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 first part of this series about the Glamour: Famous Gowns of the Silver Screen exhibition of a selection of Tirelli costumes in the Serlachius Museums located in Mänttä, Finland, we looked at costumes from films set in antiquity through the 18th century. In the second part, we saw the beautiful creations for films set in the 19th century. This is the final post.
In this series, I’m sharing 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.
Returning to the Visconti collection, we will also approach the turn of the 20th century. The Innocent (1976) was Visconti’s last movie, with Piero Tosi as the costume designer again. Like with the previous Tosi costumes I would have a hard time telling them apart from genuine museum pieces if they were presented side by side without helpful information plates.
“Evening dress in cherry red textured satin with matching velvet flowers in relief. Bodice insert and short sleeves embroidered with burgundy bugle beads.” (Glamour: Famous Gowns of the Silver Screen)
This dress worn by Marie Dubois as the Princess looks very much like a House of Worth dress to me. It shares many similar elements such as the pleated neckline and beaded front with Ellen Olenska’s red evening gown, which may of course have drawn inspiration from this earlier creation. The bold, bright color is gorgeous but a bit hard to photograph.
Laura Antonelli as Giuliana Hermil wore the classic black, jet beaded look again.
“Evening gown in black satin with velvet flowers in relief. Neckline trimmed with tulle, and black jet embroidery at the waist. Short sleeves with in draped tulle with black jet fringe.” (Glamour: Famous Gowns of the Silver Screen)
The exhibition book does not mention whether the opulent jet beading was taken from a period piece, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was — and if not, it’s a stunning recreation indeed. Today, when mass-produced plastic-beaded and sequined garments and accessories are readily available and cheap, it can be easy to forget how luxurious these intricate dress decorations were in the period.
Apart from the glittering jet ornaments, the sleeves also have detailed construction with layers of tulle. They show the beginning of the emphasis laid on the shoulder line which would burst into the exaggerated balloon-like sleeves in a few years.
The third costume from the film was this stunning fuchsia pink piece that Jennifer O’Neale wore as the Countess Teresa Raffio.
“Evening gown in cyclamen satin, worked with flower motifs in laminated silver thread. Plastron, short sleeves and bow securing draped skirt in fuchsia silk satin.” (Glamour: Famous Gowns of the Silver Screen)
Again, the look of early 1890s haute couture is obvious here. While the emphasis of the gown is on the bodice, the skirt also has nice details such as the asymmetrical draping on the hip, opening into a turned panel of plain satin. It creates a nice counterpane to the satin details of the bodice.
The pleating in the pointed bodice beautifully accentuates the hourglass-shape meant to draw the attention on the bustline. The bow-effect on the puffed sleeves is artfully executed, foreshadowing the coming trend of the already mentioned leg-of-mutton sleeves gathered along the centerline.
Death in Venice (1971) is based on a Thomas Mann novella published in 1912. It heavily incorporated original period pieces in the costuming for a faithfully realistic look of the period fashion. These three costumes were all both worn by Silvia Mangano as the mother of Tadzio, the beautiful youth with whom the main character becomes obsessed with.
“Day dress in shiny pink satin. Original early 20th-century plastron is tulle embroidered with small strass in a macrame design. Sleeves in finely pleated chiffon. Draped neckline and short oversleeves, with laminated burnished gold thread trim.” (Glamour: Famous Gowns of the Silver Screen)
The old wedding rhyme “Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue” comes to mind when looking at this dress, if you overlook the “blue” part of course. The true magic lies in that it’s actually hard to tell where the old and borrowed ends and the new begins. The plastron can be fairly easily identified as an antique piece, as it has that special look of incredibly fine texture and intricate detail, but it’s so perfectly incorporated into the rest of the dress that you could very easily mistake it for a genuine period piece in its entity. The draping is exquisite, the silhouette spot-on, and those wonderfully sheer sleeves beautifully duplicate the original tulle foundation of the neckline.
This evening dress has the same flair of soft, ethereal femininity, achieved through sheer and softly draping materials in gentle, muted tones.
“Evening dress is pale grey chiffon on a base of pink satin crepe, with a fringe of silver beads. Bodice and sleeves embroidered with silver thread and gunmetal grey beads on original early 20th-century tulle. Neckline panel with floral motifs embroidered in relief. Draped belt of pink satin, with satin and chiffon flower.” (Glamour: Famous Gowns of the Silver Screen)
If I understood correctly, they have made the embroidery on a period foundation. The embroidered parts look somehow so genuine however, that it’s almost hard to believe they are not completely original. The whole gown is a true piece of art in both historical accuracy and exquisite quality of artisanship.
The final costume from this film is a complete original piece, and it says a lot about the quality of the costuming that while you can almost instantly recognize this as an antique garment the costumes placed next to it don’t look out of place at all. The eerie feeling of being in a museum still remains unbroken.
“Original early 20th-century female suit in cream lightweight wool with cream soutache applications on the front of the jacket, the skirt, and cuffs. Cream straw hat with black border, decorated with cream taffeta chequered with ribbons and large organza flowers. Cream tulle-maline veil.” (Glamour: Famous Gowns of the Silver Screen)
The white-on-white embroidery looks both intricate and sophisticated. While this was an era when sewing machines were already in widespread use a lot of hand-finishing was still used in high quality couture wear, as also later. This is obvious if you take a closer look at the pleats on the neckline and how the trims are applied.
There is no mention whether the blouse or plastron worn underneath the jacket is an antique piece as well, but it certainly looks so.
The large, whimsically trimmed hat typical for the period seems to be an addition made for the film. It gives volume and a dash of color to the rather simple suit.
An interesting feature of the exhibition was a dress that never saw the spotlight. Gabriella Pescucci designed this beautiful creation for Catherine Deneuve in 1975, but the film was never produced after all.
