TBT: A Room With a View (1985)

Is A Room With a View (1986) the best costume movie of all time? There’s a darn good chance that it is. It’s certainly in my personal top 5, and I usually find Edwardian costume to be relatively unexciting. It was Merchant/Ivory‘s big hit, Helena Bonham Carter‘s breakout, and set the stage for quality films with historical settings in the late 1980s and 1990s. I’ve wanted to review it FOREVER, but I’ve been daunted because it is SUCH A FRICKIN’ MASTERPIECE, and I knew any review I wrote (beyond my short review) would need to pull out as many stops as possible. So, here we go, with all the info I can track down and about 5 million screencaps of pretty much ALL the women’s costumes.

Why is this movie so good? Everything is Spot On. Sometimes a film will have great costumes but so/so plot, or maybe the acting and story are great but the costumes suck, or maybe all those things are great but they just didn’t get the sense of the period right, or maybe the leads don’t have chemistry, or maybe the jokes fall flat, or maybe you don’t really care about the heroine… None of those problems exist here. You have STUNNING cinematography that will make you ready to sell a kidney in order to visit Italy and England, if you aren’t already an Italophile and Anglophile. You’ve got subtle comedy. You have MULTIPLE strong actors giving great performances. You’ve got an emotionally engaging love triangle. And you have 100000% SPOT THE FUCK ON costumes by Jenny Beavan and John Bright, known for many, many Merchant/Ivory masterpieces.

I actually can’t possibly cover all the great things about this film, so I’m going to have to focus on the costumes, or I will literally be at my keyboard until I die. Just a few shout-outs, however:

  • If you haven’t made a pilgrimage to the various filming locations, particularly those in Florence, you are a heathen.
A Room With a View (1985)

Oh god I miss Italy.

A Room With a View (1985)

“Windy Corners” is my platonic ideal of an English country house.

  • Rupert Graves is at his ABSOLUTE CUTEST, with bonus floppy hair, as younger brother Freddy.
  • The family dynamics are super sweet. Dad isn’t around (must be dead), but mom, Lucy, and Freddy all clearly love each other, and I always get a warm fuzzy feeling from their interactions.
A Room With a View (1985) A Room With a View (1985): Cecil Vyse Simon Callow in A Room with a View (1985)
  • Judi Dench is all overdramatic flair as a “lady novelist.”
  • Maggie Smith rocks the pinched spinster aunt, and makes me laugh with all her “don’t worry about me, I’ll just perish”/”I’ll take the better room to spare you from the penises.”
A Room With a View (1985)

JUDI DENCH & MAGGIE SMITH. Character(s): Eleanor Lavish, a novelist & Charlotte Bartlett, a chaperon. Film ‘A ROOM WITH A VIEW’ (1985). Directed By JAMES IVORY. 13 December 1985. CTL39629. Allstar/GOLDCREST FILMS. (UK 1985).

  • You get to see Boys Frolicking in the altogether, and it’s sweet and hilarious.
Simon Callow in A Room with a View (1985) A Room With a View (1985) - Julian Sands
  • The music is gorgeous.
  • The locations are GORGEOUS.
  • The cinematography is gorgeous.
  • THAT KISS
A Room With a View (1985)
  • There’s probably about 30 million more shout-outs that I’m forgetting, and will be kicking myself about.

Costumes in A Room With a View

Now on to the costumes, plus more commentary about the film. These were designed by Jenny Beavan and John Bright. The two started working together, and working with Merchant/Ivory, on The Bostonians. Beavan began on the project and brought Bright in to help; his “help” became so substantial that she insisted on sharing screen credit.

A Room With a View was the next project for all four (Merchant/Ivory, Beavan, and Bright). According to the book The Films of Merchant Ivory by Robert Emmet Long, it was Ivory who had the first idea for the film, but then thought, “I can’t do another period picture [after Heat and Dust and The Bostonians]. I can’t do another literary adaptation”! However, the team had already been paid for the script, so they went ahead with longtime collaborator scriptwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. The book notes, “In the end, Ivory found making A Room with a View ‘enormously enjoyable’ because it was ‘lighter and more frivolous’ than his usual movies.” The film was shot on location in Italy and Kent, England. The budget was small — $4 million. Most of the actors (except for Smith) were relatively unknown — Carter had done Lady Jane, but that was it. 

It ended up a huge hit, and won Best Costume Design, Best Art Direction, and Best Screenplay Adaptation at the Oscar’s that year.

