Victoria & Abdul Is Not Just for the Geriatric

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Watching previews of Victoria & Abdul (2017), the recent film about Queen Victoria and her friend and servant Abdul Karim, all I could think was “My mother is going to LOVE this.” I love ya, mom! But sometimes one can smell a mass-marketed, not-so-challenging movie from a mile away (note: my mom does like challenging stuff as well, but she’s a sucker for a film like this). Well, I was stuck on a plane with limited options and a nagging sense of duty, so I fired it up — and I was surprised to be entertained! Okay, so yes, my mother would indeed love it (and probably already has: “I love that Judi Dench!” — my mother). And yeah, it glosses over some difficult issues (Victoria is shown as a racial/cultural progressive while everyone else is a total racist, and I doubt it was that simple). But the film is well acted, the script is lively, Judi Dench sparkles, and the Oscar-nominated costumes are great — and not just a bunch of black sacks, either!

I’ll let you read up on the plot, should you so wish, and instead move to the costumes, which were designed by the fabulous Consolata Boyle (The Serpent’s Kiss, ChériFlorence Foster Jenkins, and many more). I recently heard a talk by Lucy Worsley and other researchers from the Historic Royal Palaces, who are working on an in-depth study of Queen Victoria’s surviving wardrobe; one of the takeaways I remember was how, yes, Victoria did wear black after her husband’s death, but she used all kinds of textures, embellishments, and accessories to express her love of fashion — she didn’t just wear black sacks. I was really happy to see this aspect expressed in the film — Dench is dressed in black but with lace insets, trimmings, and interesting accessories, so there was lots of detail to peer at. Boyle told Entertainment Weekly:

I had a lot of conversations with [cinematographer] Danny Cohen about how to deal with all the blacks … it was about how to keep the blacks interesting so the story of mourning and sadness would be reflected in the three-dimensional elements of Victoria’s gown, and that was the way we told the story: we hopefully expressed the weight of [the Victorian era] on her body, and contrast that with the light, air, and exoticism of [Abdul’s] Indian environment.

…and the Hollywood Reporter:

I started with a very deep black, heavily embellished, and then very slowly and subtly, I would introduce very dark grays, dark purples or deep brown that almost read as black. Also you’ve got the technical problem of the ability to light black, so to give him as much laid-on texture so it’s not just a flat black. Victoria’s clothes are very heavily decorated, so that was a great help to give it texture. There was of course lots of gold and silver ornamentation. Then it got dark again as she felt her world closing in around her toward her death. I used color and texture very carefully to show the progression of their relationship.

Victoria & Abdul (2017) Victoria & Abdul (2017) Victoria & Abdul (2017) Victoria & Abdul (2017)

Boyle told FIDM:

Victorians’ jewelry – and particularly Victoria’s jewelry – is very personal. Besides her ceremonial jewelry with all of the orders and the beautiful tiaras there is that sentimental element of the Victorians. She had her babies’ milk teeth inserted into earrings. I had a lot of jewelry made that was based on the jewelry that Albert had designed because they were very key, and she wore them all the time. And of course the jewelry of mourning, all that plaited hair and braided hair. I had brooches made of braided hair that she wore, the hair of her loved ones. All of this is so typical of that Victorian era.

Victoria & Abdul (2017) Victoria & Abdul (2017) Victoria & Abdul (2017)

Abdul’s wardrobe is a definite plot point, as he’s given clothes to wear that the English have designed to suit their ideas of what Indian clothing SHOULD look like. Boyle told the Hollywood Reporter:

We see him as a simple clerk and that he travels to London and he’s chosen to put on this would-be royal uniform, which is like a concocted version of what an English tailor invented as an uniform. It’s a perceived Western notion of what a servant should look like. Also if you look at it, it fits in with the servants from the household itself, with the gold and embellishments. These uniforms, which were red silk for the day and blue silk for the night, had the royal crest, but they had the traditional shape of the chakra or what the tailors thought was a version of the chakra.

Victoria & Abdul (2017) Victoria & Abdul (2017)

I was also really impressed with how well Boyle capture the look of the period. The film begins in 1887, and Victoria’s two main ladies in waiting (Jane Spencer, Baroness Churchill, played by Olivia Williams; and Miss Phipps, played by Fenella Woolgar), as well as other ladies of the court, look straight out of fashion magazines.

