This is one of my very favourite movies ever, based on a book I admire and enjoy. Early on for Frock Flicks, I wrote about how in 1992 the film Howards End helped inspire me to finally travel the world. I finished that review saying of the movie — “So it’s not the happiest of endings, but it’s a just one. Life doesn’t always end up in tidy little packages with pretty bows, but we persevere. We walk across the countryside, we take the trip anyway.” Which, dayum, that was prescient for your own life, gurl. I’ve also noted that this is one of my top 5 frock flicks that makes me cry. And, of course, I complained about the 2017 remake, even though I reviewed the damn thing. But in all this mushy pontificating and remake whining, I only glossed over the glorious costumes designed by Jenny Beavan and John Bright in the 1992 original. So it’s time to fix that with a deep-dive wherein I give the frocks their due. Who’s with me?
My first question was exactly what year is this movie set, and unfortunately I can’t ID that just by looking at the costumes. The silhouette floats from 1907 to 1910, with an occasional outfit seeming five years earlier or even a tad later. And you know what? THAT’S PERFECTLY NORMAL! In fact, that’s more normal and natural than everyone wearing clothes that come from exactly the same year. Look at your own closet — even the most fashionable among us undoubtedly wears stuff that was made five years ago just as much as we wear stuff made this year (nevermind the pandemic years or folks who never wear “fashionable” clothes at all, which says more about late-20th-century informality than anything else). The novel Howards End was written in 1910, and we could say this film adaption is set in 1910 as well, with the main characters wearing a mix of their respectable wardrobe from the past few years with some more au courant pieces here and there.
The women’s clothing in this film flirts from the pigeon-breasted, S-curve look of the early 1900s to the slim, body-conscious “Directoire” style at the end of the decade. Both suit the characters at different times and places, though neither is exaggerated or hugely emphasized. Jenny Beavan notes a general costume timeframe for Howards End:
Further, in The Design of Howards End, she had this to say about the film:
“Howards End is set in the Edwardian era, and we used to dress them in real clothes, not all authentic, but absolutely made in the authentic way.”
“The fabrics we would use would be as near as possible to what would have been used for making an Edwardian costume. It used to be more difficult to source the fabrics because in the ’70s it was really hard, everything was nylon or polyester. But John and I used to really try and find the most authentic feeling fabrics we could.”
“The corsetry underneath was the correct shape for that period and pushes the body into the correct shape. The undergarments for the women is basically a corset and then certain amount of padding around the hips to give a certain shape of the skirt, which then means the clothes move in the right way.”
This desire to look “real” and “authentic” and “correct” shows onscreen. I think those fabrics really make a difference because clothes drape and hang softly when they should, collars are stiff and crisp where they should be, very little is shiny or floaty. Where appropriate, many garments look lived-in, not newly off the rack, and the fit is excellent.
Most all of the characters’ costumes are in a similar color palette of neutrals — black, white, grey, cream, tan, olive, brown. The few colors used are soft blues, green, lavender, and just one character in reddish-pink-orange tones, still subdued, but slightly marked for reasons. Overall, this gives the film an ye olde-timey look, which could seem saccharine and sentimental in some hands, but here this makes for a neutral background to the strong emotions as well as showing how similar people may be despite the class conflict boiling under the surface.
As James Ivory noted in the New York Times:
“Sometimes you have to be careful that the surroundings don’t distract from what’s going on. Other times you can lay it on with a trowel, and you should. That’s part of the production value of a movie.”
Howards End rides that line because it’s a beautifully designed movie but not overly, elaborately so, at least not when it comes to the costumes. Let’s dig into them…
Intro at Howards End
The gown she wears started as a tattered green lace dress from a costume sale, which John Bright insisted on repairing and lengthening (The Bright Side, Women’s Wear Daily, Feb. 28, 1992). On the spur of the moment, the gown’s train became the focus of the first shot in the film, according to director James Ivory in IndieWire:
“We were setting up the scene; she was always going to walk around the house and look in the window. She had her costume on. We rehearsed as she walked around the house and I noticed her train on that dress passing through the grass and the wildflowers. It was an extraordinary sight, it was beautiful, there was something out of this world about it. ‘Why don’t we focus on that train and follow it?’ We do not even know who it is, then we pan up and there she is!”
Helen sneaks out of the house, followed by Paul.
Helen immediately writes to her sister Margaret (Emma Thompson), telling her of the engagement. Their Aunt Juley hears the letter’s news and rushes off to investigate. But Helen and Paul break off the engagement before the meddling aunt arrives.
Next is the first full good view of Helen. Like her sister, she’s in a shirtwaist blouse with a full skirt, but Helen is more romantic, with pleats and a touch of both embroidery and lace on her blouse, an embroidered belt instead of a plain one, no tie, and of course Helen’s hair is far more wild than Margaret’s ever will be (though an undress scene shows that Margaret’s hair is just as long; she just keeps it under more control).
This style of blouse was common in the period:
At breakfast, Mrs. Wilson is also in a “casual” blouse outfit, though hers is more full with a bit of that pigeon-breast shape.
