18th-Century Quest Visits the Convent With The Nun (2013)

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The Nun (2013) is a French film set in 1765, and tells the story of Suzanne Simonin, a bourgeois girl who is forced to become a nun by her parents. It’s based on an 18th-century novel by Denis Diderot (author of the famous Encyclopedie) that was pointedly anti-clerical — Diderot was very pro-personal choice and felt that many in religious orders were there against their will. Either way, he worried that the orders cultivated idleness and promiscuity and contributed to insanity and suicide.

The film follows Suzanne from her parents’ house into conventional convent schooling. There, she begins receiving extreme emotional pressure from her family and her priest to take the veil. The impressive thing is that while it appears that initially Suzanne is into this whole convent thing (she’s 16 and so hardly able to make a permanent decision about the rest of her life), she very quickly begins articulating that she doesn’t have the calling necessary to being a nun. Even when things go VERY downhill for her at the convent, she continues to be honest when everyone is basically pressuring her to lie (then take oaths that basically say “If I say I want to dedicate my life to god, but I don’t really mean it, I’ll be damned.” Great, thanks pops/moms).

Over time, we learn more backstory about why her family is pressuring her, but I don’t want to spoil anything for the few people who will watch this. I will just say that the performances are strong, and while the film (and original story) certainly have a position on convent life, it opened up a whole new world to me. Really, anyone interested in women’s lives in 18th-century France should watch this, as most well-to-do young women were sent to convents for education. While the storyline is different, this is the life that Cécile from Dangerous Liaisons leaves at the beginning of that novel/film.

Costumes in The Nun

Now, I know what you’re thinking, because I thought it too — do I really want to spend 2+ hours looking at nuns’ habits? They were actually more interesting to look at than I initially assumed, and you can do what I did, which is contemplate their medieval origins and appreciate the delicate hems on fine linen. Also, while about 90% of the film is set in the convent, about 10% isn’t, so you get to see some nice 1760s costumes. And whenever the male priests show up, that’s a chance to look at some mighty fine wigs!

The Nun (2015)

Louise Bourgoin as one of three different abbesses. She’s a dead ringer for Italian actress Monica Belluci. I loved how the veils were pinned around the face, making a heart shape.

The Nun (2015)

One of Suzanne’s novitiate outfits. Lots of layers (there’s a great scene where she’s undressed, and you get to see them all). The veil here reminds me of regional French 18th-century styles.

The Nun (2015)

Isabelle Huppert plays another abbess. It’s interesting to see the differences among different orders, as Suzanne is placed at more than one convent.

But let’s get to the good stuff, eh?

The Nun (2015)

Suzanne’s first ensemble is this blue, woven pattern pet-en-l’air. I like that they got the sleeves right, using cuffs instead of ruffles. I question the fact that the cuffs aren’t in the same fabric as the robe, however…

The Nun (2015)

Instead they match the fabric of her stomacher. Lovely lace on Suzanne’s cap, and a nice fringe detail on the edges of the robings (the flat piece on either side of the stomacher).

The Nun (2015)

Suzanne’s sisters watch her play the spinet. This guy (right) wears the only shitty wig in the whole production, which is quite a feat. The bows on the sister’s dress are very 1760s.

The Nun (2015)

Another sister, I presume. Lovely fabric, and that little lace-and-flower cap is perfect. The gent’s jacket is in GORGEOUS fabric.

The Nun (2015)

Suzanne wears these stays with tie-on sleeves when she is only around her family. You see these a lot of times in museum collections, so it’s nice to see it on film.

Corset, c. 1760, Kyoto Costume Institute

An example: Corset, c. 1760, French, Kyoto Costume Institute.

The Nun (2015)

Suzanne’s mother visits her in the convent a number of times. The fabric in her brown dress if perfect to a T, as is the serpentine trim.

The Nun (2015)

A clearer shot of the skirt trim on maman. Note bagwig on the priest.

The Nun (2015)

More stomacher bows (called “échelles”).

The Nun (2015)

Suzanne’s sisters visit her in the convent to bring the pressure. I love the purple-y colors on the left-hand sister and her stripey bow!

The Nun (2015)

Nice capes and muffs.

The Nun (2015)

Suzanne wears a robe volante (a loose version of the robe à la française) as a robe. The maid’s jacket, including that fabric, are pinging my “I’ve seen that in a museum collection” nerve.

Casaquin, late 17th century, Kyoto Costume Institute

Here we go: 17th-century casaquin of Italian origin at the Kyoto Costume Institute. White cotton/linen with polychrome wool embroidery; floral motif; sabot sleeves.

The Nun (2015)

You don’t see center front lacing very often, but it does exist. I like that they bothered to make it spiral lacing.

The Nun (2015)

A great, no-waist-seam cut on Suzanne’s green jacket. Note the long sleeves, with pleated ruffles at the elbow and wrist. Frequently dresses would have sleeve extensions for the lower arm for cold-weather wear.

The Nun (2015)

Love the colors, although I am twitchy about the red trim around the neckline — I want to change it to peach to match the skirt and cap ribbon.

The Nun (2015)

Another shot of this ensemble.

The Nun (2015)

Maman wears a quilted jacket without stomacher, with a different color quilted petticoat.

The Nun (2015)

This guy is wearing a sleeved waistcoat, another item you see in museum collections but rarely on film. Note how the back (which normally wouldn’t be seen, as this would be worn under a jacket) is in linen.

The Nun (2015)

GREAT fabric on that waistcoat, and love the pattern matching!

So if you’re nerdy about the 18th century like me, or interested in religious life, check out The Nun!

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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.

4 Responses

  1. Shirley

    This movie looks really interesting! Thanks for posting about it!

    I just discovered this blog three days ago, and I have been binge-reading the articles ever since. I was a history and English major in college and always enjoyed historical dramas and film costumes, as well as debating issues surrounding adapting history to film and learning about clothing from all sorts of historical periods. My academic focus was more on the political side of 20th century European history, so even though I knew the basics of historical fashion, I lacked more in-depth knowledge of the subject.

    Needless to say, I am thoroughly enjoying every aspect of the blog, so I just wanted to thank you three for creating such a wonderful combination of history and fashion knowledge and snark and Man Crush Mondays.

    Reply
  2. Isis

    Oh, you have solved a mystery for me! I read this book when I was in my pre-teens. My grandmoter had been given a whole box of old novels which she took to our summer house and I unpacked and erad most of them. This book had some rather, ahem, interesting, illustrations and I guess my grandmother got wind of it, because the book disappeareed and I had no idea what it was called and who wrote it! so thank you, now I know! And the Movie looks very interesting. :)

    Reply

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