The film is set in 1907; the original novel by E.M. Forster was published in 1908, although he wrote early drafts in 1901-02. I’ve seen other years mentioned online, but this is the year specified in The Films of Merchant Ivory, an authoritative source. The characters are mostly upper middle class — let’s get a handle on fashion in this year. It’s interesting to note that this is one year before the “Directoire” style comes into fashion, which is more streamlined and higher-waisted — you can see that change in Howards End, another Merchant/Ivory/Beavan/Bright production.

1905-09 women's fashion from de Gracieuse

Women’s fashions, 1905-09, from de Gracieuse (a Dutch fashion magazine)

The key elements are

  • the S-bend, in which the corset forces the torso forward and the hips back, although ruffles and padding at the bust and bum helped, as well as posture
  • full sleeves, but not ginormous
  • A line skirts supported by petticoats
  • shirtwaists (what we’d call blouses) were also hugely popular
1907 de gracieuse

One other key thing is sportswear, which very much figures in the film. Functional-ish clothing for playing sports was introduced in the 1870s-80s, so it had refined a bit in this era:

Infanta Eulalia of Spain dressed for tennis, 1907, via gogmsite.com

Infanta Eulalia of Spain dressed for tennis, 1907, via gogmsite.com. Note the menswear styled blouse and tie, and slightly shorter hem length.

For men, it’s all about a very straight line, relatively narrow trousers, and bowler hats:

1908 American Fashions - men's daywear

Men’s daywear, from American Fashions (1908)

1907 American Fashions - men's eveningwear

Men’s evening wear, from American Fashions (1907)

Of course, in this film, sportswear is key, so here’s a range of men’s sportswear from the period:

1907-08 American Fashions - men's sportswear

Men’s sportswear from American Fashions (1907-08)

According to multiple interviews and articles, most of the Beavan/Bright costume designs — particularly for this film — are either antiques or reproductions:

“In ‘Room,’ the clothes are all originals or painstaking reproductions garnished with original bits of lace and trim” (A Look Inside ‘A Room With A View’, WWD, Oct. 1, 1985).

“Some of the costumes they collaborated on for ‘Room With a View’ were refurbished originals, refitted to the actors’ figures. Other outfits were made-from-scratch copies of clothes in Bright’s collection, Beavan explains… ‘My talent is more in knowing how to fit and cinch older clothes'” (Reading the Signs in Competition for a Costume Oscar).

“According to Bright, everything he designs begins either as a period garment or as a vintage piece of cloth and trim. Much of it comes from Cosprop, the costume company the former actor founded in 1965 to fill time between acting jobs” (The Bright Side, Women’s Wear Daily, Feb. 28, 1992).

You can see this so well in the many close-up shots of the costumes, which are absolute eye candy being so full of detail — inset lace, tucks, embroidery, and more:

A Room With a View (1985)

Lace, tucks, sheer netting… just stunning.

Beavan and Bright always take care to get the silhouette right, which means corsetry, corset covers, and petticoats in this period:

“For the women, the ‘look’ begins with the whaleboned corset, which gives them the correct period shape: a slightly pigeon-fronted bosom and a shelf-like derriere. ‘When an actress wears a correct corset,’ Beavan explains, ‘it helps her sit properly and walk properly. Some people really take to corsets and don’t want to get out of them. Helena has a wonderful body and really goes into the most extraordinary shape. Maggie [Smith], who wears quite tailored things as befits an elderly spinster, corsets well because she’s thin'” (A Look Inside ‘A Room With A View’, WWD, Oct. 1, 1985).

“‘We start by having the actors come in and try clothes on from the period to see how things will look.’ … For period clothing, fitting sessions are absolutely vital, he [John Bright] says, especially since body shapes have changed” (The Bright Side, Women’s Wear Daily, Feb. 28, 1992).

A Room With a View (1985)

I’ve always loved the scene where Mrs. Honeychurch is dressing. Here I believe she’s wearing her corset cover.

Of course, it’s not just about getting the period right. The costumes also have to tell you about the characters:

“Their exquisitely embroidered fabrics are thoughtfully tailored to each character: Lucy Honeychurch’s (Helena Bonham Carter) light, flowing dress fabrics complement her romantic, more impulsive nature and contrast with the starchier, more rigid outfits of her prim older cousin, Charlotte Bartlett (Maggie Smith). The costumes adhere to a fairly restricted colour palette to create a sophisticated simplicity, with lots of cream, white and black, which comes across in one of the costume inventories” (Dressing Sherlock, Bertie and Judi Dench: a look inside the archive of costume designer Jenny Beavan).

