Frock Flicks note: This is a guest post by our friend Maija Hallikas-Manninen. She’s a costumer doing 1870s, 18th century, and late medieval, and she loves to watch period flicks. You can see her work on her blog, Couture Mayah, or her Instagram.
In the notorious year 2020, I was extremely privileged to get to see the Glamour: Famous Gowns of the Silver Screen exhibition of a selection of Tirelli costumes in the Serlachius Museums located in Mänttä, Finland. Luckily the museum managed to stay open during the exhibition, though they had to keep strict limitations to the number of visitors towards the end of it.
In this series of posts, I’ll share my photographs of the costumes and a short commentary of each. I have seen many of the films included in the exhibition, some several times, but unfortunately not all. When the movie in question is set in an era I have some insight in, I will briefly analyze the historical accuracy as well. All the quotations come from the exhibition book, Glamour: Famous Gowns of the Silver Screen. The occasional reference images of contemporary paintings are courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
My pictures are taken with a phone camera, so they often don’t do justice to the colors and mood of the costume in its intended lighting. However, several professional high-resolution pictures of many of these costumes are available on the Tirelli website, so I recommend checking that in the remote case that you haven’t already done so!
Editor’s Note: You can click the photos in this post to see larger versions.
In the world of historical movie costumes, the legendary Italian costume house Tirelli can justifiably be called “The Best of the Best.” Founded by Umberto Tirelli (1928-1992) in 1964, “Sartoria Teatrale Artigiana Tirelli” has gained its fame by an uncompromising combination of a strong tradition of Italian sartorial craftsmanship, supreme designer talent, and dedication to the original fashions of the era portrayed in the films. To the delight of the niche audience of historical costume lovers, Tirelli has proved that innovative design and portraying the character are compatible with the guidelines of historical accuracy.
While some of their costumes take artistic liberties in regards to strictly applied costume history, the deep knowledge of the basic silhouette and the aesthetic and design rules of the period can always be perceived through the top layer of artistic vision. This is hardly a coincidence, as Umberto Tirelli was an avid collector of antique clothing, amassing a large collection that has been carefully studied and served as a source of inspiration for designers through years. Some of these historical pieces even appear in the films costumed by Sartoria Tirelli.
In the exhibition, the costumes were portrayed in a roughly chronological order by historical eras, so I am following this. I have, however, left a few movies out of this review, save for a few glimpses, such as these.
The Brothers Grimm (2005) and The Midsummer Night’s Dream (1999) are both historical movies with fantasy sequences, and the costumes exhibited were naturally the lush and imaginative fantasy pieces. My main reason for not including them in detail though was mainly that they were mostly placed so that it was impossible to get close enough to get good photographs with my very unprofessional equipment.
The same applies to costumes from The Young Pope (2016), which was also set in modern period and thus out of the Frock Flicks timeline, though the costumes in view were formal clerical robes which have changed little through the times.
We will begin with Medeia, directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini 1969, based on the play of Euripides (480-406 BCE). The costumes were designed by Piero Tosi. The exhibition included two costumes worn by Maria Callas in the vengeful title role. While following the simple, classic Grecian silhouette they are characterized by an abundance of artisanship and complicated texture.
“Two-piece female costume composed of a tunic and under tunic in cream cotton gauze with horizontal orange streaks and inserts in laminated silver fabric. The material was hand pleated using one of the oldest most ancient techniques. Matching veil in cream tarlatan, with yellow border in the same fabric.” (Glamour: Famous Gowns of the Silver Screen)
The costume vibrates warm radiance through the streaks of strong yellow-orange balanced by the white background, evoking the Mediterranean sun, while the silver tissue catches the light. The small metal ornaments and tiny beads on the border of the veil add the opulent element.
The second costume was this purple number.
“Female costume composed of under tunic in hazelnut cotton and tunic in purple cotton gauze with applications of strands of chenille and cord in various shades of purple. Matching veil in tarlatan with caramel coloured border. Inspired by the traditional costumes of various ancient people.” (Glamour: Famous Gowns of the Silver Screen)
Purple denotes royalty and high birth in antiquity, and pairing it with caramel is both a harmonious color combination and a nod to gold, another symbol associated with both earthly and divine power. The open sleeves caught at intervals by metal ornaments recall the classic chiton, while the lush surface creates additional depth.
Many pieces of magnificent jewelry were also created for this film.
