Is A Room With a View (1986) the best costume movie of all time? There’s a darn good chance that it is. It’s certainly in my personal top 5, and I usually find Edwardian costume to be relatively unexciting. It was Merchant/Ivory‘s big hit, Helena Bonham Carter‘s breakout, and set the stage for quality films with historical settings in the late 1980s and 1990s. I’ve wanted to review it FOREVER, but I’ve been daunted because it is SUCH A FRICKIN’ MASTERPIECE, and I knew any review I wrote (beyond my short review) would need to pull out as many stops as possible. So, here we go, with all the info I can track down and about 5 million screencaps of pretty much ALL the women’s costumes.
Why is this movie so good? Everything is Spot On. Sometimes a film will have great costumes but so/so plot, or maybe the acting and story are great but the costumes suck, or maybe all those things are great but they just didn’t get the sense of the period right, or maybe the leads don’t have chemistry, or maybe the jokes fall flat, or maybe you don’t really care about the heroine… None of those problems exist here. You have STUNNING cinematography that will make you ready to sell a kidney in order to visit Italy and England, if you aren’t already an Italophile and Anglophile. You’ve got subtle comedy. You have MULTIPLE strong actors giving great performances. You’ve got an emotionally engaging love triangle. And you have 100000% SPOT THE FUCK ON costumes by Jenny Beavan and John Bright, known for many, many Merchant/Ivory masterpieces.
I actually can’t possibly cover all the great things about this film, so I’m going to have to focus on the costumes, or I will literally be at my keyboard until I die. Just a few shout-outs, however:
- If you haven’t made a pilgrimage to the various filming locations, particularly those in Florence, you are a heathen.
- Rupert Graves is at his ABSOLUTE CUTEST, with bonus floppy hair, as younger brother Freddy.
- The family dynamics are super sweet. Dad isn’t around (must be dead), but mom, Lucy, and Freddy all clearly love each other, and I always get a warm fuzzy feeling from their interactions.
- Simon Callow is charming as the local vicar.
- Judi Dench is all overdramatic flair as a “lady novelist.”
- Maggie Smith rocks the pinched spinster aunt, and makes me laugh with all her “don’t worry about me, I’ll just perish”/”I’ll take the better room to spare you from the penises.”
- You get to see Boys Frolicking in the altogether, and it’s sweet and hilarious.
- Everyone loves Julian Sands as the Romantic George:
- The music is gorgeous.
- The locations are GORGEOUS.
- The cinematography is gorgeous.
- THAT KISS
- There’s probably about 30 million more shout-outs that I’m forgetting, and will be kicking myself about.
Costumes in A Room With a View
Now on to the costumes, plus more commentary about the film. These were designed by Jenny Beavan and John Bright. The two started working together, and working with Merchant/Ivory, on The Bostonians. Beavan began on the project and brought Bright in to help; his “help” became so substantial that she insisted on sharing screen credit.
A Room With a View was the next project for all four (Merchant/Ivory, Beavan, and Bright). According to the book The Films of Merchant Ivory by Robert Emmet Long, it was Ivory who had the first idea for the film, but then thought, “I can’t do another period picture [after Heat and Dust and The Bostonians]. I can’t do another literary adaptation”! However, the team had already been paid for the script, so they went ahead with longtime collaborator scriptwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. The book notes, “In the end, Ivory found making A Room with a View ‘enormously enjoyable’ because it was ‘lighter and more frivolous’ than his usual movies.” The film was shot on location in Italy and Kent, England. The budget was small — $4 million. Most of the actors (except for Smith) were relatively unknown — Carter had done Lady Jane, but that was it.
It ended up a huge hit, and won Best Costume Design, Best Art Direction, and Best Screenplay Adaptation at the Oscar’s that year.
The film is set in 1907; the original novel by E.M. Forster was published in 1908, although he wrote early drafts in 1901-02. I’ve seen other years mentioned online, but this is the year specified in The Films of Merchant Ivory, an authoritative source. The characters are mostly upper middle class — let’s get a handle on fashion in this year. It’s interesting to note that this is one year before the “Directoire” style comes into fashion, which is more streamlined and higher-waisted — you can see that change in Howards End, another Merchant/Ivory/Beavan/Bright production.
The key elements are
- the S-bend, in which the corset forces the torso forward and the hips back, although ruffles and padding at the bust and bum helped, as well as posture
- full sleeves, but not ginormous
- A line skirts supported by petticoats
- shirtwaists (what we’d call blouses) were also hugely popular
One other key thing is sportswear, which very much figures in the film. Functional-ish clothing for playing sports was introduced in the 1870s-80s, so it had refined a bit in this era:
For men, it’s all about a very straight line, relatively narrow trousers, and bowler hats:
Of course, in this film, sportswear is key, so here’s a range of men’s sportswear from the period:
According to multiple interviews and articles, most of the Beavan/Bright costume designs — particularly for this film — are either antiques or reproductions:
“In ‘Room,’ the clothes are all originals or painstaking reproductions garnished with original bits of lace and trim” (A Look Inside ‘A Room With A View’, WWD, Oct. 1, 1985).