A Room With a View (1985)

Frilly Lucy (left), and tailored Charlotte (right).

One particularly notable character is Eleanor Lavish, a straightforward, assertive woman who also writes flowery novels:

“’Eleanor is very straightforward and brisk,’ says Beavan. ‘There’s a masculine side of her character that is reflected in her dress.’ As Lavish, Dench roams the Tuscan city in search of character inspiration for her books wearing a starched shirt and tie – complete with ornamental pin – an enrobing black cape and a jaunty boater hat. She looks simultaneously commanding and intriguing: a woman who has lived life and has stories to tell, much like Dench herself. ‘The costumes seemed to happen naturally,’ recalls Beavan of finding the right tailoring to suit the sharp, self-assured author. ‘John and I would prowl down the racks of clothing with a cup of tea and see what felt right. I never sketch because actors live in a three-dimensional world, not a two-dimensional one… My job is nothing to do with fashion, it is about storytelling,” Beavan goes on. “You can read a script and do the research, but it’s when you start putting clothes on someone and seeing their reaction that you know when you have got a character right or wrong” (“Judi Was A Free Spirit,” Says ‘A Room With A View’ Costume Designer 35 Years On).

A Room With a View (1985)

Eleanor (right) wears menswear-inspired suits for daywear.

Care was taken to get the extras right, too — no gallery of shittily dressed extras here:

“The bustling street scenes in balmy Florence, meanwhile, only worked because ‘Italians are vain,’ she laughs. ‘They checked each other’s ties were straight and that everyone was looking good. That wouldn’t happen today!’”(“Judi Was A Free Spirit,” Says ‘A Room With A View’ Costume Designer 35 Years On).

“The Italian extras were fabulous, she says. ‘They are quite thin, yet they’re not into sports. and the men were brilliant. They’re incredibly vain and always took trouble with their looks'” (A Look Inside ‘A Room With A View’, WWD, Oct. 1, 1985).

A Room With a View (1985)

I’ve always loved the bright floral on the Italian woman (right) in the pensione. Even the “Cockney Signora” (left) has a beautiful dress, but unfortunately she went by too fast to screencap.


In one source, which unfortunately I didn’t write down, Bright said that the costumes and hair work so well together because the Merchant/Ivory team knew each other so well. The hairdress is Carol Hemming, who also worked with Merchant/Ivory on Heat and Dust, The Bostonians, Maurice, Howards End, and more. The department worked with human hair:

“Italian women made another small but significant contribution to the movie: All the wigs are made of human hair cut from the heads of Italian novices about to enter the convent” (A Look Inside ‘A Room With A View’, WWD, Oct. 1, 1985).

A Room With a View (1985)

The hair is EXCELLENT.

Beavan and Bright didn’t know they were making a classic:

“Looking back at the film – and the exquisite Edwardian dresses, embroidered periwinkle blouses and starched beige tailoring that defined the aesthetic of the well-heeled group of British travellers – is strange for the costume designers. ‘We thought we were making a nice English film,’ says Beavan of the accelerated pace at which she and Bright found themselves assembling the characters’ looks. ‘I think we had one fitting in London to find all the basics, and then I took a suitcase or two to Italy for a second fitting,’ recalls Bright. ‘We did everything at top speed’” (“Judi Was A Free Spirit,” Says ‘A Room With A View’ Costume Designer 35 Years On).

Almost* All of A Room With a View‘s Costumes, With Commentary:

*Because, of course, I’m talking the ladies here.

Lucy & Charlotte’s Arrival

Both Lucy and Charlotte will wear these coats multiple times; this is Charlotte’s go-to hat.

A Room With a View (1985)

Lace insertion on the blouse, pretty ribbon on the hat.

A Room With a View (1985)
A Room With a View (1985)

That lace! And note the pointed collar line, plus collar stay, on the right.

Les Modes magazine, 1907

High collars, lace, big hair. Les Modes magazine, 1907.

Dinner at the Pensione

I’ve always found it interesting that Lucy and Charlotte wear essentially a blouse and skirt for dinner; granted, in silk, so fancy. Lucy’s is cream and blue, and Charlotte’s has lace. Both wear netted chemisettes.

A Room With a View (1985)

SUCH puffy pigeon-breasted-ness!

