SNARK WEEK: Reconsidering Dangerous Beauty (1998)


Dangerous Beauty (1998) is known among those who study historical costume as the pinnacle of shlock. It took the true life story of Veronica Franco, famed courtesan of Renaissance Venice, and turned it into a Harlequin romance. And most importantly, it spawned a million “courtesan gown” knock-offs that will forever haunt the Internet, Renaissance faires, and more. But is it really SO bad? In honor of Snark Week, let’s reconsider the costumes in Dangerous Beauty.

Now, I’m not going to argue that the movie is GOOD. It’s entertaining if you have a HIGH TOLERANCE for shlock, cheese, and general ludicrousness. If you can handle dialogue like this, please do sign up: “You … all of you … you who hunger so for what I give, but cannot bear to see such power in a woman. You call God’s greatest gift … ourselves, our yearning, our need to love … you call it filth and sin and heresy.”

Dangerous Beauty (1998)

“I’m going to need More Melodrama from you both. Can you think about your dog dying?”

We tried to podcast about this movie, but Trystan and Sarah couldn’t get through the shlock. So, they may snark me here, too, when I try to analyze the costumes!

The film is loosely based on the book The Honest Courtesan by Margaret Rosenthal. It would have to be loosely, because that book is DENSE. I may play a Venetian courtesan, and I may love history, but even I couldn’t get through that book. It’s very much a rhetorical analysis of Franco’s writings, not a biography.

The real Veronica Franco, painted by Caliari, c. 1575.

The real Veronica Franco, painted by Caliari, c. 1575.

It sounds like the film went through Development Hell in getting made. Rufus Sewell (who played lead hottie Marco) has been quoted multiple times essentially saying, “I didn’t sign up for this shlock.” The film changed titles many times and was delayed almost a year from its expected release date, both of which can spell trouble.

Veronica Franco, painted by Caliari, c. 1575.

My friend Shawna is convinced that part of Rufus Sewell’s appeal is (the myth) that he has a glass eye. I’m not kidding.

The problem may stem in part from the director, Marshall Herskovitz, who was previously known for directing the TV show Thirtysomething:

I learned that what we define as luxurious is not what people living during the Renaissance defined as luxurious. And I realized very early on that we would have to use a bit of a slight of hand. I remember sitting with my department heads and saying that we have to give a modern audience the experience of what it would have been like to live then. If we showed the audience exactly what it was like to live then, they wouldn’t have that experience. If you look at the actual furniture people sat on, the rooms they lived in, or the clothes they wore, you wouldn’t think that they are sumptuous or comfortable. A lot of the discussions we had in planning the film were about how you tweak historical specifics so that it makes sense for a more modern audience. — Marshall Herskovitz, Directing Dangerous Beauty.

Worse, he echoes the Outlander controversy by saying,

Venice was the pinnacle of 1500’s civilization, Herskovitz explained, “But when we look at the details of their lives, we are struck by the fact that they didn’t bathe, their clothes were filthy, they had skin diseases, they wore a half-inch of makeup, and their furniture was ugly and uncomfortable.”

Part of his job as a filmmaker, he stated, is to help a modern audience see Venice as the people of the time did, “so there is a sense in which the film is intentionally glamorized or beautified or even abstracted from real life because I wanted to give an experience to an audience.” — SPLICEDwire

Obviously, if the director isn’t terribly committed to the historical period, and in fact believes that the historical period is kind of crappy, you’re going to get a tweaked vision — and maybe not for the better. Herskovitz also says,

… I was telling what I felt to be a thematic story, a poetic story, a story about the human spirit. I wasn’t necessarily telling the true history of Veronica Franco. — Marshall Herskovitz, Directing Dangerous Beauty.

Which, yes. But. Given the result, SOMEBODY clearly wasn’t too thrilled with the true history of Veronica Franco.

c1570 Danae by Tintoretto Musee des Beaux-Arts de Lyon

Danaë by Tintoretto, c. 1570, Musee des Beaux-Arts de Lyon. Veronica Franco posed for Danaë, on the left.

Now, let’s talk costumes. They were designed by Gabriella Pescucci, an Italian designer known for The Name of the Rose, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, The Age of Innocence, Van Helsing, and Showtime’s The Borgias. So, clearly she’s got a big resume, and she knows her stuff. Just think of the gorgeousness and historical accuracy of The Age of Innocence, and you know we’re not dealing with a hack here.

