Pre-Raphaelite Fabulosity in Effie Gray


Effie Gray was released in the UK in late 2014, and I was initially excited about: it tells the story of Pre-Raphaelite art critic John Ruskin and his marriage to a much younger woman who he never shagged and who consequently divorced him. I mean, I created the tag “pubic hair trauma” just for my preview! And then I heard that there was some kind of legal battle (apparently some people claimed that Emma Thompson plagiarized their Effie Gray biopic scripts — Thompson was cleared in court), and then Thompson refused to promote the film because of this, and then it fell off my radar. But when I put together my round-up of possible Oscar contenders, I decided to get off my duff and watch it — preparing myself for the possibility of a dry, depressing look at the mid-Victorian era.

I’m here to tell you, that despite said pubic hair trauma, and overbearing parents, and fucked-up husbands who need to reconsider their sideburns, this was a really great movie! No, it’s not a happy fiesta of shagging. But because it focuses on the most interesting character in the story — Effie herself — it manages to not be the dour, depressing Patriarchy-Fest that I was worried it would be.

Effie Gray‘s Actors and Story

Between this and The Runaways (2010), Dakota Fanning has proved herself to be a very talented actress. As Ruskin gets more and more asshole-ish as the movie progresses, she spends a decent amount of time being silent and withdrawn. But she still manages to bring a lot of emotional nuance to this portion, and you can see that she hasn’t lost her spirit underneath her closed exterior. And I was very thankful that she had a strong handle on an English accent.

Fanning pretty much makes the movie, but the supporting cast is quite good as well. Greg Wise gave a great performance as John Ruskin. I wished we could have learned more about what fucked-up psychological issues he had, and I hope the real Ruskin suffered severely in real life, but of course that’s the point — he’s totally closed off to Effie, and it shows. Sadly, he wasn’t as foxy as usual with those mid-Victorian sideburns — totally historically accurate, totally not my cup of tea.

Julie Walters was also great as Ruskin’s mother (a large part of his problems, according to this film). She mixes overly concerned and doting mother with territorial shrew without going overboard on either side.

effie gray 2014

Finally, Tom Sturridge as John Everett Millais managed to be both pretty and intelligent, which is a nice combination and what was needed for the role.

Effie Gray (2014)

Don’t let the douchey hat fool you, he’s pretty great as Millais.

Effie Gray‘s Costumes

The costumes were designed by Ruth Myers, who has a huge resume but mostly in modern-set films — her historical works include Emma (1996), The Four Feathers (2002), and The Painted Veil (2006).

The film begins in 1848 with the marriage of Gray and Ruskin in the rural area in which she lives. Unfortunately we only get a glimpse of her wedding gown:

Effie Gray (2014)

After that it’s “innocent country bumpkin goes to the big city” as the two are immediately put into a coach for Ruskin’s house in London:

Effie Gray (2014)

Effie’s traveling-from-Scotland outfit.

Her initial costumes are very sweet and little girl-ish:

Effie Gray (2014)

Light colored cotton for the first dinner with the in-laws.

Effie Gray (2014)

Almost sickly sweet for her first official event out with Ruskin. I wanted to see more of this one!

Things start to change as the reality of her marriage and new life sink in. She wears this to a fancy dinner out with her husband (who ignores her) and various Pre-Raphaelites who discuss Important Things. When I saw photos of this before the movie, I was questioning the longish lace sleeves — but it really worked for me, both for being dramatic and for showing Effie’s darkening world — in the film:

Effie Gray (2014)

Effie can’t find her place in Ruskin’s life (she tries to help him with his work, he tells her she’s in the way; she tries to help his mother with the household, she rebuffs him), but luckily the two go to Venice. There, Effie learns about fun and blossoms a bit:
effie gray 2014