I’m not 100% on the different colors, but this kind of “blouse” top for evening checks out:

De Gracieuse, 1907

De Gracieuse, 1907.

A Room With a View (1985)
A Room With a View (1985)

Lucy’s hair is only half-up — a nod to her youth? Her blouse has tucking, lace, and then the netted chemisette thingie plus brooch.

A Room With a View (1985)
A Room With a View (1985)

I love Charlotte’s sash, which is right out of fashion plates.

A Room With a View (1985)
Les Modes magazine, 1907

That dinner-plate hairstyle, Les Modes magazine, 1907.

A Room With a View (1985)
Les Modes magazine, 1907

The kind of underwear they’d be wearing to get this silhouette, plus frilly corset covers to puff out the bust, pads on the hips and bum, and petticoats. Les Modes magazine, 1907.

Eleanor Lavish is in black with TONS of tucking, plus a metal belt and monocle:

A Room With a View (1985)

The Miss Allens are all lacey:

A Room With a View (1985)

Traipsing About Florence (Without a Baedeker)

Charlotte is quickly covered up by her coat, but she has this blouse with AMAZING details underneath:

A Room With a View (1985)

Pintucking! Embroidery! Menswear-type collar!

Miss Lavish is in her super-menswear-inspired suit:

A Room With a View (1985)

She rocks the tie SO hardcore.

The Miss Allens have lovely details:

A Room With a View (1985)

Especially the trimmings on that coat.

Lucy’s dress has lace, embroidery, and an interesting placket front:

A Room With a View (1985)
A Room With a View (1985)

Coat on for church-visiting.

George Emerson sports some crisp cream suits:

A Room With a View (1985)

Note sweater vest!

Driving Out in Carriages to See a View

I know I’m not the only one who was/is obsessed with this Italian girl’s hair:

A Room With a View (1985)

All my 17-year-old goals.

Miss Lavish is in another variation on her menswear-inspired suit:

A Room With a View (1985)

Charlotte is also menswear-inspired, this time in cream:

A Room With a View (1985)

I really, seriously love this. Tailored Edwardian styles, I can get behind.

Les Modes magazine, 1907

This longer length jacket is fashionable. Les Modes magazine, 1907.

A Room with a View (1986) A Room With a View (1985) A Room With a View (1985) A Room With a View (1985)

Lucy is extra frilly:

A Room With a View (1985)

TONS of lace; love the skirt silhouette and that seamline.

Les Modes magazine, 1907.

A similar bodice. Les Modes magazine, 1907.

A Room With a View (1985)

Note the belt!

A Room With a View (1985) A Room With a View (1985) A Room With a View (1985) A Room With a View (1985)

Back at the Pensione

Lucy is in a lace peignoir:

A Room With a View (1985)

The angled lines are great.

Charlotte is in another blouse that if it’s not vintage, I’m seriously impressed:

A Room With a View (1985)
A Room With a View (1985)

With metal belt!

Back in England – The Proposal

A blouse and skirt combo for Lucy, with another floral-patterned belt:

A Room With a View (1985)

I love those pleated wings over the shoulders.

A Room With a View (1985)

Mrs. Honeychurch is ALL lace, plus a patterned floral fabric with a sheer overlayer, and bows:

A Room With a View (1985)

Cecil, the human personification of a starched collar:

A Room With a View (1985)

The Engagement Party

I couldn’t stop screencapping, I love the costumes in this scene so much:

A Room With a View (1985)

Both Lucy and Mrs. Honeychurch are in dresses with colored embroidery:

A Room With a View (1985)
De Gracieuse, 1907

Similar lace flounces. De Gracieuse, 1907.

A Room With a View (1985)
Les Modes magazine, 1907

They could have gone slightly bigger on the hats. Les Modes magazine, 1907.

A Room With a View (1985)

Mom’s is shades of blue.

A Room With a View (1985)

Lucy in pinks.

A Room With a View (1985)
Les Modes magazine, 1907

Frilly lace, embroidery, parasol! Les Modes magazine, 1907.

1986 A Room With a View 1986 A Room With a View 1986 A Room With a View
A Room With a View (1985)

Lucy adds a gorgeous veil for their walk to the Sacred Lake.

A Room With a View (1985)

Even the extras are Spot On:

A Room With a View (1985) A Room With a View (1985)
De Gracieuse, 1907

The underbodice look (I believe called a “guimpe”). De Gracieuse, 1907.