“Some of the costumes they collaborated on for ‘Room With a View’ were refurbished originals, refitted to the actors’ figures. Other outfits were made-from-scratch copies of clothes in Bright’s collection, Beavan explains… ‘My talent is more in knowing how to fit and cinch older clothes'” (Reading the Signs in Competition for a Costume Oscar).
“According to Bright, everything he designs begins either as a period garment or as a vintage piece of cloth and trim. Much of it comes from Cosprop, the costume company the former actor founded in 1965 to fill time between acting jobs” (The Bright Side, Women’s Wear Daily, Feb. 28, 1992).
You can see this so well in the many close-up shots of the costumes, which are absolute eye candy being so full of detail — inset lace, tucks, embroidery, and more:
Beavan and Bright always take care to get the silhouette right, which means corsetry, corset covers, and petticoats in this period:
“For the women, the ‘look’ begins with the whaleboned corset, which gives them the correct period shape: a slightly pigeon-fronted bosom and a shelf-like derriere. ‘When an actress wears a correct corset,’ Beavan explains, ‘it helps her sit properly and walk properly. Some people really take to corsets and don’t want to get out of them. Helena has a wonderful body and really goes into the most extraordinary shape. Maggie [Smith], who wears quite tailored things as befits an elderly spinster, corsets well because she’s thin'” (A Look Inside ‘A Room With A View’, WWD, Oct. 1, 1985).
“‘We start by having the actors come in and try clothes on from the period to see how things will look.’ … For period clothing, fitting sessions are absolutely vital, he [John Bright] says, especially since body shapes have changed” (The Bright Side, Women’s Wear Daily, Feb. 28, 1992).
Of course, it’s not just about getting the period right. The costumes also have to tell you about the characters:
“Their exquisitely embroidered fabrics are thoughtfully tailored to each character: Lucy Honeychurch’s (Helena Bonham Carter) light, flowing dress fabrics complement her romantic, more impulsive nature and contrast with the starchier, more rigid outfits of her prim older cousin, Charlotte Bartlett (Maggie Smith). The costumes adhere to a fairly restricted colour palette to create a sophisticated simplicity, with lots of cream, white and black, which comes across in one of the costume inventories” (Dressing Sherlock, Bertie and Judi Dench: a look inside the archive of costume designer Jenny Beavan).
One particularly notable character is Eleanor Lavish, a straightforward, assertive woman who also writes flowery novels:
“’Eleanor is very straightforward and brisk,’ says Beavan. ‘There’s a masculine side of her character that is reflected in her dress.’ As Lavish, Dench roams the Tuscan city in search of character inspiration for her books wearing a starched shirt and tie – complete with ornamental pin – an enrobing black cape and a jaunty boater hat. She looks simultaneously commanding and intriguing: a woman who has lived life and has stories to tell, much like Dench herself. ‘The costumes seemed to happen naturally,’ recalls Beavan of finding the right tailoring to suit the sharp, self-assured author. ‘John and I would prowl down the racks of clothing with a cup of tea and see what felt right. I never sketch because actors live in a three-dimensional world, not a two-dimensional one… My job is nothing to do with fashion, it is about storytelling,” Beavan goes on. “You can read a script and do the research, but it’s when you start putting clothes on someone and seeing their reaction that you know when you have got a character right or wrong” (“Judi Was A Free Spirit,” Says ‘A Room With A View’ Costume Designer 35 Years On).
Care was taken to get the extras right, too — no gallery of shittily dressed extras here:
“The bustling street scenes in balmy Florence, meanwhile, only worked because ‘Italians are vain,’ she laughs. ‘They checked each other’s ties were straight and that everyone was looking good. That wouldn’t happen today!’”(“Judi Was A Free Spirit,” Says ‘A Room With A View’ Costume Designer 35 Years On).
“The Italian extras were fabulous, she says. ‘They are quite thin, yet they’re not into sports. and the men were brilliant. They’re incredibly vain and always took trouble with their looks'” (A Look Inside ‘A Room With A View’, WWD, Oct. 1, 1985).
In one source, which unfortunately I didn’t write down, Bright said that the costumes and hair work so well together because the Merchant/Ivory team knew each other so well. The hairdress is Carol Hemming, who also worked with Merchant/Ivory on Heat and Dust, The Bostonians, Maurice, Howards End, and more. The department worked with human hair:
“Italian women made another small but significant contribution to the movie: All the wigs are made of human hair cut from the heads of Italian novices about to enter the convent” (A Look Inside ‘A Room With A View’, WWD, Oct. 1, 1985).
