Colette (2018) Transitions Through the Belle Epoque


Colette stars Keira Knightley as the famous French author of the Claudine novels, Chéri, and Gigi, among others. She was born Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (1873-1954), married author/publisher Henry Gauthier-Villars who went by the pen name “Willy,” started writing under his name, then struck out on her own. I’ve been eagerly anticipating this movie just based on how great the costumes looked in the preview, and I’m happy to report that I quite enjoyed the end result!

The film itself is engaging — it goes from Colette age 20 (1893), about to marry Willy, through their separation in 1906 and divorce in 1910.

It was smart for the filmmakers to keep the time frame decently focused — so many biopics cover far too much time, and the result ends up a series of vignettes rather than a focused story. Keira does a great job with the material — she reads as a bit too old for young Colette, but not so much that it’s jarring — and her physicality and mannerisms work well for a character that starts off as countrified and ends up androgynous and empowered. Dominic West does a great job with husband Willy — you can understand his appeal and also his loathsomeness. The supporting cast overall works, although Eleanor Tomlinson (of Poldark) plays a Louisiana woman whose accent is probably spot-on but just Too Much (luckily her part is smaller than I thought it would be). The film is also notable for casting two transgender actors (Rebecca Root as Rachilde and Jake Graf as Gaston De Caillavet) in cisgender roles, which was completely seamless and refreshing to read about after the fact (read more about their experiences at Out magazine).

The costumes were designed by Hungarian costume designer Andrea Flesch, who had previously done two different 1940s-set films. I thought her work really was quite stunning, and I’m surprised she wasn’t nominated for an Oscar or Costume Designers Guild award. The film spans 1893 to 1906-ish, and Flesch did a great job with both capturing the era and infusing the costumes with character information. Flesch told Bleecker Street Media, the film’s distributor,

“Since the characters are based on real people, authenticity was important to [director] Wash and me, not only for Colette’s character but for Willy’s and Missy’s costumes as well. During the creative process, I studied a lot of paintings-works by Fernand Toussaint, Edouard Vuillard, Jean Georges Béraud, Vittorio Corcos, James Tissot, and John Singer Sargent. I wanted to recreate the harmony reflected in their paintings. I also studied archival photographs, period dresses, as well as fashion design sketches and dress patterns.” (Fashion Forward)

According to Variety, many of the film’s costumes were real antiques and had to be “painstakingly restored” at the Museum of Applied Arts in Hungary (‘Colette’ Costumes Were Driven by an Obsession Over Details). It’s a credit to Flesch that I can’t tell you which costumes were antiques, although if this dress isn’t antique, DAMN they did a great job:

2018 Colette

Fabulous detailing on Eleanor Tomlinson’s suit.

The film begins in 1893, when young Colette is living with her family in a small town and being courted by Willy. In this era women’s fashions are very much All About the Sleeves. While they haven’t gotten quite as big as they will a few years later, the giant, poufy “gigot” or “leg of mutton” sleeves were all the rage. Waistlines were at their natural point, there was a lot of gathering and lace or tailored and streamlined bodice effects, and skirts were A-line and moderately full:

1893 La Mode Pratique

La Mode Pratique, 1893, via the Metropolitan Museum Costume Institute Fashion Plates collection.

Of course, Colette grew up in the countryside, so wouldn’t have been dressed that up-to-date:

Colette dans le jardin de Châtillon-Coligny, vers 1891 (ou 1893?)

The real Colette c. 1891-93. Notice the long braids pinned up and full sleeves of her dress.

In order to conjure the young Colette, Flesch puts Keira in practical yet feminine clothing in light colors like yellow, white, grey, and beige. She also saves the full sleeves for Colette’s arrival in Paris. When we first meet Colette, her family is entertaining Willy. Flesch told Indiewire that the dress Colette wears “had to be a dress that was fine in the countryside but out of place at a Paris party. It’s an original dress that I found in the States at an antique shop” (‘Colette’: How Costumes Defined Keira Knightley as Both a Gender Rebel and a Fashion Icon). Most important for making Colette look young are her very long braids which, the character tells us, are her signature.

2018 Colette

Here is that original antique yellow dress, worn for entertaining.

2018 Colette

But Colette quickly changes into this far more practical ensemble made of blue and white striped cotton.

2018 Colette

In another scene, she pairs a white blouse with lace inserts with an above-ankle-length (for practicality in walking) skirt.

2018 Colette

Even Colette’s wedding dress is pretty simple.

By 1895, the silhouette was similar but sleeves and hems got BIG:

Simpson, Hunter, & Young, Glasgow, 1895-97, via the Metropolitan Museum Costume Institute Fashion Plates collection.

