Director / writer / producer Jane Campion’s last film before the recently lauded The Power of the Dog (2021) was a small, quiet, and exquisite tragic love story about an English Romantic poet. Of course, she was already known in frock flick land for the beautiful and sometimes dark Portrait of a Lady (1996) and The Piano (1993). But right now, I want to turn our attention to 2009’s Bright Star, where Campion teamed up with costume designer and production designer Janet Patterson. These two had worked together for over 20 years at that point, and Patterson was nominated for a Best Costume Oscar for this film, among others. Whether you’re a fan of 1810s costume, Romantic poetry, or tragic romance, this movie is worth a look.
In the Times Magazine, Janet Patterson said of this film:
“The real world of John Keats didn’t break open for me until Jane [Campion] started talking to me. We’ve been through a lot of life together now, Jane and I. She’s worked with other designers and I work with other people, but the thing about being friends and collaborators through time is that you don’t have to reinvent the relationship. We’ve all been together a long time.”
Her concept for dressing Fanny Brawne was to show her as young woman playing with fashion. In W Magazine, Patterson explained:
“I see young fashion and art students, beautiful young girls experimenting with things that perhaps they could never carry off at another time in their lives. Really, it’s quite fabulous. For me, Fanny was the kind of girl with an instinct for her own nerve and beauty. She’s able to pull off this experimental stage of expression.”
The real Fanny was an accomplished seamstress and designed her own clothes in the latests fashions — her scrapbook of fashion plates taken from magazines survive today.
The story opens in 1818 at Hampstead, following Fanny Brawne at age 18. She has a younger brother and sister, and they live with their mother and keep company with middle-class neighbors interested in arts, literature, and music such as Mr. and Mrs. Dilke. The film is shown through Fanny’s point of view, and her clothing expresses her sense of self and her emotions. And while I usually find Regency fashion boring, Janet Patterson managed to find all the most unusual, wacky, and exciting bits in the period that are appropriate to this character and brought them to life on screen! So let’s look at Fanny’s fabulous fashion.
White Gown With White Ruffs, Orange Spencer Jacket & Hat
We first see Fanny (Abbie Cornish) in this outfit as her family leaves church and goes to visit the Dilkes. That’s where she meets the young poet, John Keats (Ben Whishaw).
There was quite a trend for Renaissance revival ruffs in the early Regency period. They could be attached to a gown or made as part of a separate partlet / dickie, or as a whole separate neckpiece (yeah, this is a time when ruffs could “float“!). Compare with this fashion plate:
Here’s Fanny’s first outfit on display, plus a later white gown and one of Keats’ costumes.
Next, we see Fanny sewing a wide, standing ruff accessory. She’s wearing an odd sweater that almost looks like crochet (it’ll be reused in several frock flicks, including the 2020 Emma).
Fanny loves to dance, and she’s added that standing ruff to a silver ballgown. Not sure what the fabric actually is but I think it’s supposed to mimic period silver tissue, which was a very delicate and costly material.
Talking in W Magazine about the costumes, Janet Patterson said:
“I tried to get behind what I imagined what a young girl would be able to achieve. For example, when she wears the high-collared silver dress to the ball, she is creating herself as a peacock.”
Again, there are tons of period images of ruffs, they were popular in a variety of styles. This portrait shows one with an evening gown that appears attached to a partlet / dickie.
Pink Pelisse Coat & Sheer Bonnet
After seeing Keats briefly at the ball, Fanny decides to visit him, wearing this outfit. Particularly interesting is how several of the hats in this film are made of semi-transparent materials so even though the shape and size are large, including a wide brim that could conceivably hide the actor’s face, the light hat material gives a feeling of seeing through and NOT hiding. However, when you make something out of sheer-ish materials, you have to do everything perfectly because you can’t hide mistakes! So mad props to Jane Smith Hats, who’s credited for making at least this one, if not more of the hats in this film.
The shape of the hats in Bright Star are clearly taken from period sources, like:
Producer Jan Chapman and costume designer Janet Patterson talk about this costume as part of an exhibit and show more details on YouTube:
The coat is also a classic Regency style, like this fashion plate:
Brown Vest & Gown With Red
At a concert hosted by the Dilkes, Fanny wears this evening-ish outfit that is somehow made up of multiple pieces. I’m not sure how it works, but maybe there’s a vest, a dress, and a shirt. sheer red shirt. Later, she’ll wear it with a different shirt.
Blue Sleeveless Dress & Dotted Blouse
I don’t know where these Regency jumper outfits come from — a lot of movies / TV shows use them for daytime “casualwear,” but I can’t find period imagery or extant garments that really look like them. I get the appeal because it’s like a modern casual dress and shirt. I just don’t know where it comes from. Fanny has several throughout this movie and mixes and matches them with different blouses.
Brown Vest & Gown With White
See? Wearing that outfit from the concert again, but now with a white blouse. Here the top edge of the blouse is visible so it’s more obvious how the pieces go together.
Blue Dress & Brown Blouse
The brown could be a full smock or a blouse or a short partlet / dickie, no idea. The dark color combo makes her seem more serious, as she’s trying to study and understand Keats’ poetry.
Gold & Black Pelisse Coat
It’s sort of a pale straw gold, maybe tan, but a touch metallic, with a black gown underneath and black accented accessories. Serious and formal for a run-in with Keats’ jerky friend, Charles Armitage Brown, who thinks Fanny is too frivolous for Keats. That theme in the film resonated with Janet Patterson, as she told the Times Magazine:
“I think that’s still a contemporary dilemma that it is hard to reconcile — a love of fashion and fine looks with intellectual ability. It can still be a terrible legacy for a girl to be brilliant and beautiful, when people prefer that beauties be lightweights.”
Pink Ruffled Dress
She wore this dress under the pink coat, and again without the coat in the rain. The puffed sleeves were another Renaissance revival trend that was popular during the 1800s-1820s.
Janet Patterson said of this outfit in W Magazine:
“I used the romantic Valentine’s theme to select the fabric, and I thought it would be good if the fabric was a sheer linen that would would deteriorate in the rain. Well, it actually deteriorated a little too well and provided for some dramatic filming. But it worked well because the scene is about a moment of opportunity in their love affair and also a betrayal. There is an ambiguity there; Fanny looks fresh and beautiful, and then when it starts to rain, she looks like a wet rag.”
Compare with this extant gown and fashion plate.
White Gown & Straw Bonnet
Fanny’s most simple outfit is when she pays a springtime visit to the poets’ lair. This is the typical Regency little white dress.
Red & White Spencer Jacket
At a neighborhood picnic that turns into a romantic date, Fanny wears this smartly tailored spencer jacket in a red and white pinstripe.
In Variety, actor Abbie Cornish said about the costumes:
“The things I loved the most were the jackets, shoes, and hats. They were so authentic it was kind of scary. I had undergarments, stockings, the corset, a petticoat, then another layer which give the dress its shape, and another layer over that with a blouse, and then the dress, then the collar … sometimes I had six layers of clothing on my body.”
Pale Green Sleeveless Dress & Blouse
As the poets plan to travel, Fanny gets pensive in sea-green ensemble. Another sleeveless dress with a blouse (or smock or dickie).
Dotted Sleeveless Dress & White Blouse
Waiting around with the cat, wearing another of these darn outfits.
The only image I could dig up that has something close to the sleeveless dress and blouse style — and it’s an evening dress from the back, so it might be contrasting sleeves. No idea!
White Floral Sleeveless Dress & White Blouse
This one is shown on display, above, with the orange spencer. It’s yet another sleeveless dress and blouse, but done all in the same color it looks more cohesive and a bit more period, like an all-white dress.
Gold & White Stripe Dress
This is the same dress Fanny wore underneath the red and white stripe spencer jacket. She wears the dress solo when Keats goes to London.
The sleeves are a little different, but its still very close to this extant gown:
Teal Redingote & Straw Hat
Reading Keats’ letters, Fanny wears this double-breasted coat. She also wears it into town.
Light Blue Spencer Jacket
Fanny visits Keats in London and wears a blue spencer over the green outfit worn earlier.
Dark Blue Coat & Hat
This single-breasted coat and fabric-covered hat are Fanny’s mourning outfit after Keats dies.
Other Costumes in Bright Star
Fanny’s mom wears slightly outdated but neat and trim clothes. She’s always in some kind of printed jacket that closes with ribbons up the front, and she wears an elaborate cap. The effect is more 18th century than early 19th.
Fanny’s younger siblings are appropriately kitted out, and it’s worth noting that her little sister has her hair up, under a hat, and wears a nice dress at all times.
The neighboring Mrs. Dilke always wears a big ol’ cap indoors too.
But what is that I spy? The fabric of her dress looks familiar…
Why yes, I’ve seen it before. Many times. And these striped garments have been recycled in multiple productions too.
At the concert which Fanny attends, there are several other young ladies dressed in various levels of evening wear.
Have you seen Bright Star? Are you a fan of Romantic poetry?
Thanks, Trystan. I remember really liking “Bright Star”–romantic in the most accurate sense of the word–but must see it again in order to pay more attention to the costumes.