In an autobiographical account, Umberto Tirelli recalls designing this film with Piero Tosi:
“There was a danger of reverting to the usual tunics, to stereotypes of Greek style, the rehashed cliché. It was impossible to historically reconstruct the dress of the period. There were no models, of course. Perhaps the authenticity would come from the fabric and the way it was worked. But which fabric? Cencio di nonna, the very poor material that upholsterers use to finish the underside of sofas. Cencio di nonna and hospital gauze, bought by the kilometre from medical suppliers. No one had ever used such a poor material for dress before. We were the first, and after that cencio di nonna made its triumphal entrance into fashion, not theatrical fashion but haute couture and ready-to-wear.”
Continuing with antiquity, two costumes from The Passion of The Christ (2004), directed by Mel Gibson, followed next. My knowledge of the period dress in the area is extremely shallow, but according to the exhibition book, the movie strived for a painstaking level of authenticity. The costumes are rich in detail, and the materials seemed to my eye fairly accurate for the period.
“Three piece female costume composed of over dress, tunic and veil. Sleeveless over dress with cotton and tarlatan inserts in cream, grey and dove-grey. Tunic in textured cotton with cream and dove grey inserts. Veil with grey, cream and black tarlatan inserts.” (Glamour: Famous Gowns of the Silver Screen)
Monica Bellucci played Mary Magdalene in this intricate costume. It’s laden with details like rich and varied textile strips that look hand woven, metal ornaments and a belt made of plaited cords in different colors and textures.
A small note from the historical accuracy point of view: I’m fairly sure that most people of this era and region would have had access to linen rather than cotton, but as the difference in looks is not that obvious, it makes perfect sense to use cotton for the costumes. I may, of course, be totally wrong in this.
The other costume from this film was worn by Mattia Sbragia as Caiaphas. As the Jewish High Priest, the character represents a figure of power, portrayed in the lavishly decorated costume.
“Four-piece male costume, composed of tunic, scapula, mantle, and stole. The tunic is in black and brown wool. The scapula and stole are covered with embroidered geometric motifs in various materials. The mantle has inserts of different wools and velvets. Black felt headgear with tallit. The embroidery on the stole (or perhaps they meant the scapula?) represents the front of the Temple of Jerusalem.” (Glamour: Famous Gowns of the Silver Screen)
The rich embroidery combines metal ornaments and gemstones with textile materials and decorative stitching for a full display of high station, the elite whose position is threatened by the new religious movement led by a revolutionary figure. The temple motif is a particularly strong visual clue to the character’s motivation.
The same theme of a conservative religious leader dressed in a rich, formal costume is continued in the next costume from The Name of the Rose (1986). Directed by Jean Jacques Annaud, this film, based on the book by Umberto Eco (1980) is set in a Benedictine Abbey in northern Italy in the 14th century. This ceremonial robe is worn by Lucien Bodard as the Cardinal Bertrand.
“Cardinal’s dress in burgundy bouclé wool, with cream cloth tunic. The embroidered parts of the chasuble are worked on gold laminated fabric and consist in ogival and rhomboid elements containing gold crosses.” (Glamour: Famous Gowns of the Silver Screen)
Purple represents the clerical authority and also sets this powerful character apart from the other cast wearing mainly drab colors. The embroidery, combining gold, scarlet and purple portrays a lavish display of wealth in an era when not only precious metals but also these vibrant fabric dyes were hugely expensive. Again, the sheer amount of handicraft is remarkable. The interweaving bands of the design bring to mind medieval manuscript illustrations, though perhaps more the earlier type like in The Book of Kells from ca. 800.
The character of William Baskerville, played by Sean Connery is the complete opposite. Marked by his modernity and intelligence, he outwardly looks humble and modest as befits a Franciscan friar, though this is contrasted by the actor’s intense, piercing gaze. The friar’s habit was the most simple piece in the exhibition, but it was both striking and felt historically accurate.
“Habit and cowl of Franciscan friar in dove-grey bouclé wool. Cincture in cord with three knots representing the three vows Franciscans profess: obedience, chastity, and poverty.” (Glamour: Famous Gowns of the Silver Screen).
The authority-challenging Baskerville was certainly not very strong in the first virtue!
