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Alrighty kids, I did it. I braved manchild extraordinaire Denys and managed to watch Out of Africa (1985). This classic movie stars Meryl Streep as Karen Blixen, a Danish woman who lives for several years in what was then British East Africa and is now Kenya. The movie spans 1913 through the early 1920s, and focuses on Karen’s growing love of “Africa” and her romantic relationship with Denys Finch Hatton (Robert Redford). Although it has some problems with a colonialist viewpoint, the movie is beautifully made and acted, and the costumes by Milena Canonero are TO. DIE. FOR — and no, not just the safari-wear that it is remembered for.
I’d only seen the film once, and that was probably about 20 years ago, so I wasn’t sure if it would hold up as a “great” movie — but it definitely did. The production values are high, the script and editing are just right, and Meryl Streep is (as always) mesmerizing. Plus, fun Danish accents!
On the other hand, watching it today I was VERY aware of how tone-deaf and narrow-visioned the movie is. Of course, they’re telling Karen’s story, so it makes sense that the movie is focused on her and her experiences. But, right off the bat, making a movie about a white woman who moves to colonial “Africa” (I keep putting that in quotes, because Africa is a continent, not one country) and whose primary relationships are all with other Europeans is just plain questionable. An Historian Goes to the Movies has two great posts about the film, one talking about what they got right and what they got wrong in terms of Karen’s real history, and the other all the ways the film is problematic in terms of portraying and understanding anyone African.
While Karen comes to know individual African people (primarily her servants and the Kikuyu tribe that lives on her land), there’s little understanding of those characters as actual people with their own wants and needs. All the “natives” just seem to love Karen (even if initial meetings are bit clumsy), but we don’t know why and we don’t know anything else about them. Karen acts very maternalistic towards the African characters, but I mean that in a “paternalistic” sense. She makes her servant wear white gloves. She builds a school to teach reading in English to “her” Kikuyu. At the end of the film, she works tirelessly to make sure “her” Kikuyu are resettled, but then tells them that “they must not fight over land or in any way annoy the authorities” (or something to that effect). Furthermore, Karen’s love interest, Denys, is portrayed as spiritually amazing because he has this deep connection to Africa that he introduces Karen to — but his connection is to the land and the animals, not at all to the people. Anyway, read those posts at An Historian Goes to the Movies for a much better explanation of all of this!
I also had problems with the hunting aspects of the film. There’s only one scene where an animal is actually killed on screen, but there’s tons of references throughout. When Karen first arrives in Africa, her train stops so that Denys can load some elephant tusks onto the train. The tusks are pristine, but all I could think of was the dead elephant somewhere. Then, I was never clear on the point of all the safari-ing — I assume it was for hunting, but of course they don’t talk about it. There’s a particular scene where Karen kills a lion that charges them, and while yeah, I don’t want to be killed by a lion, I just kept thinking “why are you going into lion territory if you don’t want to meet up with a lion?” I don’t know. Just, unnecessary hunting — especially big game hunting — is such a sad, sad thing, especially given the number of these animals that are endangered today.
Costumes in Out of Africa
Canonero was justifiably nominated for an Oscar for her work on this film. Because the film is so prominent, there are still a couple of in-depth articles available (here at the LA Times, New York Times, and the Sun-Sentinel) where Canonero talks about her work on the film. It’s particularly interesting to hear about her research into the clothing worn by the tribes portrayed in the film. However, I want to focus on Meryl Streep’s costumes — traditional African clothing is way outside of my knowledge zone!
The Real Karen Blixen
Canonero definitely glammed up the lead character of Karen Blixen. She says, “Karen Blixen was a bit frumpy. We didn’t want to make Meryl frumpy” (Style May Come ‘Out Of Africa’). And yeah, I can see how to a modern eye the real Blixen might look frumpy, although I’d say she looks pretty much like an average 1910s-20s woman:
On the other hand, I luuuuuuurve Streep’s glammed-up wardrobe, so let’s look at it in-depth!
(Yes, men wear clothes in this film too. Zzzzz, it’s all safari wear, don’t care.)
First, a quick review of fashion between 1913 to 1921. The film appears to stop around that year, based on the fashions worn by Streep, although it’s possibly a bit later. An Historian Goes to the Movies points out the problems with speeding up the timeline in his posts (above), writing that the actors don’t seem to age enough. Well, the costume design confirms this shorter timeline. The real Denys died in 1931, and there’s no way in hell the film goes post-1924.
That being said, Canonero’s designs are spot-on for the chosen period, so let’s take a look! This is in some ways a tough era to give an overview for, because there are so many possible visual sources. I chose to look at photographs of fashionable Parisians, since Canonero says she was trying to make Karen look ultra fashionable (at least for her wedding outfit, obviously she relaxes a lot as the story progresses). The bulk of these images are from Gallica, the Bibliothèque Nationale de France’s online collections database; they’re photographs taken of fashionable, well-to-do ladies at the various big horse races, and they’re a great source for super chic clothes worn by real people.
