Reader Request Review: The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982)


So many readers have requested that we review The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982), and the few photos floating around the interwebs intrigued me. Famed art-house director Peter Greenaway’s first full-length film is set in 1694 and filmed at Groombridge Place, a 17th-century manor near Kent, England.

The Draughtsman's Contract (1982)

The contract of the film’s name is between the draughtsman Mr. Neville (Anthony Higgins) and Mrs. Virginia Herbert (Janet Suzman), as she requests drawings of her home estate to impress her negligent husband. Part of the contract, however, requires that she sexually service the artist, which she’s not particularly happy about. Halfway through the contracted period, her married daughter adds a secondary agreement, based on certain suspicions. There’s a mystery at the heart of the story, which is left ambiguous, and the whole thing is incredibly arch, artsy, and deliberately obtuse. This is really one of those flicks where you need to sit back and let the art wash over you.

The Draughtsman's Contract (1982)


Costumes in The Draughtsman’s Contract

The film is set at a specific date for plot reasons, but the costumes are an exaggerated style that just riffs on the period. According to director Peter Greenaway in The Guardian:

“The year is 1694, a significant year in English history for lots of reasons. It’s the year the Bank of England is founded. It’s several years after the battle of the Boyne, so the Dutch Protestant aristocracy is now firmly in place in England. That year also saw the introduction of a comparatively minor law that was very significant for women and very significant certainly for this film: the Married Woman’s Property Act. This finally meant that women could inherit property and have limited control over inheritance, their own children and certainly property. The film revolves around these ideas of female and male inheritance.”

The costumes evoke the period but they do veer away from it. Greenway expressed this, in the same article, as: “We tried very hard to create a sense of artificiality about this community, by taking the costumes of the period, but extending them and exaggerating them.”

As such, only the outlines of the actual historical fashions are necessary. For example…

1690s mantua, via the Met Museum

The women’s gowns are generally in the shape of this 1690s mantua, via the Met Museum.

1698, Queen Mary, via V&A

This etching of Queen Mary, via V&A, circa 1698, shows an elaborate fontange cap like those worn in the film.

1690s men's fashions

The men’s costumes hew mostly to the historical look of this 1690s men’s suit.

1694 portrait of Anton III von Montfort by Franz van Stampart

And this 1694 portrait of Anton III von Montfort by Franz van Stampart gives a closeup of the fat-bottomed wig styles worn in the film.

Unfortunately, it was hard for me to discern a ton of details in the DVD — the movie was originally filmed on Super 16mm, blown up to 35mm for theatrical release, and digitally remastered, so there’s a distinct loss of fidelity. For example, I could see there was plenty of lace, but not what quality or historical appropriateness. Greenaway had said in The Guardian: “For women, lace was hugely important. The more lace a woman could display, the richer not only herself but her husband and her husband’s estate.”

The Draughtsman's Contract (1982)

The fontanges are gorgeously tall. They do drip with lace. But I couldn’t tell anything about the lace, due to candlelit scenes and digital fuzz.

The Draughtsman's Contract (1982)

Promo stills have better details than screencaps, like the multiple layers of lace and fringe on the sleeves and bodice here.

The Draughtsman's Contract (1982) - dress & fontange at V&A Museum

The V&A Museum has this gown and fontange worn by Janet Suzman — not on display so a little worse for wear, but some fine details are more apparent in the closeups.

Towards the end of the film, one of the characters comments on “these black and white contracts” and Mr. Neville repeats about these words “set down in black and white.” This makes it clear why all the costumes are black and white. At first, all the characters wear white — the women in white gowns and the men in white suits and white/blonde wigs — except for Neville, who wears a black suit with white linen and black wig. Then, after the one death, most of the characters dress in mourning black, both women and men (with white linen), except for Neville, who then wears a white suit.

The Draughtsman's Contract (1982)

Early in the film, the daughter and her husband are in white, while the the draughtsman (seated) is in black.

The Draughtsman's Contract (1982) - black suit at V&A Museum

The V&A Museum has the suit worn by Anthony Higgins, which shows more detail, like the velvet and fabulous lace.

The Draughtsman's Contract (1982)

The daughter’s mourning gown is stunning. The shape of her gowns all look a bit more 18th-c. than 17th though.

The director further explains this, in The Guardian:

“There is also colour-coding in the film. In the first half, the aristocracy are all dressed in white. But the draughtsman always wears black. And then halfway through the film, after the essential, pivotal plot change, the costume colour-coding changes completely so the draughtsman turns up in white when everybody else is in black. Like a classic outsider, he always gets it wrong.”