“Evening dress with wing sleeves and fuchsia chiffon bodice embroidered with a floral motif in red and silver beads and bugle beads. Skirt is fuchsia embossed silk and velvet belt with rosette on one side.” (Glamour: Famous Gowns of the Silver Screen)
It’s sad that such a beautiful late 1910s creation was never used, but at least it is preserved. If you follow the evolution of fashion, you can see how it retains the high waist, narrow skirt, and the flowing materials of the previous movie set a few years earlier, but already begins to move towards the simple lines of the 1920s.
It was a difficult dress to photograph, possibly because of the light of the room it was placed in, so unfortunately my pictures did not turn out very great.
Once Upon a Time in America (1984), directed by Sergio Leone, had Elizabeth McGovern playing the character of Deborah Gelly. The costumes, designed by Gabriella Pescucci, were full of intricate, sophisticated details. The use of lightweight, sheer materials in monochrome colors beautifully recreated the chic period look.
“Dress in self-striped black cady with small cream leaf pattern. Asymmetric bow at the neck and puff sleeves, in cream organza. Black velvet belt with jeweled buckle.” (Glamour: Famous Gowns of the Silver Screen)
The draping and pleating of the organza top part was amazing, as well as the neckline drapery and the gathered bias insertion at the front of the hem.
“Evening dress in oyster pink organza. Petal skirt, bodice embroidered with bugle beads in matching colours, strass decoration on shoulders, picked up in the belt buckle.” (Glamour: Famous Gowns of the Silver Screen)
The skirt shows brilliant mastery in period sewing techniques in a sheer material that can be very tricky to handle. The allure of the bias cut, used to optimal advantage in thin, softly draping materials such as crepes and chiffons was the new rage of couture at the period, and demanded great skill to execute as demonstrated here.
The ethereal beauty of this gown is completed by the gentle shine of the tone-on-tone beadwork, with the more brightly glittering accessories adding the touch of opulent luxury.
There was also several absolutely fabulous hats on view with these costumes.
The Legend of 1900 (1998), directed by Giuseppe Tornatore, had costumes designed by Maurizio Millenotti, including this lovely evening gown.
“Evening dress in pale yellow georgette with velvet flowers in relief. Waist-length jacket in panne velvet with pale green and yellow nuances, trimmed with organza flowers at the neck.” (Glamour: Famous Gowns of the Silver Screen)
Rather inexplicably the exhibition book photograph shows a jacket with the dress and the description follows this, while in the exhibition it was replaced with a velvet cape.
The drape of the gown is lovely, the narrow, tall silhouette morphing into softly falling cascades of fabric so effortlessly that you are left to wonder where the seaming is. The rich, warm yellowish green (to which my photographs hardly do justice) was also a refreshing sight after all the whites, reds and blacks, which of course look dramatic on screen.
The multiple Oscar-winner, The English Patient (1996), offers some more bias-cut elegance on Kristin Scott Thomas as Catherine Clifton. The film was directed by Anthony Mignhella and costumes were designed by Ann Roth.
“Evening dress in white chiffon with long, matching stole. Floral motif applications in organza, embroidered with silk thread, on the bottom of the skirt and at the ends of the stole. Neckline trimmed with a spray of flowers in cream organza.” (Glamour: Famous Gowns of the Silver Screen)
The flowing lines and the airy transparency of the chiffon give the gown an angelic aura. The flower appliques, softly drifting in the sea of chiffon waves are simply stunning in their delicate detail.
In addition to the specific costumes there were also some accessories and jewelry used in different films on view. Many of these looked like original period pieces.
It seems fitting to approach the end of this review with another quotation from the exhibition book:
“Until Tirelli came along, the period costumes in historical dramas clearly bore the stamp of the era in which the film was made. The gowns in 1930s movies were the thirties-style haute couture garments, 1940s costumes looked like they came straight off the pages of forties fashion magazines, and the same went for the 1950s and so on. The actors, too, moved in a relaxed manner more typical of their own era than as convincing historical characters.
Tirelli studies antique garments and their history obsessively, and his labours led to the birth of a wholly new breed of historically accurate theatrical costume. He constructed each garment so that the cut and the weight of the fabric would force the actor to move in a specific way.
Borrowing the words of Luchino Visconti, he wanted the actors to be “vivi, veri, vestiti e non costumati” — “living, real, dressed, but not costumed.” Even when he created pure fantasy garments unrelated to any specific period in history, Tirelli always evoked a compelling sense of visual accuracy based on authentic historical costumes”. (Glamour: Famous Gowns of the Silver Screen)
In theatre, the actors’ costumes have a long history of serving as a visual cue for the audience to recognize and understand the character, which can be traced back to Commedia dell’Arte with its clearly defined stereotypical characters usually dressed in an instantly recognizable style. This is still an important function of both theatre and film costuming, although it has evolved more subtlety along with the characters growing more nuanced and compelling than the stock figures of early theatre. But the costume that the actor dons for stage or camera can have a larger impact too.
The revolutionary approach that costumes were not only a prop for the audience’s eyes, but also helped the actor to inhabit the role of a historical character and achieve the needed posture and body language is also a phenomenon familiar to many historical re-enactors. It’s not only the top layers but the whole outfit, from undergarments to headgear, that both build up a convincing historical look and make the wearer leave their modern self and quite literally step into someone else’s shoes. The cut of the garment and the materials used are also crucial. Even the smallest details you would never notice on screen serve their purpose for the perfect illusion of history coming alive, absorbing you into the story’s magical world.
By uncompromisingly striving for his vision and building on the solid foundation of untiring research Umberto Tirelli has left a truly impressive legacy for this special branch of film industry.
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.
And we thank Maija for sharing all these fantastic photos of this exhibit and your detailed write-up!