When Colette first arrives in Paris, her wardrobe does improve, but she never adopts such fashion-forward styles or ornate evening looks. There’s even a key scene where Willy has bought her an evening gown for her first night out. Colette tries it on, then changes back into a day dress.

2018 Colette

Something like this.

The real Colette did wear overtly feminine styles:

Colette, Jacques Humbert, c. 1896

Like this painting by Jacques Humbert, c. 1896.

But designer Flesch decided against these kind of looks, instead doing pared-down, practical, day dress kind of looks. She told Vogue:

“I made my costumes simple and chic, but a little tomboyish, and Keira had the exact same body language. The looks worked so well because she made them work. She has a fragile body, but there is so much strength in it. This balance of masculine and feminine was exactly my aim with the costumes.” (Why Keira Knightley’s Colette Costumes Proved More Difficult Than Her Previous Period Dramas)

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This was one of the few outfits to have somewhat full sleeves. I LOVED the check pattern! SO cute!

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It might be even better from the back, with the angled yoke and the pintucks.

Here’s an overview of fashion changes through the rest of the film’s eras. Sleeves and skirts get narrower, and then the pigeon-breasted look comes in, where women’s bodices are very full in front and the S-bend corset gives them a very curved-forward torso. Styles were a mix between very tailored and frilly/ultra-feminine:

1897-1908 French fashion timeline

All fashion plates from the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute Fashion Plate collection, 1897-1906.

You do see some of this on Colette, but what you don’t see much of is color. According to Flesch,

“In the beginning before we started when I was making moods [boards] for [director] Wash, I had everything more colorful. Yet when I got in the midst of the work I really felt it had to be more black and white. Colette’s personality is so clean and so simple and so sensitive in a profound way, and so I didn’t want to have the clothes moving around and distracting from her. I wanted to keep her personality center stage. For me she’s a very elegant person, and black and white is the most elegant thing in costume. So, suddenly, I saw that no other colors could get in. I know in real life at that time things could be fussy and overwhelming and colorful but I wanted to make things a bit plain, not exaggerated, to keep it simple.” (To corset or not to corset? For ‘Colette,’ the answer was simple — and emphatic)

2018 Colette

Colette’s hairstyles do get more elaborate, but she’s at a fancy party wearing a (FABULOUSLY STRIPEY) suit with tailored elements.

Her wardrobe does have feminine elements, but these are minimized compared to other characters and what was in fashion.

2018 Colette

This blouse has lace insets, but no frills.

2018 Colette

The embroidery on this dress was AMAZING, but the stark color contrast keeps it from feeling girlie.

The first Claudine novels were published under Willy’s name (a key struggle in the film), but Colette was acknowledged as “his” inspiration. Because the central character is a young schoolgirl, Willy encourages Colette to wear what becomes known as her “Claudine dress,” a take on school uniforms:

1900 Colette Willy

The real Colette, Willy, and Toby Chien. Colette is wearing the Claudine dress.

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This moment is recreated in the film with Life, the Frenchie who plays Toby Chien.

2018 Colette

Colette goes through a period of wearing similarly schoolgirl-ish clothes, which becomes an interesting push-pull. She doesn’t want to wear them because Willy is pushing her to, but she does because they’re more stripped-down and suit her androgyny.

As Colette gains confidence in her writing and starts to experiment with her sexuality, her wardrobe goes Seriously Androgynous. First she starts wearing bicycling outfits:

2018 Colette
2018 Colette

Compare to Eleanor Tomlinson as Georgie, who is ultra feminine, especially in her lounging wear.

Colette 2018

More frills and froof on Georgie.

Colette crops her hair short at Willy’s suggestion, copying the hairstyle worn by the actress Polaire who plays Claudine on stage. But it’s her relationship with Missy (Mathilde de Morny) that inspires her to take the leap into wearing a men’s suit with trousers:

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Colette Willy dog French bulldog

As did the real Colette. TOBY CHIEN. More about him in a minute.

In potentially scandalous-to-our-readers news, Keira did NOT wear corsets in the film despite the fact that the real Colette certainly did:

“In developing Colette’s look, we decided early on that Keira would not wear a corset. So she developed this unique body language for the character that reflects Colette’s attitude towards gender roles and social expectations.” (Fashion Forward)

“From the beginning, it was decided that Knightley would not wear a corset, in order to develop a unique body language for the character, reflecting Colette’s attitude toward flexible gender roles and social expectations.” (‘Colette’ Costumes Were Driven by an Obsession Over Details)

“Yes, there are even some well-known photos of pulling a corset on her [the real Colette]! It was Wash’s idea and I think also Keira. Keira was very decided that she didn’t need or want a corset. So it was not my idea but I think it was a great idea. It really changed everything.” (To corset or not to corset? For ‘Colette,’ the answer was simple — and emphatic)

To be honest, Keira is thin enough (and naturally slumpy enough, whether or not she’s wearing a corset) that I didn’t notice. Judge me all you want! I think I’d feel more strongly about the choice if I had noticed, but since I didn’t, whatever. Yes, I can see how it makes sense for the character as portrayed on screen.

