The New Vanity Fair

20

Yes, Virginia, there’s another Vanity Fair (2018) — this one made by British TV channel ITV and available for streaming in the US on Amazon Prime. Did we NEED this version? Probably not, given how many times this Thackeray novel has been adapted. But did I enjoy it nonetheless? I did! The storyline and characters stuck close to the novel, the actors were convincing, the costuming was relatively well done, and this is the only production I’ve seen to actually hint at the book’s real ending. Plus, with seven episodes, it was able to get into many of the twists and turns that are omitted in feature film adaptations.

The costumes were designed by Lucinda Wright (the 2003 Henry VIII with Helena Bonham Carter, Fanny Hill, New Worlds, and Jamestown) and Suzie Harman (The Death of Stalin, and the upcoming The Personal History of David Copperfield), and given that the story is so firmly set in time, with the 1815 Battle of Waterloo mid-way through, I felt that they did a good job keeping to a realistic Regency look — within reason.

The central characters are Becky (a poor social climber, played by Olivia Cooke from The Limehouse Golem) and Amelia (from a merchant-class family, played by Claudia Jessie). The two go through opposite transitions — Becky starts off in plain clothes in boring colors, then transitions to increasingly fabulous colors and styles as she rises in society, then when she falls at the end, she’s back to pale. Costume designer Wright told The Telegraph, “She changes her look to how she wants to be portrayed in society. She’s very cunning. People do wear a uniform, and I think they did then, but Becky is a chameleon of clothes. Even her funeral outfits were still huge hats, lovely shawls — she still had that flair. Even when she was meant to be in mourning, she would still cut a dash” (How Becky Sharp’s wardrobe in Vanity Fair reflects her social rise and fall). Meanwhile, Amelia’s family goes from well-off to poor, and her wardrobe similarly goes from bright and upscale to dull.

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Becky starts off in this grey linen pelisse (long coat), with only the blue of her bonnet for a pop of color.

2018 Vanity Fair

Amelia is in pinks and other colors that suit her girlish, kind character.

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When Becky goes to Queen’s Crawley, she starts adding a touch of flair by way of her hair scarf.

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Once she marries Rawdon, it’s jewel tones for Becky.

2018 Vanity Fair

Meanwhile Amelia starts getting pale and washed-out.

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The climax is at the Waterloo ball, where Becky goes Whore Red — which seems a bit heavy-handed, although maybe it’s from the book, as other films have done it too.

2018 Vanity Fair

Amelia is lovely but totally in the background in her silver satin gown (with great sleeve details).

2018 Vanity Fair

As Becky moves into high society, she gets uber elegant.

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And even gets presented at court in this FABULOUS spangled dress with train.

2018 Vanity Fair

Down on her luck, Becky becomes a gambler in Germany and wears this super weird bohemian look. I feel like if I could see it clearly, I would have a Lot Of Problems.

2018 Vanity Fair

But in order to get back into the graces of Amelia and Jos, she has a hilarious scene where she dump-ifies herself — although note the bonnet and shawl keep a bit of kick to her look. Meanwhile, Amelia is back in the kinds of colors she started in, although a bit more mature.

Becky’s hat game was On Point:

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The shape of this bonnet!

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And this one!

And, impressively, THEY MANAGED TO GET THE HAIR UP IN PERIOD STYLES!!

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HOLY CRAP THEY USED THEIR HAIRPINS.

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Becky had great structured sausage curls most of the time.

2018 Vanity Fair

And I enjoyed the silly feather spray.

Other important characters include:

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Lady Matilda Crawley is the rich aging aunt that everyone sucks up to. She’s played by the fabulous Frances de la Tour (The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling; Outlander; The Collection) in totally overdone, over-frilled, over-trimmed outfits.

2018 vanity fair

SO busy and OTT! I do question the blue eyeshadow, but I know it’s there to make her look overly dramatic.

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The gents were spiffy in their uniforms, and I liked that Dobbin was actually attractive!

2018 Vanity Fair

Tom Bateman (Da Vinci’s DemonsMurder on the Orient Express) as Rawdon definitely worked for me, even if no one will ever touch James Purefoy.

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Amelia’s brother Jos remains my favorite character. They did a GREAT job giving him a completely dandified wardrobe.

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Two brocades! The high-waisted pants!

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Anthony Head (Dancing on the EdgeStill Star-Crossed) as Lord Steyne was appropriately lurking and ominous.

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GREAT hair on Lady Steyne (Sally Phillips – Pride and Prejudice and Zombies), and I liked that for once I understood her character’s motivations.

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The posh ultra-snobby Lady Bareacres (Elizabeth Berrington – Let Them Eat CakeThe Crimson Petal and the White).