And now we move on into a fantasy world! The Tale of Tales (2015), directed by Matteo Garone combined elements of several different fairy tales by the poet Giambattista Basile (1566-1632). While the story is fantastical and at times surreal, the costuming is firmly based on early 17th-century fashion, though it blends different styles and adds a modern touch here and there. This makes the look very interesting, a visual feast for the eyes. Yet the basic aesthetic of the period comes strongly through, evoking both the period on which the original source material was created and the popular imagery of fairy tale illustrations.
“Fantasy inspired female costume in red and black brocade, edged with textured black haircloth” (Glamour: Famous Gowns of the Silver Screen)
A particularly striking and memorable piece from the film was this dramatic gown worn by Salma Hayek as the Queen of Longtrellis. With the trailing sleeves, stiff pointed bodice and high collar it captures the mood of the period, seamlessly married with the dramatic modern fabric. The heavy red satin has a machine embroidered damask pattern, displayed to the maximum effect by the artful cutting. The black lace is actually a haircloth braid, which looked a bit too plastic close up but works beautifully on screen. Needless to mention, the dress looked absolutely gorgeous with Salma Hayek’s strong coloring, really complementing the beauty of the actress.
Several elements from Italian period fashions are visible in the design.
The costumes of the King of Selvascura (John C. Reilly) and the King of Roccaforte (Vincent Cassel) follow the historical inspiration more closely with quite convincing recreations of early 17th-century menswear composed of doublet and large trunkhose. It’s not an era in which I’m terribly familiar, so it may be possible that they have altered the proportions slightly to make them appear more pleasing to the modern eye, as is often the case. Nevertheless, the overall aesthetic is spot-on.
“Male costume composed of doublet and pantaloons in black velvet decorated with gold laminated ribbons” (Glamour: Famous Gowns of the Silver Screen)
It’s a striking, regal costume, instantly revoking the image of a fairy tale king. The placement of the abundant golden trim is very true to the period, especially the wonderful stripe effect created in the hose. In the movie and in the exhibition book, this costume included a heavy gold chain with a pendant that bore a close resemblance to the Habsburg Order of the Golden Fleece, unfortunately not on view. Also rather unfortunately, my pictures of this one did not turn out very good, as the combination of black velvet and gold was hard to photograph.
Stylistically, the costume reminds me of this painting of Gustav I of Sweden, though the dress style is a bit earlier (painted ca. 1557-1558).
“Male costume of doublet and pantaloons in gold and silver brocade. Original collar and cuffs in cotton lace.” (Glamour: Famous Gowns of the Silver Screen)
With the exquisite slashing, piping, and a dense row of small buttons, this doublet looks straight out of a period painting. While the fabric may look slightly modern in a very close look, it creates a beautiful silvery effect on screen. The final touch is given by the antique collar and cuffs. When I first saw them, I thought “My God, these must be original,” and later learned from the exhibition book that it was indeed the case. This attention to detail is truly remarkable, as in the period the rather recently invented technique of making lace brought on a whole new level of elaborate complexity to the fashion of decorative shirt collars and cuffs. The incredible amount of work that went into producing the lace also made it a status symbol.
The exhibition book does not mention the origins of the magnificent sash with gilded tassels, but to my eye it looks very much like an original piece too.
For comparison, here is a portrait of Charles I of England from 1631 (by Daniel Mytens):
The Taming of the Shrew (1967), directed by Franco Zeffirelli starred Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. While being based on the Shakespeare play and thus nominally set in late 16th century, I felt that this costume worn by Taylor as Katherina channeled more a fantasy princess than Elizabethan. In fact, I’d like to nickname it “The Unicorn Dress,” and it is in a weird way totally fabulous.
“Female costume with organza inserts in pastel colours on laminated silver base, decorated with ribbons in gold and silver lurex, small cream-coloured pearls and green bugle beads.” (Glamour: Famous Gowns of the Silver Screen)
The dress combines elements of Renaissance fashion, particularly Italian to my eye, such as the voluminous skirt and puffed and slashed sleeves with modern materials in an array of rainbow pastels. It has a playful, Disney-esque look reminiscent of animated fairy-tale films. The skirt construction of different colored panels joined by puffed chiffon insertions is an innovative interpretation of the period fashion of slashed garments with the voluminous underlayer billowing out.