Costume designer Sue Blane is best known to me as the creator of the sweet transvestite looks for The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975). But “blane old Sue” also did costumes for Lady Jane (1986) and a ton of London theater and opera, and she’s no slouch. The fontanges are off the hook in The Draughtsman’s Contract, giving the men’s fat-bottomed wigs a run for the money. Also, full petticoated men’s coats are in action, and trained mantuas are rockin’ the manor house. However, someone decided smocks aren’t sexy during the sex scenes, so there’s a lot of corset chafing going on, ouch.

The Draughtsman's Contract (1982)

I should be happy there aren’t metal grommets, right?

The Draughtsman's Contract (1982)

Mr. Neville in the ultimate puffy shirt.

The Draughtsman's Contract (1982)

The son-in-law’s costume is an exaggerated take on 1680s, with the tall wig, long sleeves, and full coat skirts.

The Draughtsman's Contract (1982) - dress at V&A Museum

Another costume at V&A Museum — worn by a minor character but still showing tons of embellishment (honestly, a lot more than is visible on screen!).

The Draughtsman's Contract (1982)



So will you re-watch The Draughtsman Contract now?


About the author

Trystan L. Bass

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A self-described ElderGoth, Trystan has been haunting the internet since the early 1990s. Always passionate about costume, from everyday office wear to outrageous twisted historical creations, she has maintained some of the earliest online costuming-focused resources on the web. Her costuming adventures are chronicled on her website, TrystanCraft. She also ran a popular fashion blog, This Is CorpGoth, dedicated to her “office drag.”

12 Responses

  1. picasso Manu

    Nope. Saw it with a group of friend when it came out, and there was a collective “ewww!!” when we came out. There was something perverted about it, and it left me a bit nauseated… I may also have been a mite too young for it, then.

  2. Jacqui Gauld

    Wonderful film, as are most of PG’s. Absolutely beautiful to look at, and the music, arranged by Michael Nyman and based loosely on works by Purcell is equally wonderful. I highly recommend anyone to watch this.

  3. hsc

    I actually caught this in a theatrical showing around the time of its release, as part of a special series of “art films” shown during an extended visit to my hometown, which could generously be described as a somewhat larger version of “Mayberry, NC”.

    Needless to say, a Peter Greenaway film wasn’t the best fit for this audience.

    I don’t recall the film being hard to view, so maybe the DVD is poorly mastered? I do remember Sue Blane’s costumes as one of the high points of the film, and as a recently retired Frank, I was eager to see her non-“Rocky” work.

    BTW, lead actor Anthony Higgins (credited as “Anthony Corlan” in his early roles) was in a good number of period films and TV (he’d just done “Quartet” for Merchant Ivory), though I suppose not well-known enough to be featured in an article.

    • Trystan L. Bass

      Brand-new DVD, & it was hard to find too (that’s why it’s taken me so long to review!). So many older films are not being reissued :(

      • hsc

        I’m assuming this was the Kino Lorber release? I went to their website and was stunned when I saw the trailer clip they linked. Despite talk of a restoration, it’s still surprisingly fuzzy and not at all like I remember the film.

        I guess maybe the original elements are grainy/fuzzy but the enlarged image in a theatrical showing makes up for it to some extent?

        • Trystan L. Bass

          I don’t have it with me but it’s this one (which kept going out of stock!)

          Watching it on a high-def TV prob didn’t help, kind of enhanced the fuzz (happens when I watch ’70s BBC shows too). Glad I could find some promo stills! I tried taking some computer screencaps, but I wasn’t getting better quality so in the interest of finally just getting the post done, I went w/what I had ;)

  4. Jillian

    I’ve never seen it but I’m going to search it out…I like art movies, and it’s always cool to see a movie that doesn’t shy away from the “alien” parts of historical fashion. Looks like this one even goes out of its way to show that–I love the wigs and fontanges. I’m also always a little thrilled to see the 17th or early 18th century since that period is so rarely done in movies. (And still more rarely done well…lol!)

  5. Kathleen Norvell

    I’ve seen it twice and love it, but I still don’t understand the ending. I was told there were both an “American” and a “European” ending — does anybody know if this is true? I need a copy for my library, but it’s always been so hard to find (like an English version of “The King Dances” or “Moliere” by Ariane Mnuchkin). I loved the costumes, even exaggerated. I had only seen Anthony HIggins in “Young Sherlock Holmes” so it was a treat to see him in a more — adult — film.