Designer Wright told The Telegraph, “In the early 19th century, there was a huge amount of etiquette around what you were allowed to wear. It would tell people what class you were, what your personality was like; it really spoke volumes. You would be shunned in society if you tried to overstep the mark” (How Becky Sharp’s wardrobe in Vanity Fair reflects her social rise and fall). Nonetheless, occasionally one of the younger women would wear short-sleeved gowns, without fichus or other fill-ins, for daywear:

2018 Vanity Fair

There were a lot of spencers and pelisses, which, yay!

2018 Vanity Fair

And then this would happen.

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Meanwhile, older and/or frumpy characters were ALWAYS covered, like Martha Crawley.

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Ditto Miss Pinkerton, in a reused dress from Emma.

And, despite the final piece of the movie being set in the mid-1820s, there was no fashion change to be seen on any of the female characters. Granted, Amelia has JUST come into money and Becky is totally down on her luck, but a little nod towards the structured 1820s would have been nice. The only nod to fashion change was in the coda, in which Becky wears this 1830s-style gown (reworn from Wives & Daughters):

2018 vanity fair

Finally, there’s some of the proverbial corset whining that’s come out in the press. Olivia Cooke (Becky) complained:

“I wore a corset in a film I did called The Limehouse Golem. But not for a six-month shoot. No wonder women wanted to be liberated. The corset is so stifling. You are strapped in first thing in the morning and then you are on set for 13, 14 hours. It restricts your appetite as well. I lost so much weight. How did people wear those things every single day? They are so uncomfortable. Women had to wear so many bits and bobs. So much faff which all seems really redundant.” (Production Notes)

And according to costume designer Lucinda Wright:

“She didn’t bother eating while she had it on. Even though it fitted her perfectly. She said it was just easier.” (Vanity Fair: Secrets of racy new costume drama from makers of Poldark hotly tipped to be another rip-roaring hit)

Luckily Claudia Jessie (Amelia) seems to have gotten it:

“I feel like the corset does 70 percent of the work. You have so much regency because it really straightens you up.” (Production Notes)

 

Have you seen the new Vanity Fair?

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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.

20 Responses

  1. Susan Erichsen

    saw it. liked it. agree more time allowed for better story. I enjoyed the costumes and the hair.

    Reply
  2. Daniel Milford-Cottam

    I’m kind of disappointed that they didn’t do a full on 1810s Silly Court Dress (although I can’t remember if Becky gets presented at the British Court or an European Court, which would make more sense for this court dress design.)

    Seriously, I’d LOVE to see a film really tackle the realities of the freaking insane and frankly fabulously hideously ugly and so many levels of wrong pre-1820 British Court attire, with the huge hoops and high waist and ludicrous curtain drapery. There are some brilliant reconstructions out there….

    Reply
  3. Saraquill

    According to the top picture, Olivia Cooke would have been more comfortable if she wasn’t trying to slouch in a busked corset.

    Reply
  4. Susan Pola Staples

    Gotta see it for the use of Kerby clips alone.
    I actually liked the Reese Witherspoon version as it gave Becky a happy ending which I believe (it’s been eons since I read the novel) the novel hints at.

    Reply
  5. Katie O'Donnell

    No wonder she was uncomfortable and lost weight if she didn’t eat the whole time she was in her corset, especially if it was for 12-13 hours at a time! I once skipped eating before a performance of a play in college where I wore a corset and I felt like I was about to faint. I learned my lesson and ate and stayed hydrated and felt fine every other performance.

    Reply
    • Cara Wood

      Also like… if you can’t eat as much in one go as you’d like, just eat snacks all day lol. There are options ladies.

      Reply
  6. Charity

    I’m about 5 episodes in and loving it. It’s so tongue in cheek cheeky and funny, while Becky is a scheming manipulator but always, ALWAYS fabulous. I admire her ability to survive and adapt even if I don’t like her tactics all the time. (She’s certainly better than that simpering “friend” of hers mooning after a dead louse rather than realizing there’s a perfectly decent fellow madly in love with her on the sidelines. Yes, Amelia. I mean you. :P)

    I’ve seen the Witherspoon version, but so far am enjoying how much more delightfully wicked this Becky is — Reese’s had to be more likable, this one is just… terrifically mean. ;)

    Reply
  7. Amanda

    I enjoyed this series (though I screamed at Becky for wearing that low-cut, bare-armed green dress during the daytime), but my favorite is still the 1998 miniseries with Natasha Little as Becky. This one felt a little too nice, especially Becky’s relationship with Steyne. But it was refreshing to see the women wear their hair up!

    Reply
  8. Gill

    How can you credit Tony Head and not mention he was Uther Pendragon in Merlin? (Also the gorgeous Giles in Buffy, but that’s not period costume, so I’ll let you off.)

    Reply

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