Fellini’s Casanova (1976), directed by Federico Fellini, is another fabulous example of creatively interpreting rather than faithfully recreating historical fashion. The lavish, flamboyant look is suggestive of the glittering and artificial 18th-century high society. The two suits worn by Donald Sutherland in the title role of Giacomo Casanova follow the period-correct cut and silhouette combined with a fresh take on the elaborate brocades and trims of the period. In this sense, the richly decorated surface of the garments matches the mood of the period fashion, if not the exact style and techniques. The somewhat exaggerated look also seems to highlight the larger-than-life image that the figure of the famous adventurer has gained through the centuries.
“Male three-piece suit consisting of frock coat in pink silk faille embroidered with horsehair applications, soutache, and pink chenille; waistcoat in iridescent pink taffeta, pink moiré breeches. Jabot and wrist cuffs in silver lace and pink satin ribbons.” (Glamour: Famous Gowns of the Silver Screen)
“Three piece male costume: Frock coat in black silk velvet with cuffs and front borders embroidered with applications of soutache and frayed black raffia on horsehair, waistcoat in antique gold laminated embossed fabric; jabot and cuffs in black and gold lace, with ribbons and ruffles in laminated gold fabric.” (Glamour: Famous Gowns of the Silver Screen)
Another noteworthy thing about the style of these suits, with long waistcoats and large cuffs, is that their cut dates them to roughly 1740s, the time of Casanova’s youth in Venice. Many 18th-century productions favor the style of 1760s to 1770, imprinted in the audience’s mind as the epitome of “Rococo” style, never mind in what decade their story is actually dated. This a bit earlier style of menswear, often elaborately trimmed with metal braid and lace has a wonderfully flamboyant and rich look. And yes, pink was a masculine color in the period!
In addition to two Casanova’s suits, the exhibition had one female costume from the film.
“Evening gown in greenish-gold silk satin. Plastron decorated with wide red satin ribbons. Trimmings in passementerie of silver sequins and burnished gold lace. Copper-coloured and dark green scintilla sleeve flounces, alternated with black and gold lace.” (Glamour: Famous Gowns of the Silver Screen)
The large side hoops, the elbow cuffs instead of later ruffles and the petticoat only just peeking from underneath the overskirt date this dress to the same fashion period as the men’s suit seen above. The look is very similar to Italian paintings of the time, particularly works of Pietro Longhi come to my mind. As befits the period aesthetic, great emphasis is laid on the extravagantly trimmed stomacher and voluminous sleeve ruffles. The rather exaggerated stomacher is particularly striking both in bold color and proportion, it almost feels like jumping out of the dress bodice. The detail and trimming of it are really exquisite.
For many people, including myself, Sofia Coppola’s film Marie Antoinette (2006) was a beautiful cinematic experience and a huge source of inspiration for 18th-century costume. It was no coincidence that the second period dress I made for myself was in flamingo pink! The film included a vast array of costumes by Milena Canonero. Following the director’s vision, the look varied from painting-like period accuracy to some more creative looks spiced up with brighter colors and pop-culture aesthetic. They always kept the distinct late 18th-century look, though, created by the cut, correct undergarments, and generic style rules of the period. The costuming also followed the evolving fashion styles through the timespan of the film very faithfully.
The first of the two costumes on show was this lovely dress that Princess Lamballe (Mary Nighy) wears in the Morning Service scene.
“Day dress in oyster pink and beige iridescent shantung silk, with bodice trimmed with bows of the same fabric. Andrienne edged bouillonné ruches in pink and apricot taffeta, white marabou and cream lace. The palette of colours was inspired by the macaron, a typical French biscuit.” (Glamour: Famous Gowns of the Silver Screen)
The dress combines many elements of our idea of the essential 18th-century dress: the pale pink color, the ruched trims, the “echelles” bows covering the stomacher. Just think of the famous Boucher portrait of Madame Pompadour! The sweet, demure, and traditionally feminine aesthetic of the dress is in complete harmony with the character of Princesse de Lamballe, portrayed in the film as the ideal, well-behaved Princess of the Blood in contrast with the other close confidante of the queen, Duchesse de Polignac, who is depicted as a bit of a “wild girl.”
While the main aesthetic of the costume is very true to the period, there are small stylistic deviations regarding the details. The front edges and sleeves are edged with fur, which was a popular look in the era. I have never seen white marabou trim used as dress trimming in the period, but fluffy ostrich feathers were popular in hats and hair ornaments so it goes smoothly with the period look.