Six Months Later in London
The eldest Wilcox son, Charles, marries Dolly, and the whole family rents a flat directly across from the Schlegels’ home (so rude!). Only a few glimpses are shown of the family exiting the church, but Dolly (Susie Lindeman) is wearing a satin wedding gown with a full blouse and sleeves of the early 1900s. Mrs. Wilcox wears a green suit in a similar style.
Ruth Wilcox’s suit sits right at the edge of the second part of the 1900s decade.
These two costumes have been on display where they’re much more visible than in the film.
Compare Dolly’s wedding gown to this extant gown:
Meanwhile, Margaret watches the Wilcoxes move in, and Helen attends a lecture on ‘Music and Meaning’ and absent-mindedly steals Leonard Bast’s umbrella.
A similar tunic / blouse style in a fashion plate:
In London, Helen is wearing the same style of shirtwaist blouse but in a blue-grey silk with a subtle pattern. Her look is darker and more wild than that slightly prim look in the country.
That umbrella that kicks off the story was a problem for the actor. Helena Bonham Carter said in an Architectural Digest interview:
“I was terrible with props — I still am — so there was a shot of me having to walk across the square in pouring rain, and I had to back into a house door with an umbrella. They wanted it quick — it was only an establishing shot — but to actually walk backwards through a door with an umbrella is harder than it looks. I was getting very, very stressed because the umbrella would get turned inside out.”
Leonard Bast (Samuel West) refuses tea cakes from the Schlegels. At his shabby apartment, Leonard can’t relate to his girlfriend, later wife, Jacky (Nicola Duffett). She’s the closest to a pop of color in the whole film. Here, she wears a pink dressing gown and reddish skirt, and her red hair is bright and loose. Margaret also has reddish hair, but it’s so contained, so completely different.
While she’s poor and this is a “sloppy” at-home outfit, it’s still accurate. The shape and style of her dressing gown are similar to several extant ones in museums, like this:
Winter in London
Margaret visits Ruth Wilcox, who has been left alone while her son is on his honeymoon and her husband and daughter are off touring England. The two women become friends and talk of Howards End.
Mrs. Wilcox has lunch with Margaret and her radical friends, who talk a lot of politics over Ruth’s head, it seems. Margaret plays mediator and is dressed accordingly in another efficient, modest shirtwaist outfit.
While Mrs. Wilcox looks more old-fashioned and is the only woman at the table wearing a hat.
Everyone at the luncheon.
Christmas Gift Shopping
While Margaret didn’t think the luncheon was successful, Mrs. Wilson still asks her to go shopping.
They return to the Wilcox place for some unboxing and tea.
Alas, Mrs. Wilcox goes to the hospital for an operation soon after, and it doesn’t go well.
The Basts Again
Jacky pays an unexpected visit to the Schlegels, having found Margaret’s card in Leonard’s pocket.
Margaret’s dress style is typical of the early 1910s with a slim silhouette and pleats running from shoulder to hem.
Jacky is formally dressed for calling on these strange women who she suspects of tempting and toying with her man. She’s the only speaking character in the film who wears a strong(ish) color, and again, she’s in reds.
Later, Leonard shows up at dinner time to explain. The Schlegel brother, Tibby, is dressed in black tie, and Margaret wears this elegant black dinner gown with lace and beading.
Reminds me of this extant gown, which is much more sparkly but along the same lines:
Then there’s Helen, who wears this odd outfit for dinner — it’s reminiscent of the black-and-white evening outfit she’s wearing in her very first scene in the film because both are jumper / pinafore styles worn over delicate white blouses. This time, the gown part is in a grey-green silk. She also wears a velvet ribbon around her neck that ties with loooong tails hanging down her back. It’s a unique look making her character stand out as bohemian, rebellious, and free-thinking. She won’t do what other people will do. As Helena Bonham Carter told Architectural Digest: “Helen was fun and eccentric.”
I worked hard to scrounge up some slightly similar period images for this dress! The first is a “suspender” style dress that kind of has the same concept.
Then there’s this extant dress from several years later:
Margaret and Helen finish up their regular night out with radical ladies. The film credits label them as the “blue stockings,” which comes from an 18th-century social and educational movement started by women. By the 19th century, the term was slightly derogatory in referring to women with intellectual and literary interests, which the Schlegels definitely are.
Tea With Mr. Bast
Having just got some business advice from Henry Wilcox, the Schlegels are excited to pass it along to Leonard Bast. The costumes in this scene are bumped up a notch — of course, this is where all the drama of the two main threads of the story will turn.
The lines of this dress are similar to ones seen in period fashion plates.
Helen is again wearing something unusual. She’s a wacky rebel! Also, I think this outfit makes her look quite younger compared to her sister in this scene (the actors are only 6 or 7 years apart in age). Younger and therefore impetuous and romantic, perhaps.