Beavan and Bright didn’t know they were making a classic:
“Looking back at the film – and the exquisite Edwardian dresses, embroidered periwinkle blouses and starched beige tailoring that defined the aesthetic of the well-heeled group of British travellers – is strange for the costume designers. ‘We thought we were making a nice English film,’ says Beavan of the accelerated pace at which she and Bright found themselves assembling the characters’ looks. ‘I think we had one fitting in London to find all the basics, and then I took a suitcase or two to Italy for a second fitting,’ recalls Bright. ‘We did everything at top speed’” (“Judi Was A Free Spirit,” Says ‘A Room With A View’ Costume Designer 35 Years On).
Almost* All of A Room With a View‘s Costumes, With Commentary:
*Because, of course, I’m talking the ladies here.
Lucy & Charlotte’s Arrival
Both Lucy and Charlotte will wear these coats multiple times; this is Charlotte’s go-to hat.
Dinner at the Pensione
I’ve always found it interesting that Lucy and Charlotte wear essentially a blouse and skirt for dinner; granted, in silk, so fancy. Lucy’s is cream and blue, and Charlotte’s has lace. Both wear netted chemisettes.
I’m not 100% on the different colors, but this kind of “blouse” top for evening checks out:
Eleanor Lavish is in black with TONS of tucking, plus a metal belt and monocle:
The Miss Allens are all lacey:
Traipsing About Florence (Without a Baedeker)
Charlotte is quickly covered up by her coat, but she has this blouse with AMAZING details underneath:
Miss Lavish is in her super-menswear-inspired suit:
The Miss Allens have lovely details:
Lucy’s dress has lace, embroidery, and an interesting placket front:
George Emerson sports some crisp cream suits:
Driving Out in Carriages to See a View
I know I’m not the only one who was/is obsessed with this Italian girl’s hair:
Miss Lavish is in another variation on her menswear-inspired suit:
Charlotte is also menswear-inspired, this time in cream:
Lucy is extra frilly:
Back at the Pensione
Lucy is in a lace peignoir:
Charlotte is in another blouse that if it’s not vintage, I’m seriously impressed:
Back in England – The Proposal
A blouse and skirt combo for Lucy, with another floral-patterned belt:
Mrs. Honeychurch is ALL lace, plus a patterned floral fabric with a sheer overlayer, and bows:
Cecil, the human personification of a starched collar:
The Engagement Party
I couldn’t stop screencapping, I love the costumes in this scene so much:
Both Lucy and Mrs. Honeychurch are in dresses with colored embroidery:
Even the extras are Spot On:
Inviting the Miss Allens
Lucy wears a blouse with tons of subtle details — note the faint pattern, and either embroidery or lace:
At Mrs. Vyse’s Well-Appointed Home
This is the most dressed up Lucy gets. There’s so much to love here, including all the obviously vintage trimmings and Lucy’s HA-UGE hair:
Once again, great extras and minor characters:
Tennis at Windy Corners
Mom is in a blouse/skirt combo, the blouse with so many beautiful details. Also, SO MANY GORGEOUS PARASOLS IN THIS.
Lucy is playing tennis, so extra dressed-down:
Going for a Bathe
Yeah, I didn’t screencap much of the boys, but Freddy’s stripey jacket!!!
Mom is stripes:
Cecil is Peevish, Lucy Helps Mom Dress
I think this is the blouse from the writing-the-Miss-Allens above. Lucy’s belt buckle is slightly off-center.
Mom’s waist fastens in front, but she lures Lucy in by asking her to “do me up behind” — maybe something with the skirts?
Charlotte Comes to Visit
This is another standout on Lucy — the lavender embroidered flowers on the blouse fabric, which is over a solid cream fabric; the built-up sash; and the coordinating skirt. And, Lucy’s hair!!
I think this is a rewear on mom, but I’m happy to look at it again:
Charlotte’s traveling hat is beautifully trimmed:
Headed to Church
Mom is in a dotted black number:
This is the one time Lucy wears a strong color, which always confuses me. Maybe it’s because she’s finally starting to realize Cecil is insufferable?
Note the floral necktie on Lucy:
Cecil, still starched and fabulous:
Charlotte rewears this blouse, but it’s so good I have to screencap it again:
Lying to Cecil
Lucy is back in the same outfit she wore to dinner at the pensione, although without the chemisette. Her hair is much more grown-up, too.
Arranging a Trip to Greece
Another STANDOUT outfit on Charlotte — those lace appliques are stunning:
Lucy in another blouse/skirt combo:
Mom battles the roses in a rewear:
In London to Meet the Miss Allens
Mom is in a suit:
Lucy is in her coat for outside, over a beige dress with lace insets:
One Miss Allen has a very art nouveau dress:
Back in Florence
The new Lucy and Charlotte:
Lucy is elegant in sheer, ruffled, layered black:
Is A Room With a View the best costume movie of all time? Discuss.