The main problem, costume-wise, are the “courtesan” outfits. Instead of putting the actresses into what they SHOULD be wearing, which are gorgeously sumptuous outfits that looked just like any other upper-class woman, we get these:

Dangerous Beauty (1998) 1998 Dangerous Beauty 1998 Dangerous Beauty 1998 Dangerous Beauty 1998 Dangerous Beauty 1998 Dangerous Beauty 1998 Dangerous Beauty 1998 Dangerous Beauty 1998 Dangerous Beauty

Yeesh. So, what happened? Yeah, you guessed it:

Gabriella [Gabriella Pescucci, costume designer] and I debated extensively about the costumes. When I first saw the designs for the courtesan’s outfits, they were utterly boring and unsexy. In fact, they looked just liked the wives’ outfits, but in red instead of black. They were heavy wool dresses that came up to here [the neck]. I thought back to all these paintings from the Renaissance with half-naked courtesans in Grecian dresses. So, I said to Gabriella, “what about the Grecian dresses?” and she said, “Oh, no, those are mythological; they didn’t exist; the women never wore them in public.” Eventually, I had to force her to create a hybrid between what was in the paintings and what they actually would have worn. What she came up with was not historically accurate but was brilliant and beautiful. — Marshall Herskovitz, Directing Dangerous Beauty.

Now, I will point out that the sumptuous, ornate costumes worn by upper class Venetian women, courtesan and married alike, were not nun’s habits.

Dangerous Beauty

And hey, Captain Von Trapp thought she was a hottie!

By now, you probably have your head in your hands, saying, “But Kendra, how can this be redeemed? Those look NOTHING like real Venetian Renaissance gowns! And there was no such thing as a special ‘courtesan’ uniform! Haven’t you seen the bad knock-offs? WHERE IS THE HUMANITY?”

"Courtesan" from the Assassin's Creed video game.

“Courtesan” from the Assassin’s Creed video game.

To which I say, “shhh, young Padawan. I know, I know. I too have witnessed the horrors of the shitty Jo-Ann’s Casa Collection being used for nefarious purposes, the off-the-shoulder chemises, the open-front skirts giving us a horrified glimpse of areas that should never be seen. Bite down on this leather strap.”

And, take a look at this:


“Courtesan” costume | Judith with the Head of Holofernes by Galizia, 1596.

So, historically accurate? No. Pretty? Yes. Smoking crack? Well, depends on your perspective, but Pescucci was clearly working from SOMETHING.

Now, let’s turn our attention to the rest of the costumes in the film. I know, you’re still reeling. You still want me to hold you. But I’m going to make you. Let’s look past the smack-you-in-the-face-pretty-slut-costumes and take a look at what else was going on in the movie, women’s costume-wise. (I can only really talk out of my butt when it comes to boy clothes.) You can sit on my lap while we do this.

DANGEROUS BEAUTY, Catherine McCormack, Moira Kelly, 1998

Veronica’s blue gown and Beatrice’s cream gown | Florentine, 1550s

Dangerous Beauty (1998)

Acceptable colors, recognizable trim patterns (more Florentine than Venetian, but do I need to turn this car around and make you look at more “courtesan” outfits?), correct lines.

1998 Dangerous Beauty

Modern makeup and her hair’s down, but she’s wearing a partlet!

1998 Dangerous Beauty

Veronica’s cream gown | Portrait by Fasolo, 1565-70

1998 Dangerous Beauty

Obviously faked open, ladder laced front. Don’t look at the makeup.

1998 Dangerous Beauty

Those are some BIG motifs, but I’m not going to say they never went big.

Day to Night barbie

I consider this next outfit to be Veronica’s “Day to Night Barbie” (anyone else a child of the 1980s? anyone? anyone?) because it’s the same bodice, but a Whole New Look…

1998 Dangerous Beauty

Veronica’s dueling pants | The famous interactive illustration of a Venetian woman, whose skirt front flips up to reveal either men’s pants or women’s drawers. The jury is very much out as to which, and whether this was something ever worn in real life.

1998 Dangerous Beauty

Not too sure about the random bound slashes on the breeches, but we probably shouldn’t focus on the details and instead point out that SHE’S WEARING BREECHES.

1998 Dangerous Beauty

Ah, yes. Of course you need a back closure on a mock open front gown, because, “mock” does not get you results. Give me back my Cost Plus earrings.

1998 Dangerous Beauty


1998 Dangerous Beauty

Licinio, 1530s | Veronica’s green gown | Painting from the Bologne region

1998 Dangerous Beauty

The bodice trim pattern is a bit too vertical, but it looks fine on the skirt and those sleeves are correct. Hair’s down, but she’s been dealing with Ye Olde Plague. It’s hard to find a rubber band when you’re lancing pustules.

1998 Dangerous Beauty

Beatrice’s black gown | Circle of Allori, 1570s.
There aren’t too many high necked undergowns in this area, but there are a few (see the pic below). The over and undergown combination is fine. As is the veil.

1998 Dangerous Beauty

Beatrice’s next black gown | Venetian, 1560s.
I ain’t got no problems here. Small ruff, spiral trim on the sleeves is period. Next!

1998 Dangerous Beauty

Paola’s greenish gown | Tintoretto, 1570s.
The sleeves and partlet are just fine. The V trim on the bodice front is random, but it’s not HORRIBLE.

1998 Dangerous Beauty

Another back closure on what should be a front-opening gown.

