Since we’re friends here, I feel comfortable admitting that I love Amadeus (1984) for many reasons. The story is compelling enough for me to overlook the fact that it is heavily embellished to the point of being fiction, but the music, of course, is fabulous (raging Mozart fangirl, checking in). Tom Hulce and F. Murray Abraham are wonderfully competitive in their roles as Mozart and Salieri. There’s humor, pathos, romance, all set against the backdrop of 1780s Vienna.
And as a little girl, I watched Amadeus and dreamed of one day getting to wear fabulous 18th-century clothes. It was the first 18th-century movie I remember seeing, and it had a big impact on 10-year-old me, soaking in all of the pastel colors and the cream-puff hairdos. I wanted to live in that macaroon-colored world so badly that I spent hours upon hours locked up in my bedroom drawing 18th-century clothing designs, all because of Amadeus.
Then I made the mistake of watching Amadeus as an adult with a degree in clothing history and 20 years of experience in researching, making, and wearing period costume, and while the story and the acting still hold up, the costumes haven’t. In fact I’ve compared these outfits to contemporary 1980s historical films and was left wondering how on earth this film won an Academy Award for Best Costume in 1985.
First of all, let’s look at the competition that year for the coveted Best Costume Oscar:
Based on a novel by Henry James, this Merchant-Ivory film had a star-studded cast, featuring Vanessa Redgrave, Christopher Reeves, and Jessica Tandy. The costume design team was made up of Jenny Beavan (who later went on to design Cranford, The King’s Speech, Jefferson in Paris to name a few) and John Bright (A Room With a View, Howards End).
The somewhat less surreal sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey, 2010 starred Helen Mirren, John Lithgow, and Roy Scheider. Costumes were designed by Patricia Norris, who had a pretty epic career, even in 1984. Notable costume design credits are 12 Years a Slave, Victor/Victoria, Johnny Dangerously, and Scarface. I have to go on the record here and say that 2010 is actually one of my favorite sci-fi films and is pretty much overlooked in favor of its predecessor. Also, Helen Mirren. Have I mentioned I want to have her babies?
A Passage to India
Two words: Merchant Ivory. Another cast packed with Big Names, this one starred Judy Davis, Alec Guinness, and Peggy Ashcroft. Costume design was by Judy Moorcroft, whose CV includes The Prince and the Pauper (one of the best costumed 16th-century films out there), Yentl, and The Killing Fields. Unfortunately, it’s one of those types of films where people are more interested in the plot and acting than the costumes, so I can’t find any good still shots that represent the 1920s clothing. Sheesh. I guess that’s a good indication as to why it didn’t win for Best Costume…
Places in the Heart
John Malkovich, Sally Field, Ed Harris, and Danny Glover are cast in this look at interracial friendship in the 1930s South. Costume design by Ann Roth, who later went on to work on The English Patient, The Talented Mr. Ripley, The Hours, and The Book of Mormon. Again, this is the sort of film where it’s the acting that takes center stage, so since it’s rare that costume design Oscars go to science-fiction films, gritty Depression-era films, or prim 1920s films, that basically leaves The Bostonians as the only real contender with Amadeus in the category at the 1985 Academy Awards.
Costume designer Theodor Pištěk (who went on to costume Valmont a few years later) was interviewed by Vice a few years ago, reflecting on his work on Amadeus, which was an interesting reminder that Amadeus was filmed on location in Prague during the Cold War. Also, Pištěk seems to have the same gripes every costume designer has about historical accuracy being thrown out for a weird mishmash of styles and eras:
[Hollywood has] tremendous problems with [capturing historical details correctly]. When the main production designer flew in for a meeting, he was mixing up Romanesque with Roman culture. But they wanted to truthfully capture the atmosphere of Mozart’s time so they wanted to hire someone from Prague, which is connected with Mozart. That’s why Forman asked me.
So, with that in mind, let’s revisit some of the costumes from Amadeus, shall we?
Let’s see, there’s boobs:
More bad wigs:
Princess seams and bad wigs:
Polyester baroque satin from the Casa Collection at Jo-Ann’s:
Crafter’s lace capes:
Lest we hear the cry from the masses, “BUT IT WAS THE EIGHTIES! We can’t expect historically accurate costumes in the 1980s!” I want to remind you that Dangerous Liaisons was a product of the same era, only four years later.
Another interesting factoid that I recently discovered was that Meg Tilly was originally cast to play Constanze, but was injured the day before her scenes were set to begin shooting. She was replaced with Elizabeth Berridge at the last possible second, but there are a few stills of Tilly out there that show her in Stanze’s blue dress and plastic wig from the first scene:
I wonder if the sudden, last minute change in actresses accounts for some of the fitting weirdnesses we see in Stanze’s costumes? Since there’s no good before and after photos out there, we can only speculate that perhaps the Victorian corset and princess seams were an attempt to shoehorn Berridge into costumes made for Tilly.
I think, as far as 18th-century movie costumes go, this fails to hold up when compared to predecessors such as Barry Lyndon (1975), but as Trystan points out, the widespread success of Amadeus was proof to Hollywood that the historical “frock flick” was lucrative enough to warrant films such as Dangerous Liaisons (1988), The Madness of King George (1994), and Marie Antoinette (2006).
In the end, I think it all points to the fact that Amadeus was the only “costume-y” film up for consideration in 1985. The competition that year was pretty stiff in the acting and directing categories, but in the costume category, a couple of early-20th century films about wallowing in dirt, an film about lesbians in the 1880s, and a sci-fi movie about sci-fi stuff just isn’t going to be a match for the almighty spectacle that is the 18th century.
And when you take it all in as a whole, the awfulness of the wigs and costumes do sorta start to fade out while you’re getting swept up in the glitz of a rockstar’s epic rise and fall. Because that’s all that Amadeus really is when you boil it all down… Hell, this movie inspired Falco to produce this little gem: