We started Frock Flicks with a podcast way back in 2007, and we occasionally delve back into that format. These days, when we podcast, we’re more likely to have an accompanying blog post with pix that fill out the audio commentary (like for our series on The Great). But those early podcasts were for some excellent movies and shows that also deserve visuals, thus, I’m slowly going through the backlog, starting with Belle (2013). Do check out the Belle podcast for our thoughts on the overall plot, history, and, of course, the costumes!
In this post, I’ll go through the major costumes worn by the female characters in this movie. While the men’s costumes are good, they’re not wildly stand-out, plus I couldn’t find / get as much screencaps. I’m guessing this film had a modest budget because there are a lot of costumes recycled from previous productions, even though the cast isn’t huge in numbers. But the rewears are thoughtfully chosen, and most of the costumes that make a point about the characters seem to be original to this film. Costume designer Anushia Nieradzik had done a lot of British TV before this film, both contemporary and historical, and was nominated for a Best Costume Design BAFTA for Middlemarch (1994), among others.
Quick summary (though really, go listen to our podcast!) — the movie is inspired by a painting of Dido Belle Lindsay (1761-1804) and her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray (1760-1825), and the plot very loosely follows the outlines of what little was known about Dido Belle at the time. Dido Belle was the daughter of an English naval officer and an enslaved African woman, and she was raised with her cousin Elizabeth by their uncle and aunt, Lord and Lady Mansfield. This painting of the two young women was made around 1778 by David Martin, and the main action of this movie occurs about this time.
The movie opens with a brief introduction of Dido as a child, being taken by her father from the British West Indies where her mother has died, and she is left with the Mansfields.
Her gown is typical of the times, though she’ll be wearing this exact one for about 10-15 years.
Then there’s the kids and their super-simplified versions.
Even though Lady Mary is the oldest woman around, she’s not ridiculously out of fashion and she isn’t a biddy. She’s a wealthy spinster relative caring for the children of the house, she has high status and shows it with refined clothing that looks of the time, if not the absolute latest trend.
By the way, check this out …
Fast-forward to adulthood. The year isn’t stated, but Dido was around 18 when the painting was made in 1778, Lord Mansfield judged the Zong insurance claims case in 1783, Elizabeth married in 1785, and Dido married in 1793, so of course the timeline is super-compressed for the flick. Let’s just say the majority of the movie happens in the late 1770s / early 1780s, m’kay?
Floral print cottons were common and fashionable at this time, like these:
Dido’s next outfit is the only jacket she wears. There were lots of jacket-y shapes and styles starting in the 1770s, so I’m always a little surprised that costume designers don’t use them as much. I’d think 18th-c. jackets would be easier to mix-and-match for different costumes and easier to fit since you could pair them with various skirts. Plus, jackets don’t use as much fabric (yes, I’ve made more jackets than full gowns for all these reasons!).
Compare with a few extant examples:
In the first scene when Dido wears her pink jacket, Elizabeth wears a blue damask gown. Not much of it is shown, but it’s the first time they repeat the pink / blue theme as adults.
How about the older ladies? Both will continue to wear gowns with pinned-in stomachers (and sometimes pleated backs), giving them a slightly older / more formal look, which is appropriate, and separates them visually from the young ladies in their center-closing gowns with fitted backs.
For the big dinner where the Mansfield family meets with scheming Lady Ashford and her sons, Dido wears a gown previously worn in Casanova (2005), but as her first “fancy” look in this movie and with so many promo pix using this, I think it’s really become her gown.
In the same scene, Elizabeth wears a gown first made for Dangerous Liaisons (1988), which coordinates with Dido’s gown — this is unusual, because she typically contrasts in blue and other colors.
While most of the older women have dressed to evoke the previous decade, Lady Ashford (Miranda Richardson) dresses more like the young ladies, right smack in the late 1770s / early 1780s. She’s not traditional, she’s on the make!
False rumps were used during the late 18th century to create the fashionable shape, and many different shapes and sizes of padding were used. Kendra has a great article where she reproduced some and we took pictures of the results, check it out!
While Dido’s signature color is pink, she does have a couple blue gowns, and I think they where created specifically for this film (meaning, I can’t figure out for sure that they’re recycled). First is this one with ruched trimmings.
The sleeve treatment was popular during the period, and in that blue, it resembles this recently researched painting:
Back to pink, this next gown is in a similar cut as that 1770s portrait. It’s hard to tell, but I do think this bodice is all in one piece in the front, making me me guess that the gown laces in the back — which is Kendra’s bugaboo primarily because movies and TV shows have gowns with both a front and a back opening, and that’s silly. Not sure if this is artistic license, but it does show up various times in period.
That would be rather like the style of this much earlier gown, in an American portrait:
We get another pink / blue pairing, because in this scene, Elizabeth is in a blue stripe gown.
The two cousins in pink and blue remind me of Thomas Gainsborough’s portraits.
When Dido wears that pink gown, Lady Mary wears this gown in a purple taffeta shot with orange. I can swear I’ve seen it before, but maybe it was made for this movie and reworn afterwards? Not sure, but it’s just in this scene, which is a bummer because it’s really lovely and that kind of ruching is perfect for shot taffetas.
Here’s what I think is the ugliest costume in the film. I can’t tell what color it is — muddy pale green? washed-out pale blue? The petticoat is a shade of yellow that just looks like piss. And there’s something in the fit around the bust that looks off and unflattering.
Personal distaste aside, that is a typical fitted-back gown, and the style is used for many of this movie’s costumes. Here’s a standard-issue extant one for comparison:
The Mansfield ladies visit Lady Ashford, and everyone’s dressed up.
But it is that windy the night of the big party, so skirts will fly about and hairstyles will get mussed! This is the most formal occasion in the film, so all the female characters are wearing pleated-back gowns.
The young ladies may get the plot here (marriages are on the line!), but the older ladies are dressed fabulously and deserve their due.
At breakfast the next day and in a later scene, Dido wears this purple stripe gown, branching out in color and print, but the same fitted-gown style.
At that first dinner, Dido and Elizabeth were dressed in similar colors along Dido’s “pink” theme. Now they’re dressed in similar colors along Elizabeth’s “blue” theme.
Mostly Dido wears this gown (recycled from Casanova) with a cloak over it or in shadows, until she finally wears it when comforting Elizabeth in this window, hence the promo pic.
Elizabeth wears this gown (from The Duchess) a few times, including when she’s dreaming of her a future husband.
Lady Mansfield is trying hard to get Elizabeth married off. Finally she has a new dress to do it in.
This style is still going strong into the 1780s. Here’s one of many extant examples with similar front robings, open skirt, and fitted back.
Elizabeth with her aunt.
She’ll also wears this gown later during a pivotal scene with Dido. But first, Dido’s final and iconic hot pink gown.
The cousins have a convo in their last pink / blue pairing.
Lady Ashford and Lady Mary have a chat and compare notes about their secret goth pasts.
The last we see of Lady Ashford, she’s wearing her blue dress, but with a perky tricorn, so I had to get that screencap.
The only other costume of note is the Brunswick — a hooded traveling outfit — that Dido wears at several points towards the end of the movie and for the final scene. It was originally made for The Duchess and strongly resembles this portrait.
Oh and to round things out, let’s look at the movie’s version of the painting that inspired it all — because of course they had to paint their own. Kendra ranted about this during Snark Week, we had some words in the podcast, and it bears repeating that the changes were entirely unnecessary and dumb!
What do you think of Belle?