Fans of historical costume tend to gravitate towards historical portraits. We can’t help it. We love seeing the grand gowns of the past captured in all their glory. And, if we are costumers ourselves, those historical portraits tend to be the gowns we want to recreate most. We add them to Pinterest and have our own bucket list of historical portraits we want to recreate ever so precisely.
So there’s a special thrill at seeing a wonderful historical portrait recreated in a costume movie. It’s surprisingly rare — you’d think that film and TV costume designers would rely on portraiture more often, especially for productions about specific historical figures. Here are my top five costumes reproduced straight from portraits — let me know your faves in the comments below!
5. Madame de Pompadour Gown in Dangerous Liaisons (1988)
Not a strict recreation of François Boucher’s 1756 painting — the colors are darker — but the style is spot-on and the gown, as worn by the Marquise de Merteuil (Glenn Close) makes an impact. The scene was a relatively small one, plotting with Valmont at a party, but the gown was used extensively for promo shots, so we did get to see it a lot.
4. Empress Elisabeth’s Starry Gown in the Sissi series (mid-1950s)
There haven’t been many English-language flicks about Empress Elisabeth of Austria, aka “Sissi,” but there’s a very popular German film trilogy starring Romy Schneider: Sissi (1955), Sissi – Die junge Kaiserin (The Young Empress) (1956), and Sissi – Schicksalsjahre einer Kaiserin (Fateful Years of an Empress) (1957). Alas, I haven’t seen them, but the painting Empress Elisabeth of Austria in Courtly Gala Dress with Diamond Stars by Franz Xaver Winterhalter, 1865, is a super-fave of mine, so I was thrilled when this pic from the movies showed up on the interwebs.
3. 1570s Black and White Gown in Mary of Scotland (1936)
I really admire how nice this ’30s reproduction of another fave painting is, down to the faux blackwork embroidery and hair styling. Bonus points also because this unattributed portrait was long thought to be of Mary Queen of Scots, so it was reasonable to use it on Mary, played by Katharine Hepburn.
2. Lady Worsley’s Riding Habit in The Scandalous Lady W (2015)
1. Queen Elizabeth’s Darnley Gown in Elizabeth R (1971)
There are so many perfect reproductions of Queen Elizabeth portraits in this miniseries, it was hard for me to choose. But I’ve seen some weak-sauce attempts to do the Darnley portrait on film, so I just picked this one. The fabric looks right, the cut is perfect, the ruffs and jewelry and makeup are on point, it’s a real portrait come to life.
What other historical portrait repros have you found in costume dramas?