Another distinguishing feature of this fashion period are the ruched fabric trims. Originally they were usually of the same material of the dress, but here a combination of contrasting colors was used instead. They bring a fresh dash of colour into the pale dress. Another thing that you see when looking at the trimming from a close distance is that instead of the period method of cutting the fabric edge into tiny scallops (called pinking), they are here run over with zig zag and let to fray slightly. As modern silks fray very easily, the pinking would not probably survive filming conditions for long, so it’s perhaps partly a practical choice. Added to that, the frayed edges actually create a rather interesting look, especially in shot taffetas. This seems to have been used a lot this production, and it also brings to mind a little later fashion of fringed trims.
Also note the lovely lace, which must be antique!
One of the most “modernized” scenes in the film was the fabulous masked ball in Paris. Here the loud pop beats crashed with the period settings and dancers in wonderfully over-the-top opera costumes, creating a vivid picture of youthful, pleasure-loving energy experienced by every generation in their turn. In the scene, Marie Antoinette, played by Kirsten Dunst, is depicted as the mysterious “Queen of the Night,” hiding her true regal identity. The dark dress also sets her apart from the rainbow-coloured party crowd.
“Ball gown in midnight blue taffeta with various layers of black and blue tulle on the skirt. The bodice, with a layer of black tulle, is embroidered with a floral motif in black beads and blue sequins.” (Glamour: Famous Gowns of the Silver Screen)
This is decidedly one of the more “Inspired by period dress”-costumes in the film. The skirt supported by side panniers, the pointed bodice with the low square neckline and the elbow-length sleeves are all classic features of period dress. The little oversleeves on the shoulder are a nice nod to 18th-century masquerade dress which sometimes included elements like this, borrowed from stage costumes, which in turn drew inspiration from renaissance fashions. In contrast the transparent sleeves and the tulle skirt bring a modern, gothy twist to the look. The sleeves of course also form a link to the chiffon scarf she uses as a mask.
The embroidery design in the front panel has a strong late 18th-century aesthetic to it, especially on the ribbon-like bow. Similar motifs were also popular in jewelry, hence it’s particularly effective in bead embroidery.
This is, in my opinion, a costume that looks way much better on screen than seen up close, which is of course how it’s intended to be. The magic of the glittering embroidery against the black background is very much lost in daylight, and taken out of the film scene it begins to look rather too much like a modern prom dress. Still, it’s a lovely dress in itself, and looks amazingly alluring in the dimly lit film scene.
The third film set in the 18th century included in the exhibition was Milos Forman’s Amadeus (1984). While the film’s costuming varied from historically accurate to more fantastical, the two costumes on view represented the first category to top-notch perfection. Both combined original 18th-century pieces with additional garments created for the film in perfect harmony. These gorgeous men’s suits are worn by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (played by Tom Hulce) and Antonio Salieri (played by F. Murray Abraham) in key scenes of the film when each of the rivaling composers is, in their turn, conducting a successful opera.
“Three-piece male suit: Frock coat in cream, pale pink and green floral brocade; original waistcoat in cream silk with floral embroidery, from the Fondazioni Tirelli Trappetti Collection; knee breeches in gold satin.” (Glamour: Famous Gowns of the Silver Screen)
Rather fittingly for the character of Mozart depicted here as open, flippant, and rather shallow, a wunderkind who has not really grown up, his suit is creamy white with floral motifs. How well the original waistcoat blends in with the coat is truly remarkable, in fact I had to check twice to ascertain that the coat was not also an original piece. The cut is perfect, and the brocade bears a striking resemblance to period textiles.
By contrast the brooding, jealous, and secretive Salieri is dressed in a black coat, though the look is lightened up by the waistcoat and breeches, beautifully accentuating the light embroidery on the coat.
“Three-piece male suit. Original 18th-century frock coat in black cloth with floral silk embroidery, from the Fondazioni Tirelli Trappetti Collection. Gold satin waistcoat. Breeches in off-white satin.” (Glamour: Famous Gowns of the Silver Screen)
Needless to say, the embroidery on the coat is exquisite.
I would like to thank Serlachius Museums for their kind permission to use my photographs from the exhibition and quotations from the Glamour: Famous Gowns of the Silver Screen book. If you would like to purchase this book, full of gorgeous photographs and a good look on the history of the House of Tirelli, please contact the museum at email@example.com.
Check back next Friday for part two of the Glamour: Famous Gowns of the Silver Screen exhibit review!