1998 Dangerous Beauty

Florentine, 1560s | Paola’s zimarra | “Medici girl.”
Zimarra (overgown) over an undergown, with a correct neckline. Like the trim on the sleeves. This one’s okay by me!

1998 Dangerous Beauty

Veronica’s orange gown | Detail from The Concert, Bassano, 1592

1998 Dangerous Beauty

Tied-front gown is period to the 1530s-40s. Decorative sleeves and underskirt. A little bulky, but then Venetian dresses were. Check!

1998 Dangerous Beauty

Zelotti 1560s Foscari | Veronica’s pink dress.
More like the low necked dresses, but I wanted to point out that Pink Is Period.

1998 Dangerous Beauty

Veronica’s red dress | Venetian, c. 1560s

1998 Dangerous Beauty

Closed-front bodice is fine. Sleeves are fine. Partlet is fine. Skirt trim is fine.

So. Yeah. The costumes really aren’t the travesty that you remember. I think we’re all scarred by the fact that so many people came away thinking “there’s a specific Courtesan Outfit,” and the bad knock-offs, and the shlocktastic-ness of the story, script, and approach.

But can you really argue that Pescucci’s costumes are total crap? I would say, no!

I am, however, going to leave you with one more shot of that makeup and hair. Because I’m mean like that.


I’m sure that eyeshadow has a name like “Erotic Sunset” or “Melon Balls.”

Interested in learning more about Venetian costumes in the 16th century? Head over to the Realm of Venus.

21 Responses

  1. Brigit

    We tell our new courtesans in the Yellow Veil NOT to go by the dresses in this movie–and to READ about Franco–that this is not her life…her life was actually more interesting.

    • christa

      Amen! So many folks take what they saw in this film as absolutely historically accurate that I had folks paving that all courtesans wrote only the color red

  2. Loren

    This movie is my Gone with the Wind – I know it’s historically inaccurate and a harlequin romance to boot but I like it anyway dammit!

  3. Stephani

    LOVE the historical references you were able to find for some of the better costumes in this film. Story-wise and acting-wise it is utter dreck, but I have to confess, looking at the costumes–especially the fantasy courtesan costumes–is a guilty pleasure of mine. The true historical clothing of Venetian courtesans is beautiful and sumptuous, but for the sake of a film romanticizing Franco’s life, I can see how the director didn’t think they created enough of a fantasy world for the courtesans and their clients. As a feat of non-HA costuming, I kind of like it. But it should be accompanied by a disclaimer: “half of the costumes shown in this film are not historically accurate; copy at your own risk”. As sexy Renfantasy-wear, the courtesan costumes are pretty awesome. Now, why they thought romanticizing her life was necessary, I can’t understand. She certainly didn’t need a bunch of dudes to speak for her when she was hauled in front of the inquisition. But perhaps the fact that she was a prostitute could only be made socially acceptable by spinning it as “doing it all for love”.

  4. Shawna

    A delicious and informative read. All you ladies (Trystan, Sarah, Kendra) are marvelous writers and I’m enjoying the Snark Week offerings so much. Thank you for mentioning me in this article, Kendra — I feel famous now. And, yes, I would skull fuck Rufus Sewell through the eye socket, I love him *that* much!

    Snark on!

  5. Joanne Renaud

    I remember back in 2001 that I was told this movie had “amazing” costumes and I should go see it. So I rented the VHS tape from the local library and saw it. It was… okay. I thought the costumes were nice but the plot and dialogue was so insufferably cloying.

    Super cool post though; love the reference pics. I don’t know too much about this period so it’s always nice to learn!

  6. GrimildeMalatesta

    Pescucci is a Goddess. If she made those costumes for such a crappy movie, you can rely that she’s awesome. She’s probably the most historically accurate costumer of all.
    I think you’ve seen Eva Green’s dresses for Penny Dreadful. They’re amazing. They’re not just the normal colorful costume for a period drama, they’re in the character and they’re even more historical than many others.
    She surely did her best not to be fired. And she got us some wonderful costumes. She might have the actual skirt and the actual sleeves somewhere, to have her conscience clean XD

  7. Anne

    I did read “The Honest Courtesan” all of it, with a highlighter, but I am weird that way. I will watch this movie over and over and over again for one small scene, “whose tears?” Jake Weber as Henry III broke my heart into a million tiny pieces and I never recovered…

  8. Dana

    Another holler-out from someone who owned the “Day to Night” Barbie!
    I love your assessment here: spot on. I was the costume director for a renfair during the time this movie came out, and had to wield the Hammer of No against a lot of employees who ignored the truly decent costumes in the movie because they all wanted to be a “sexy courtesan.”

  9. missdisco

    Veronica is the cleanest prisoner I’ve ever seen in a film. Like, oh, her face is a teeny bit dirt. and her hair slightly less dressed.

    I never heard of this film before this blog. It’s a bit silly, isn’t it.