I got three-fourths of the way through Désirée (1954) before I realized it was based on actual historical events — and then only because events had gotten so ludicrous, I realized nobody would write a story this bizarre and had to start googling. What can I say, there’s some historical episodes I’m not familiar with!
Desiree stars Jean Simmons as the real life Désirée Clary, who was briefly engaged to Napoleon Bonaparte (Marlon Brando) before his marriage to Josephine (Merle Oberon). It starts with young Désirée meeting Napoleon, falling in love and becoming engaged, then him jilting her (sorry, no spoilers in history, even if you’re a dork like me who didn’t know this story).
The story continues with her marriage to one of Napoleon’s generals, who randomly is elected to become the heir to the throne of Sweden (that’s what tipped me off, something that random couldn’t be made up!).
The movie is very Sweeping 1950s Historical Epic Blockbuster. Jean Simmons (Young Bess) stars as a historical manic pixie dream girl, sobers up, then returns to pixie-dom; Marlon Brando is great when he’s playing glowering, serious, political Napoleon, and cheesy when he has to play Napoleon the lover; and Merle Oberon is sophisticated and touching as Josephine. It’s unnecessarily long at 110 minutes, but you can multi-task through some of the angst as I did.
The costumes were designed by French designer René Hubert (Forever Amber, Fire Over England, That Hamilton Woman), and American Charles Le Maire (The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing) — but I can’t figure out what the division of labor was there. Usually when there’s more than one designer, one has done the women’s costumes and the other the men’s. Hubert seems to have done almost all the press, and commented extensively on the women’s costumes, so I feel safe in saying he took the lead there.
Apparently the designers had some major challenges beyond the “simple” task of making a gazillion costumes for a big budget historical production. According to Hubert, the actual film used — CinemaScope — was a newer technology, and meant two things: 1. They had to make more costumes:
“When you have a frame of film as wide as that, you find yourself with more people in the backgrounds, so while CinemaScope was a true advancement in entertainment for audiences, it proved to be a real challenge for all of the departments who had to fill in the sides of the frames” (The Love story of Napoleon in Cinemascope: The Making of Desiree).
And 2. This newer film stock meant colors had to be handled differently than previously:
“Extensive use of Eastman color in the CinemaScope pix forces a readjustment on the dress designer … Having done some 50 films in Technicolor, ‘I’ve been forced to learn by color values all over again,’ he [Hubert] said. Blue, it appears, tends to be ‘jumpy’ in Eastman color and to kill other color values. Also, reds photograph very dark and now have to be brightened up, whereas before they had to be subdued” (“Pictures: Napoleonic Era Bosom Display Not Reproducible Under Yankee Code.” Variety [Archive: 1905-2000] 195, no. 4 : 16).
Napoleon’s coronation costume (worn by Brando) was the most historically accurate ensemble in the film. It was:
“based on David’s famous painting of Napoleon’s actual coronation, the 40-year-old costume includes a crimson robe embroidered with golden bees, lined with white fur and ermine tails, and sporting a train worthy of a royal bride” (Movie Rags to Riches : At an auction of film costumes, a coat worn by Rudolph Valentino is expected to bring $15,000 or more).
The Boston Globe reported that Boston Museum of Fine Arts assistant curator in the Textiles and Costumes Department, Deborah Kraak, said:
“that despite the fact that Brando’s red velvet robe was appliqued with gold-thread bees rather than hand embroidered, or that the robe’s spotted white fur trim is rabbit rather than ermine, the garment designed by Rene Hubert and Charles LeMaire from paintings of the Directoire period is more historically accurate than most costumes in ’50s movies. According to Kraak, Michael Jackson once borrowed the Napoleon costume, complete with white leather gloves embroidered in gold with the Napoleonic crest, for a video in which he starred” (Hatfield, Julie. “CLASSIC COSTUMES PLAYING AT THE MFA: THIRD EDITION].” Boston Globe (Pre-1997 Fulltext), Jun 09, 1988).
This was not Hubert’s first time designing the Napoleonic court — he had costumed Madame Sans-Gene, starring Gloria Swanson, in 1925. However, Hubert told Women’s Wear Daily that he was taking a different approach with Desiree:
“Comparing his current designs for Merle Oberon and Jean Simmons with those for Gloria Swanson [Madame Sans-Gene] … Mr. Hubert evaluates them as gowns in contrast to costumes. While research was the backbone of design for each picture, there is a subtle translation for ‘Desiree’ as opposed to the exaggerated effect of the clothes for Miss Swanson” (Sheppard, Sylvia. “Period Designs for New Film Reflect Contemporary Fashions: Returns to Film Design.” Women’s Wear Daily, Jun 21, 1954, 4).
Nonetheless, there’s definitely a decent-sized gap between what was worn historically with the film costumes. Let’s look at Josephine’s coronation robes:
That change in bodice fit can be partially explained by the censorship of the period. According to Variety, Hubert:
“faced an almost impossible problem in reconciling the period wardrobe with the [Production] Code’s stern judges of decency … Eventually, there had to be a compromise and it was achieved by adding flowers or handkerchiefs to the top of the dresses” (“Pictures: Napoleonic Era Bosom Display Not Reproducible Under Yankee Code.” Variety (Archive: 1905-2000) 195, no. 4 (1954): 16.).
According to Women’s Wear Daily, Hubert wanted to emphasize an “Egyptian-like sheath silhouette,” which was fashionable “because of the desire to look as slim but voluptuous as possible.” But to avoid those pesky censors, “For modern motion pictures consumption, the low cut of the gowns is filled in with nude souffle where the neckline is hidden under jewels.” In a detail that’s fascinating to me, Hubert omitted the long or short corsets that would have been worn in the 1800s, instead designing “a net longline bra boned to the waistline to be built into the dresses” (Sheppard, Sylvia. “Period Designs for New Film Reflect Contemporary Fashions: Returns to Film Design.” Women’s Wear Daily, Jun 21, 1954, 4).
More tidbits gleaned from that same Women’s Wear Daily article:
“Richness of the courts in the 19th century is expressed in the use of such fabrics as silk velvet, lame, duchesse satin, heavy lace, pleated nylon” (PLEATED NYLON!!).
“Jewelry is lavish, much of it having been made right on the set. Drop earrings and chokers are important as are cameos and tiaras. In some instances, Mr. Hubert has used a set of tiaras… a conventional one and a smaller matching one for the chignon of the Empire coiffure…”
“Mr. Hubert has concentrated on the small bonnets and turbans of the time to keep the entire fashion in focus for the modern eye.”
“Furs are part of the opulence of the period … white fox, ermine and simulated chincilla are a few.”
“Color is an important medium with the designer for expressing the various periods and situations in the story … Loud colors mark the end of the revolution where the story begins.”
“Sharp pastels and ombres are used for the beginning of the Directoire period at the time of Madam Tallien’s fashionable salon.”
“Soft pastels are introduced for the time of the First Consulate.”
“For the stricter Empire period where action is concentrated in the month of November, fabrics are heavy … crepes, satins, velvets … with accent on furs and hats with feathers.”
Have you seen Désirée?