Cecil Beaton was many things, and in some ways, the least of them was “costume designer,” especially historical movie costume designer. His artistic life began with photography as a child, and the vast majority of his career was consumed by fashion, royalty, and society photography, with some war photography thrown in for World War II. He took the official wedding photographs of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor on rather short notice, and he took portraits of Queen Elizabeth II on her coronation day, among other things.
In the 1930s, Beaton started designing costumes and sets for theater and film, and his most successful work tends to have been in historical settings. He won Tony awards for Best Costume Design for the 1870s-set Quadrille (1955) and the 1912-set My Fair Lady (1957). The later, of course, lead to Beaton working on the film version, which he won both an Academy award for Best Costume Design and for Best Art Direction.
Having studied history, art, and architecture at Cambridge, Cecil Beaton did bring an understanding of historical shapes and styles to his costume work. He also brought his photographer’s eye for drama, and he knew how to make a particular actress look insanely good in clothes on film, regardless of what the historical style might have dictated. His work has a fashion designer’s stamp more than a historian’s — he creates clothing art to tell a historical story, but he does not recreate historical clothing. Sometimes this works beautifully, sometimes not. Like any art, it’s up for interpretation!
The Remarkable Mr. Kipps (1941)
Hard to find much about this black-and-white film with an Edwardian setting.
Photo by Almay.
The Young Mr. Pitt (1942)
Biopic of William Pitt the Younger, British Prime Minister at the time of the French Revolution, Napoleon, & the Battle of Trafalgar.
On Approval (1944)
A romantic comedy set in the late Victorian period.
With some fabulous gowns! Check out all that embroidery — even in black & white, it looks amazing.
Beware of Pity (1946)
This sounds like a total downer of a flick — a man takes pity on a woman in a wheelchair, she falls in love, he’s not into her, she commits suicide.
The film is set right before World War I begins, in the 1910s.
Photo by Shutterstock.
An Ideal Husband (1947)
I wish I could find / get screencaps of the actual film instead of just promo pix because it’s in full technicolor!
The costumes look rich & elaborate, even though they were made in post-WWII London when rationing was still going on so getting enough fabrics was difficult.
Reportedly, Cecil Beaton used his own Brussels net curtains for one gown (not sure which).
While much of the 1890s fashions work, sometimes a very 1940s piece slips in.
Check out full-color clips of the film on TMC.
Anna Karenina (1948)
Cecil Beaton designed the costumes for Anna Karenina & An Ideal Husband back to back — both were by the same producer & were made in the same studio.
This is the gown worn underneath that velvet shawl.
This gown is pale lilac (although the movie was filmed in black & white).
Side view of the ‘lilac’ gown.
Leslie Caron starts the movie in this ‘schoolgirl’ plaid outfit.
Catalog image of the costume.
Aunt Alicia (Isabel Jeans) wears a lot of pink!
The gown on display (colors can shift due to lighting, age, or monitors, of course!).
Another of her pink gowns, catalog image.
Gigi’s final costume — a modern fantasy version of 1900s.
The Doctor’s Dilemma (1958)
Another film I have no interest in watching! A doctor in 1906 London decides whether or not to save a dying artist, thinking his wife (Leslie Caron) would make “a darling widow.”
Also, the costumes are weird — one bit is standard Edwardian, then Caron’s character gets all “artsy,” I guess?
Cecil Beaton & Audrey Hepburn
Here’s a hot take: Cecil Beaton’s designs are often the Bridgerton costumes of their day. My Fair Lady is the ultimate example.
He takes period shapes & stylizes the hell out of them, using his own visual language to create a world that makes sense within itself.
You can see the historical references; but these are not historically accurate costumes in a historical story.
And sometimes it works!
On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (1970)
And maybe sometimes it doesn’t! Or at least, this hasn’t aged well — it draws a lot from then-contemporary fashion as much as English Regency.
Here, it’s the hair. From the neck down, this makes sense.
And you know Beaton was going for the neoclassical Portrait of Madame Récamier by Jacques-Louis David from 1800. The costume would be reasonable if not for THAT HAIR.
Yeah, Bridgerton is nothing new!
What’s your favorite historical costume movie designed by Cecil Beaton?