Now obviously this is before hoopskirts (which came into fashion in the late 1850s), but I this outfit (below) felt almost late 1870s in silhouette — the hat doesn’t help. Note how her wardrobe is brightening up. Costume designer Myers said, “She’d been in a cage—which is what I wanted the earlier clothes to feel like—and then she gets to Italy and finds out life isn’t like that. That’s what I wanted the clothes to say” (A New Shade of Gray).effie gray 2014

There was a great scene where Effie is out in the wee hours of the morning, having left a ball or party with her new Italian friends (Ruskin stays home writing/pouting for most of their time in Venice). There’s a beautiful aerial shot of Effie spinning in the middle of the courtyard, framed right on top of a motif in the tiles:

Effie Gray (2014)

Her skirt has vertical ribbons that are stitched down to about 3/4 of the skirt length. It makes for a beautiful shot and shows Effie spinning free.Effie Gray (2014) Effie Gray (2014)

But back in London, things don’t improve. Eventually, Ruskin takes Effie to her native Scotland for her health, bringing Millais along as Millais has been commissioned to paint Ruskin’s portrait. By this point, Effie has pretty much shut down … but this is the period in which she gets to know Millais. I was shocked to find that I actually really LIKED Effie’s country wardrobe. She’s in lots of pretty scarves and gloves and shawls, but the colors are really pretty and show her inner complexity. And it’s just pretty!

Effie Gray (2014) Effie Gray (2014) Effie Gray (2014) Effie Gray (2014) Effie Gray (2014)

Finally, back in London, Effie is ready to Take Care of Business … and her wardrobe changes to a more put-together, confident style:effie gray 2014

Two other characters’ wardrobes worth discussing are Lady Eastlake (the wife of a leading aristocratic patron of the Pre-Raphaelites, played by Emma Thompson) and Ruskin’s mother (played by Julie Walters). I really liked the woven fringe sleeve on Eastlake’s black dinner dress:

Effie Gray (2015)

And I question whether this pink thing is a Swiss waist (a wide belt worn in the 1860s) or an underbust corset (shudder):

effie gray 2014

And for Ruskin’s mother, although it was incredibly hard to find ANY shots of her online, I was pleased that they put her into some evening gowns. I would think the tendency for this kind of character (bossy, overbearing) would be to make her look super frumpy, but the costume designer understood that any woman of means is going to have an evening wardrobe, and it helped to show the Ruskins’ wealth.

Effie Gray (2014)

Finally, I gotta talk about hair (when don’t I?). I was a little worried when Effie kept wearing her hair down at the beginning of the movie. She was 17 when she got married, but nonetheless, if she wasn’t an adult (who would wear their hair up) before that, she certainly would be after. But she pretty quickly transitioned into some lovely, complex arrangements that were clearly showing her own Pre-Raphaelite/artistic leanings. So I let it pass.

Effie Gray (2014)

And, by mid-way through the movie, she’s keeping those ornate hairstyles but wearing all of her hair up. Which, yes!

Effie Gray (2014) Effie Gray (2014)

And last of all, I need to both praise Lady Eastlake’s hairstyle, which is a KICK-ASS example of a high fashion 1860s hairstyle — the front rolls! The complex and long arrangements in back! — and point out that this is totally an 1860s style. Not late 1840s/early 50s.Effie Gray (2014)

effie gray 2014


Have you seen Effie Gray? What did you think of the Pre-Raphaelite take on mid-Victorian costume?


About the author



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.

15 Responses

  1. Emily Barry

    As a huge HUGE Pre-Raphaelite fangirl AND 1850s reenactor, I’ve been looking forward to this one, though I haven’t had the opportunity to see it yet! The costumes look… eh… Pretty but a little “fantastical”. Like you, I’m SO relieved they put her hair up eventually, and the soft fullness at the sides is a very ’50s and very Pre-Raphaelite look. *STAMP OF APPROVAL*

  2. phlegmfatale

    We studied Ruskin in Victorian Lit class last semester, and the teacher told the back story on Ruskin. I think the film was subtly done, given the distasteful elements of the purported story. The professor said that Ruskin thrust Milais and Effie together, so I thought it was surprisingly tasteful that this was not turned into a lusty costume romp (I would have been okay with that, too). Did you notice the only time Ruskin seemed to come alive in happy conversation was talking to Effie’s young sister? Ew. Julie Walters was superb as the social-climbing/soul-sucking/chilly old battleaxe, and this after we loved her so well as Mrs. Weasley! Range, people. It’s called Range.