Hunting in Denmark
When we first meet Karen Blixen, she’s hunting in Denmark in this faaaaaaabulous fur-trimmed suit. The hat is probably my favorite part, but also note the waterfall effect on the lace jabot at the neckline.
Arriving in British East Africa
According to Canonero, the real Blixen loved hats, and the hat here seems to me to be the focal point. Karen’s wearing a relatively practical suit in beige linen, but check out the applique on the hat and the little stripey button on the jacket.
I’ve raved before, all I’ll add here is that this shape of skirt is called a “hobble skirt” because it makes you take really teeny steps. Watching Streep walk in this on screen is great. The hat embroidery is vintage.
Going to See Her Home
Heading straight out from the wedding, Karen is back in something relatively practical, although the hat veil is pretty froo froo compared to her real practical stuff later on.
A beautifully tailored suit, but most important, note that she’s wearing a long skirt over her riding pants. In future scenes, Karen will abandon such formalities and just go for pants.
Visiting the Kikuyu
There was a big tailored menswear trend in the mid- to late-1910s, and the tie definitely picks that up. The brooch belonged to the real Karen Blixen.
A “lingerie” dress with lace on the collar.
Let’s Build a Pond
Still going menswear (love the horizontal stripe on the tie contrasting with the vertical stripe on the shirt).
Practical Around the Farm #1
I almost started subtitling these “Practical Around the Farm #3479” because there are so many of them. I think this may be the same riding suit as above, now worn without the skirt.
Dinner With the Boys
A lightweight satin dress in white with a barely-pink accent at the neckline and sleeves. On the left, you can see the tunic-length overskirt, which is VERY mid-1910s.
Let’s Have Kids!
A lightweight, lacey blouse with ball trimmings.
Practical Around the Farm #2
New tie, new duster jacket.
Husband’s Off to War
A white cotton dress with lace insertions. Notice the slightly raised waistline.
Practical Around the Farm #3
It’s fun to wear khaki! Notice the ankle-length skirt, but the lack of tie.
This might be the same dress worn in the unpacking scene above.
This kind of shawl-collar, square-neckline effect was huge in the late 1910s and early 1920s.
We All Get Syphilis! Hooray!
Another khaki suit, but this time it’s got a white collar and contrast buttons and loops. Karen wears this for one split second when she’s first arriving in British East Africa on the train. Nonetheless, notice how the skirt hemline is just a wee bit shorter.
Yep, You Gave Me Syphilis
In which Streep’s character starts wrapping herself in shawls.
Another smart tailored suit, but this time in navy, a new color. The hat brim is fabulous.
The War’s Over
A looser silhouette, with a natural waistline.
New Year’s Eve
An elegant beaded and draped number.
Practical Around the Farm #4
Getting even looser and more stripped-down. The lack of collar and/or tie makes her look more relaxed.
Practical Around the Farm #5
Menswear-style shirt with yet another wrapped shawl.
This “sailor blouse” effect is SO typical of 1918ish/1922ish.
The shorter skirt is more practical and indicative that we’ve moved into the World War I period.
Returning to navy, with the striped scarf and yellow beads making this look very art deco-chic. It’s not quite the 1920s, but this outfit is totally in that aesthetic.
More insertion lace.
Practical Around the Farm #6
Stripey menswear shirt, plus pants!
Keeping the stripey menswear shirt but adding a black suit to it. Notice the loose, relaxed waistband — very late 1910s/early 1920s.
Practical Around the Farm #7
Who doesn’t like a wrapped shawl?
Another “sailor” collar effect on the jacket. Karen has bobbed her hair, something that took off right about 1920 (and continued throughout the decade).
SO 1918-20, with the square, shawl-collar neckline and wide waistband at the natural waistline.
Some Kind of Shindig
I feel like this was a polo match? Horse race? Can’t remember! I actually like Streep’s companions’ outfit better here (that hat!), but here you can really see how loose and low the waistband is on Karen’s jacket.
If You Love Something…
A lovely embroidered shawl, but all I can see is my mom’s 1980s perms again…
…Hunt It Down and Shoot It?
SO 1920s/art deco with the “ethnic” embroidery in very geometric shapes.
Visiting Officials #2
We’re back in the stripey menswear shirts.
Meeting the Governor
Even though you can’t see a full-length shot, you can still see how much shorter the skirt hemline is in the kneeling photo. Karen is pleading for land for “her” Kikuyu tribe, hence why she’s dressed up all prim and proper.
Lovely sheer fabric, with a loose, dropped waistline.
Classic early 1920s, with the loose, dropped waistline and the geometric lines. Look at how short the skirt hemline is.
Hard to see much detail beyond the buttons and the shorter hemline.
Menswear shirt but open at the neck, loose dropped belt. Notice the elephant on the brooch.
What’s your favorite look from Out of Africa?