with white linen), except for Neville, who then wears a white suit.
The director further explains this, in The Guardian:
“There is also colour-coding in the film. In the first half, the aristocracy are all dressed in white. But the draughtsman always wears black. And then halfway through the film, after the essential, pivotal plot change, the costume colour-coding changes completely so the draughtsman turns up in white when everybody else is in black. Like a classic outsider, he always gets it wrong.”
Costume designer Sue Blane is best known to me as the creator of the sweet transvestite looks for The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975). But “blane old Sue” also did costumes for Lady Jane (1986) and a ton of London theater and opera, and she’s no slouch. The fontanges are off the hook in The Draughtsman’s Contract, giving the men’s fat-bottomed wigs a run for the money. Also, full petticoated men’s coats are in action, and trained mantuas are rockin’ the manor house. However, someone decided smocks aren’t sexy during the sex scenes, so there’s a lot of corset chafing going on, ouch.
So will you re-watch The Draughtsman Contract now?