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)
Kendra reviewed this UK release and declared the depiction of Lady Worsley in military-style garb from the 1776 portrait by Reynolds as “99% perfect!” High praise indeed.
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?
Elisabeth I Coronation Dress with robes from the Cate Blanchett Elizabeth movie. The Vermeer Girl with Pearl Earring from film with same name.
Elizabeth I Phoenix Dress from 1971 BBC series Elizabeth R with Glenda Jackson would be at the top of my list . Impressive reproduction.
All the recreations of Toulouse-Lautrec’s work in the original Moulin Rouge—the one with Jose Ferrer.
I’ve got the DVD set of the Sissi trilogy, bought from Germany! The films themselves weren’t very concerned with historical accuracy, as you would expect from a 50’s film, I suppose. They try really hard to portray Sissi as a model Christian wife and mother and turn her relationship with Franz into a fairytale romance. The famous dress was portrayed as Sissi’s wedding dress. I know next to nothing about historical dress (even though I immensely enjoy this blog, and try to learn) but I remember some scenes annoying me because they depicted Sissi and co. wearing those off-shoulder ballgown-type dresses out in the open air, while travelling, while taking a walk in the woods etc. I’ve always had the impression that that (i.e. revealing cleavage and shoulders during the day and outside, exposing more skin than absolutely necessary to direct sunlight) was a big no-no before the 20th century, but that kind of thing is so often portrayed in films that sometimes I’m not sure.
Not an expert either but from my own research you are right, film and TV producers wrong. The portrayal of young Sissi in the BBC’s Fall of Eagles series from the 80s at least attempts to be historically accurate though unfortunately the actress cast to play the older Sissi looked nothing like the younger actress which I found jarring.
I saw a lot of Sissi’s stuff while on vacation in Austria and am still kicking myself for not buying the costume-jewelry version of her hair-stars. *sob*
tigerb – me too! Reading this article, I started kicking myself all over again. I would wear those hair-stars in a heartbeat. I don’t know what I was thinking not to get one in Vienna as a momento …. Ah well, may just have to make another pilgrimage for that purpose!
Looking at Sissi reminds me of the musical based on her life. It uses a lot of artistic license, but I’ve heard good things about it.
I can’t tell from this version of the Ditchley portrait how accurate the film version was but it appears to be all white. I went to a lecture a while back (I think it was Jean Hunnisett’s lecture) and she pointed out that the dress in the Ditchley portrait is actually 2 colors – white in the front and red in the back. You can just see the back of the dress in the portrait over the wheel.
Pardon my coming so late to the party, here, but the Ditchley gown in the miniseries is red in the back. You just don’t see a whole lot of it.
Also I believe Elizabeth R recreated the Zuccaro Leicester portrait.
I believe Zizi (Sisi) wedding gown can be found on Pinterest.
The only things that should ever be described as “on point” are hunting dogs and ballerinas.
Ballerinas are en pointe, if you’re going to be picky.
I think they took hair inspiration from the Sisi portrait for Christine’s “think of me” costume in the Phantom of the Opera Movie: http://images4.fanpop.com/image/photos/24300000/Christine-alws-phantom-of-the-opera-movie-24395726-2058-2560.jpg
Several costumes in the BBC The Impressionists (2006) series were designed to match those worn in paintings and are not bad though not exceptional. (That series was clearly made on a very small budget.)
I believe I’ve seen the first two Sisi films,thanks to Swiss roommates.They’re kinda schlocky,but you have to love them for what they are.
I randomly found the Sissi Winterhalter dress in the film “Hungry Hill” from 1947, worn by the character Fanny Rosa at a ball about halfway through. It’s available on Amazon Prime, and the dress I think is more faithful than the Sissi or Phantom versions, though overall the Sissi trilogy is a thing to behold for costumes produced on a grand scale and through a 1950s lens.
I love the sly recreations of the Otto Dix portraits at the start of “Cabaret.” Blink and you’ll miss them.