Victoria & Abdul (2017)

Lovely, menswear-inspired bustle gowns, which look straight out of fashion plates…

Le Moniteur de la Mode 1887

Like this one, from Le Moniteur de la Mode, 1887

Victoria & Abdul (2017)

This dress worn by Baroness Churchill, is a differently-colored, near-exact copy of…

Riding habit jacket, John Redfern & Sons, 1885-6, Victoria & Albert Museum

… this jacket at the V&A (yes, spotting these is one of my superpowers) | Riding habit jacket, John Redfern & Sons, 1885-6, Victoria & Albert Museum

Victoria & Abdul (2017)

Notice the perchy bonnets and flower-pot hats, which look exactly like…

Magasin des Demoiselles, 1887

…fashion plates of the era | Magasin des Demoiselles, 1887

Victoria & Abdul (2017)

Note also the perfect updos, right on top of the head, with short, curly bangs (side note: Eddie Izzard as Bertie — genius casting!).

Princess Elizabeth of Hesse and by Rhine by Hayman Seleg Mendelssohn, July 1887, Royal Collection

Again, spot on for the era! | Princess Elizabeth of Hesse and by Rhine by Hayman Seleg Mendelssohn, July 1887, Royal Collection

The main irritation I had is that the film moves forward in time, up to Victoria’s death in 1901, and none of these ladies’ wardrobes change a bit. There’s a huge difference between 1887-9ish and 1901.

1901-12 Delineator

1901 has a totally different look, but you wouldn’t know it from the movie | Delineator, 1901

The other irritation was the horror of the formal dining scene, where a bunch of ladies in FABULOUS court attire…

Victoria & Abdul (2017) Victoria & Abdul (2017)

EAT WITH THEIR GLOVES ON. Apparently the historical advisor got the day off? Because, NO.

Victoria & Abdul (2017)

horrified

 

Have you seen Victoria & Abdul? Take your mom, and tell us what you think!

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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.

5 Responses

  1. elizacameron

    I have seen this film and enjoyed it but I wish that Abdul had been given more complexity. From my research, he was much more ambitious and calculating than the film makes him out to be.

    Reply
  2. Mary Jo Dickerson

    I loved the film, not just for the content but because my entire family, from a 16-year boy old on up to my 54-year old lady self, sat and watched it and there were sniffles, and gasps of outrage, and a general declaration of “That was a REALLY nice movie!” It’s easy to digest, loads of splendid scenery to soak up and oh dear, I thought we were the only ones who noticed the women’s fashions failed to change after a lengthy period of time. Faux pas or maybe they simply thought we wouldn’t notice and didn’t want to splurge on new?
    I did love the progression of black dresses and was impressed with the variety the costume designer portrayed. I did notice a lot of reads-as-black at the beginning but yes, now it’s mentioned, toward the end everything became somber and sad. Usually it’s just the music that spurs this feeling in my mind but I believe it was a combination of lighting, music, and yes, the clothing. I have some viewing to do this afternoon, I need a Victoria fix to get my chin up.

    Reply
  3. Charity

    I thought it was a beautiful film, if somewhat sanitized (the real Abdul was much more ambitious than shown here, apparently) and… quite sad. It left me so melancholy at their unfair treatment of him at the end, I doubt I will watch it a second time.

    I must, however, be the only person on the planet who doesn’t get the appeal of Judi Dench. It feels like she plays the same deadpan character in every movie except Cranford.

    Reply
  4. Karen Lavoie

    Hi Kendra–thanks for mentioning the casting of Eddie Izzard–I wouldn’t have caught that but now that I plan to BUY this DVD for costume reference, I will enjoy it all the more. I think he is brilliant as a comedian and can just imagine what went on on the set. See you at CoCo.

    Reply
  5. Lady Hermina De Pagan

    I have not had a change to watch this film. However, I was able to read the book and listen to the Historic Royal Palaces Podcast. Abdul Karim was originally given to Queen Victoria as a “gift”. She delighted in his company to the horror of her children as they did not approve of the friendship. He called her mother and she called him her loving son. Queen Victoria was noted for her journaling and she saved all her correspondence. After she died her daughters burned all the letters between her and Abdul and removed all mention of him in her private diaries. They also broke into Abdul’s home and ransacked it too remove all the letters, journals, and gifts that he received in the 15 years in the Queen’s service. He was then removed from the home in England and sent back to India. While there twice more his property was searched to ensure that he did not have anymore personal gifts from the Queen.
    The true nature of their relationship was forgotten until the journals that the Queen wrote in Hindustani were translated by Sharabani Basu. There they found a warm and maternal relationship between them. She would give advice on how to get his wife pregnant, go to his house to play with his cat and kittens, and treated his house as a refuge when she needed to decompress.

    Reply

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