2018 Colette

Can you tell? I feel like I could lean like that in a corset.

I appreciated that they recreated various signature looks of Colette, like her Egyptian stage costume (which apparently had a headdress that was too heavy for Keira to wear on film):

The real Colette (SO CLEARLY WEARING A CORSET, and probably retouched) in her Egyptian stage costume.

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Keira on film.

Colette 2018

They should have poufed her hair more!

Finally, a quick look at other characters. Flesch told Bleecker Street,

“Since Missy and Rachilde were real people, I started by researching archival photos. Missy was a revolutionary. She outraged many by dressing as a man at the time. For Rachlide, there wasn’t a lot of documentation about what she wore. At first, we tried outfits with classical silhouettes and items from the turn of the century. But I wanted her outfits to give her an edge and make her stand out. I found this great kimono for her that captured her modern sensibility.” (Fashion Forward)

2018 Colette

Missy wears full-on, straightforward men’s suits.

2018 Colette

Rachilde in an AMAZING kimono.

And despite becoming increasingly jerky and worthy of ditching, Dominic West looked SHARP as Willy and will very soon be getting a Man Candy Monday because, rawr!!

2018 Colette

Every girl crazy ’bout a sharp dressed man. Really.

2018 Colette

Starched collar! Goatee!! (That’s Polaire on the right).

Finally, I do have one major complaint, and that is that Toby Chien DOES NOT GET NEARLY ENOUGH SCREEN TIME. He occasionally barks from off-screen, but he’s really hard to spot. As a huge fan of smooshy-faced dogs, I OBJECT. Apparently Keira wears an antique bulldog tie-pin as a nod to Toby Chien, but I wasn’t able to spot it.

Colette and Toby Chien



Check out Colette. You’ll be glad you did!

12 Responses

  1. LadySlippers

    Oh I will now have to become a patroness! I so enjoyed the movie.

  2. Susan Pola Staples

    I was able to watch it on Amazon Prime and I want the Frenchie (her dog).

    Her husband was a jerk or is it jerque in French😉 to say the least.

  3. Karen K.

    I saw this movie on a whim and absolutely loved it, the costumes were especially fabulous. I immediately bought the collected Claudine novellas and the Collette biography by Judith Thurman.

  4. Susan Pola Staples

    Thanks for the release today for all of us. I couldn’t spot Keira was corsetless either.
    Clothes were gorgeous, especially the embrodered dress.

  5. NuitsdeYoung

    There was a wonderful French miniseries on Colette that was screened here in UK with subtitles in the 1980s. Macha Méril played the older Colette. Unfortunately it’s hard to get on DVD: horribly expensive whenever I’ve seen copies appear.

  6. Aileen Brasche

    It’s not a kimono. The sleeves are different. My best guess from that one picture is a Chinese coat in the Manchu style.

  7. Shashwat

    For once I like how Keira’s lankiness deceived me into thinking she was wearing a corset.
    Although her suits have many androgynous details as per the designer,I think she looked like a very sharply dressed refined lady with a personal taste for lack of fussiness befitting her job as an author.The costumes read more as practical than androgynous to me(they are so pretty,I can’t picture myself wearing it so maybe not that androgynous?).For the same reason the costumes remind me of Bernadette Banner’s style.

  8. Katie O.

    This might be one of the only times that someone in a period film hasn’t worn a corset and I haven’t noticed. Also I appreciate there was thought behind it besides “corsets were oppressive!!”

    Although I have wondered, when an actress chooses to go corsetless, do they wear a bra instead? Or do they go for no supportive garment? A bra would give a completely different shape, but going without anything sounds uncomfortable. But then again, I might have a hard time imagining it because I haven’t been able to go braless since I was like 13 lol.

  9. Constance

    KK was better in these costumes than in most of her costume films but not so much the later part of film as the performer. She is a flat line actress to me, though she is gorgeous and looks like she should be more expressive. Dominic West is always slightly lecherous to me…maybe his eyebrows, I don’t know, or maybe it is The Affair, which I loathed/hate-watched for a while. But I liked most costumes and most of the film.

  10. Susan Gail Gibbons

    I read a biography about Colette years ago. She really DID have those two braids, but they were longer, nearly reaching her ankles. Colette herself wrote about them and said that they were like “whips.” So I’m down with the braids.