    Yes, tastefully done in all ways. The film was a gorgeous series of color-washed tableaux, many veiled in mists. Loved this film. Loved the costumes, and you rightly describe the sartorial progression of the character. Elegantly done.

    I am surprised, however, that you did not mention that sumptuous blue velvet get-up sported by Lady Eastlake in the film. It is a jacket with lapels, and she is wearing a black hat and carrying a white fuzzy muff (apologies for any pubic hair trauma!), I believe. I confess that I have thought longingly of blue velvet since seeing the film. Alas, I am in Texas, and we didn’t even get a winter this time, so perhaps more velvet acquisitions next go-round.

  3. Black Tulip

    That’s my Easter film-viewing sorted, then. Just hope that Dakota Fanning’s English accent isn’t too English, as Effie grew up in Perth!

    Love the ribbon skirt. One of Ruskin’s letters to his mother from Venice mentions Effie having a dress decorated with little bunches of ribbon “like sugar plums” – Effie’s fondness for pretty dresses was another thing for Mrs R to disapprove of.

    • phlegmfatale

      I actually thought her accent was not enough Scots, but it was worlds better than most Americans manage, so I’ll give her a pass.

    • M.E. Lawrence

      I second that emotion re. her accent, which should have been upper-class Scots, as opposed to English. Apart from that, I quite liked Fanning’s performance; she avoided all the anachronistic 21st-century-style vivacity that most actresses would have laid on.

      (Did anyone else catch the brief glimpse of Effie Gray Ruskin in “Mr. Turner”? It was nicely done.)

  4. Susan Pola

    Next to Botticelli and Lippi, the PRB are some of my favourite painters. Throw in Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, the iImpressionists and Klimt I would be a happy camper. Also Art Nouveau.
    I really want to see this film, but it didn’t play on Tatooine and now I’m in a bigger city, I am awaiting my reserve from library. If I like it, I’ll buy. But what I’ve seen of costumes gives me hope.

  5. Olivia

    I got a bit of an eye-twitch when, at the scene of Effie’s first party with Ruskin (when she first meets the Pre-Raphaelites), they show a long shot of “The Order of Release”, by Millais. Effie MODELED for that painting; in fact, it was during the process of creating that piece that she and Millais started to get a case of the feelings for each other. Emma Thompson, you’re an educated person, you know better! I know the general audience might not know the story behind the painting, but a lot of them probably do, so it was my big complaint with the film, petty though it may seem.

  6. Melanie Clark

    It’s been a while, but I just watched the film and did some research on John Ruskin, because I’ve always admired his work as an art critic. Anyway, there’s pretty solid grounds for suspicion that he was a paedophile who never acted on it, but was turned off by a grown woman’s body. When he hit middle age, he became infatuated with another young girl, Rose La Touche (which apparently inspired Nabokov to write Lolita), but her parents contacted Effie to ask what kind of husband he was, and when she told them that he was oppressive, they didn’t allow Rose to marry him.

    From a letter to a children’s book illustrator friend: “Will you – (it’s all for your own good – !) make her stand up and then draw her for me without a cap – and, without her shoes, – (because of the heels) and without her mittens, and without her – frock and frills? And let me see exactly how tall she is – and – how – round. It will be so good of and for you – And to and for me.”

    It seems likely that he had some pretty serious mommy issues!

  7. Kathleen Norvell

    James McNeill Whistler sued Ruskin for libel when Ruskin dissed one of Whistler’s paintings. Whistler won, but was awarded just one farthing. Having read some of Ruskin’s writings for a Victorian Lit class in college, IMO Ruskin was a pretentious asshole.