Lunch With the Wilcoxes
After Mr. Wilcox visits and breaks up that tea, he, his daughter Evie (Jemma Redgrave), her fiance, and Margaret have lunch. Everybody knows about the black and white gown from the wedding later on in the film — there’s a ton of promo pix of that one — but IMO this scene has the best costumes in the whole movie. AND THE BEST HATS!!!
First, there’s Evie, who is a reprehensible person (she’s the one who tore up and burned the note from her dead mother saying Howards End should go to Margaret Schlegel, and she continues to harp on Margaret even though the woman is perfectly nice to everyone), but Evie has great clothes.
I found lots of references for the general style of suit that both Evie and Margaret are wearing — long jacket with nipped-in waist, waistcoat, full skirt, and often in geometric “menswear” patterns like stripes or checks.
Margaret’s suit has the same theme, but in solid cream with a striped waistcoat, almost a reverse of Evie’s suit color/pattern. The sleeves of her jacket feature an elaborate cutout treatment.
The suit on display shows more of the details:
Visiting Aunt Juley
At that luncheon, Margaret mentioned to Henry Wilcox that she, her sister, and her brother will soon be turned out of their flat and are looking for a new place to rent. Later, the Schlegels are visiting their Aunt Juley (Prunella Scales), when Margaret receives a letter from Henry saying he found a house to rent.
Of course, asymmetrical closures weren’t unheard of.
Margaret rushes off to see this house, and surprise Henry wants her to live in the house with him, and y’know, get married. Since she has no other prospects and is a practical sort, she says yes. I mean, she’s already wearing a white lacy dress, so why not?
These kind of “Edwardian whites” were all the rage, and museums are chock full of ’em.
Well, as soon as they hear about it, the Wilcox kids are unhappy about Dad getting engaged to Miss Schlegel. Charles and Dolly are faffing about with their new baby and thus not wearing anything worth screencapping, but Evie has a great suit to be pissed off in.
I’m pegging this silhouette around 1907 a la this fashion plate.
Not too different to the coat design that Helen wears when she visits Henry at the office.
Put them with a dark jacket and ruffled blouse, et voila:
Evie Wilcox’s Wedding
The next big event of the film is not Margaret’s wedding but Evie’s. The Wilcoxes are all gathered at one of the various houses Henry bought (because he doesn’t like or need Howards End). He and Margaret give it a little tour the day before the wedding.
In the evening, Charles and Dolly are hanging out in the ruined castle on the grounds, bitching about something. Dolly has a lovely gown.
Margaret is walking around the grounds this night and hears them, but they hide from her because they’re spoiled children.
The front of the gown is never clearly shown in the film, but here it is on display:
The cut is similar to fashion plates of the time.
The wedding itself isn’t shown, just the couple getting in the car and driving away. There are plenty of guests in gorgeous finery, including lots of fantastic hats.
Dolly notices some uninvited guests, because she’s a nosey bitch like that. Though she’s also wearing a suit with stunning embroidered collars, plus a great hat.
The style of her jacket harkens back to the very start of the decade.
What Dolly saw was Helen bringing Leonard and Jacky Bast to the wedding. The Basts are destitute and starving thanks to the shitty advice the Schlegels gave them, which they got from Henry Wilcox, so Helen wants to rub it in Mr. Wilcox’s face.
Incredibly well-dressed guests look on as Margaret tries to hush up her somewhat crazed sister.
Poor Jacky Best. She really stands out here, and not just because she’s poor but because she’s all red / pink / orange in a sea of white, grey, green, and black.
All through this, while dealing with her sister, the Basts, and the revelation that her finance cheated on his first wife, Margaret wears that iconic black-and-white gown.
It seems that the lace was vintage and the gown was constructed around that to create the gown. But it’s also a style found in the period, as this extant one shows:
This is the last we’ll see of Helen for a while…
Helen boycotts this drab affair, and I don’t blame her. Margaret wears a dark grey suit that’s slightly redeemed by a giant black hat, but all of it is too hard to see.
Worrying About Helen and Aunt Juley
Margaret and Tibby are getting cryptic postcards from Helen. Then Aunt Juley gets sick. At least Margaret gets an interesting new dress. It’s got the straight lines of 1910, plus lots of interesting touches with buttons, trim, and pleats.
When Margaret and Tibby visit Henry Wilcox’s office to state their concerns about Helen, Margaret wears her linen suit from earlier but adds a new hat.
As I said, not the happiest of endings, but the justice is that Margaret will get Howards End, and her nephew — the bastard son of her sister and a poor clerk — will inherit it from her. Thus, class mingling of a sort will come to pass for a literate utopia of E.M. Forster’s dreams. The capitalist Wilcoxes of the world don’t get to ruin everything, just most things. And they are put out by it in this final scene. Dolly whines and sounds even more vapid than she has previously, while Evie grimaces and pouts while giving grudging assent. They’re both dressed in colors of second mourning, even though no-one they care for has died, just they won’t get as much property as they greedily want.
Meanwhile, Margaret is serene in a simple white blouse, a bit of lace, and her old shawl.
What do you love about Howards End?