Inviting the Miss Allens

Lucy wears a blouse with tons of subtle details — note the faint pattern, and either embroidery or lace:

A Room With a View (1985)

At Mrs. Vyse’s Well-Appointed Home

This is the most dressed up Lucy gets. There’s so much to love here, including all the obviously vintage trimmings and Lucy’s HA-UGE hair:

A Room With a View (1985)

Note the shape on Lucy’s belt.

A Room With a View (1985) A Room With a View (1985)
Les Modes magazine, 1907

A dinner dress, Les Modes magazine, 1907.

Les Modes magazine, 1907

That big hair look, falling forward. Les Modes magazine, 1907.

Les Modes magazine, 1907

It used to kill me that I didn’t have as much hair as Helena Bonham Carter seemed to, until I discovered they used hairpieces. Les Modes magazine, 1907.

Once again, great extras and minor characters:

A Room With a View (1985) A Room With a View (1985)

Tennis at Windy Corners

Mom is in a blouse/skirt combo, the blouse with so many beautiful details. Also, SO MANY GORGEOUS PARASOLS IN THIS.

A Room With a View (1985)

Lace! Big tucks! Little tucks!

A Room With a View (1985)

Lucy is playing tennis, so extra dressed-down:

A Room With a View (1985)

Still in that patterned belt, tho – a touch of romanticism.

tennis outfit, 1907, from The Times of London

A similar tennis outfit, 1907, from The Times of London.

Going for a Bathe

Yeah, I didn’t screencap much of the boys, but Freddy’s stripey jacket!!!

A Room With a View (1985)

Mom is stripes:

A Room With a View (1985)
Les Modes magazine, 1907

Stripes, Les Modes magazine, 1907.

Cecil is Peevish, Lucy Helps Mom Dress

I think this is the blouse from the writing-the-Miss-Allens above. Lucy’s belt buckle is slightly off-center.

A Room With a View (1985)

Mom’s waist fastens in front, but she lures Lucy in by asking her to “do me up behind” — maybe something with the skirts?

A Room With a View (1985)

So many gorgeous details and layers.

e Gracieuse, 1907

A bodice with open, frilly front. De Gracieuse, 1907.

A Room With a View (1985)

Charlotte Comes to Visit

This is another standout on Lucy — the lavender embroidered flowers on the blouse fabric, which is over a solid cream fabric; the built-up sash; and the coordinating skirt. And, Lucy’s hair!!

A Room With a View (1985)
Les Modes magazine, 1907

A similar “underlayer” effect, Les Modes magazine, 1907.

A Room with a View (1986) A Room With a View (1985) A Room With a View (1985)

I think this is a rewear on mom, but I’m happy to look at it again:

A Room With a View (1985)

Charlotte’s traveling hat is beautifully trimmed:

A Room With a View (1985)

Headed to Church

Mom is in a dotted black number:

A Room With a View (1985)

This is the one time Lucy wears a strong color, which always confuses me. Maybe it’s because she’s finally starting to realize Cecil is insufferable?

A Room With a View (1985)

More Tennis

Note the floral necktie on Lucy:

A Room With a View (1985) A Room With a View (1985)

Cecil, still starched and fabulous:

A Room With a View (1985)

Charlotte rewears this blouse, but it’s so good I have to screencap it again:

A Room With a View (1985)

Lying to Cecil

Lucy is back in the same outfit she wore to dinner at the pensione, although without the chemisette. Her hair is much more grown-up, too.

A Room With a View (1985)

Arranging a Trip to Greece

Another STANDOUT outfit on Charlotte — those lace appliques are stunning:

A Room With a View (1985) A Room With a View (1985)

Lucy in another blouse/skirt combo:

A Room With a View (1985)

The belt that was off-center above.

A Room With a View (1985)

Mom battles the roses in a rewear:

A Room With a View (1985)

In London to Meet the Miss Allens

Mom is in a suit:

A Room With a View (1985)

A shorter length than the jackets we’ve seen previously.

De Gracieuse, 1907

The shorter length jacket is still around, but going out of fashion. De Gracieuse, 1907.

Lucy is in her coat for outside, over a beige dress with lace insets:

A Room With a View (1985) A Room With a View (1985)

One Miss Allen has a very art nouveau dress:

A Room With a View (1985)

Back in Florence

The new Lucy and Charlotte:

A Room With a View (1985)

Lucy is elegant in sheer, ruffled, layered black:

A Room With a View (1985)

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p data-test-id=”Paragraph”>Is A Room With a View the best costume movie of all time? Discuss.

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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.