This is pretty obvious for Halloween time, but I realized I haven’t given Interview With the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles (1994) a proper deep-dive. It may be a cheesy vampire movie in many ways, but it’s also chock full of luscious historical costumes designed by Sandy Powell. And while I was giving it a re-watch, I also re-watched the not-really sequel Queen of the Damned (2002). That one absolutely is schlock with mostly modern costumes by Angus Strathie, but there’s a brief historical bit, and comparing the two is interesting. So let’s get our fangs on and do this!
Interview With the Vampire is a love / hate film for many — it’s based on a book that’s absolutely BELOVED by throngs, yeah, myself included. But back when the movie was being made, the fans heard of all these big names involved and thought it would be a train wreck. After all, Tom Cruise was best known for movies like Top Gun and A Few Good Men, not brooding gothic horror. Similarly, Brad Pitt had mostly done clean-cut, kid-brother type roles. But the movie somehow worked and still holds up, probably because it was a big-budget effort and that meant a director fresh off an Oscar win, a hard-driving producer from the rock music world, along with the aforementioned stars. They didn’t skimp with talent like Sandy Powell for costume design, so the film has an amazingly high quality look that’s still hard to beat (and we’ll see in comparison to Queen of the Damned, Interview set a high bar).
Seeing this on the big screen a few times and countless times on the small screen, I appreciate this movie for what it is. As a book adaption, it does the requisite cutting and trimming of the storyline but does manage to convey the essential plot. The actors give surprisingly adept performances. And it’s a fun, moody, bloody romp through time! That’s exactly what I want out of a vampire flick.
The look of the film is even more impressive when you realize this was a bit of a learning curve for the now great and venerated Oscar-winner Sandy Powell. She told Film Doctor about her experience working this movie with director Neil Jordan:
“In ’94, we did Interview with the Vampire which was my first big, big film. That was the scary one. The budget was huge, the scale was huge, and it had Tom Cruise.
I was employed without question. I guess Neil must have insisted. What I had to do was employ an assistant that was more experienced than me, and thankfully I did because I don’t know if I’d have known how to handle it. I didn’t have the experience to deal with it. It was a lot to do. There was a huge work room setup.
The assistant, at the time, ran that — which is what they have to do — and I was just the designer. I couldn’t be making at the same time. It was a challenge, but after that I kept on doing a mixture of small budget and big budget films.”
Further, she talked about her attitude when working on period flicks:
“On the whole, I don’t really do things that are 100% historically accurate. You’re not creating something for a museum. You’re not making documentaries, you’re telling a story.
That said, everything is right for the period in terms of cut and silhouette and feeling, but it’s not exact and it can’t be. The fabrics and machinery aren’t the same as back then.”
For those who aren’t familiar with the book, both it and the movie start in the present day, and the framing story is of a vampire, Louis de Pointe du Lac (Brad Pitt), telling his life story to a reporter. Almost all the story is contained in his flashbacks, and since that’s the historical stuff, I’m going to ignore the modern bit for the sake of frock flicking. As in the book, Louis’ vampiric life begins in 1791, where he’s a plantation owner near New Orleans. His wife and young child have recently died, so he’s depressed.
Fun fact: Brad Pitt got really depressed making this movie! The sets were dark and cold, the contacts hurt his eyes, the makeup was a hassle (the actors had to hang upside down for 30 minutes so the makeup artists could paint veins accurately), and it was probably annoying standing in a trench to make Tom Cruise look taller than him (Pitt is 5’11” and Cruise is 5’7″). But Brad stuck it out “playing the bitch role” as he said, because producer David Geffen told him it’d take $40 million to break contract.
Anyway, Louis is whiney, but he looks good because Sandy Powell knew what she was doing. Louis wears a lot of natural and warm colors like brown, green, cream, and gold, which of course work with the actor’s coloring but also tie him into the human world. He’s forever wrestling with his humanity, even when he’s still human and wishes for his own death. He’s torn, and he tries not to turn wholly over to darkness. His clothes tend to have some warmth.
He has a seemingly vast wardrobe of embroidered waistcoats, which is appropriate to the character’s wealth and to the period. Consider these extant embroidered waistcoats — they’re in similar warm, natural tones, with large, figural embroidery.
The vampire Lestat de Lioncourt (Tom Cruise) shows up, not just to kill mopey Louis but to turn him into a vampire companion. Side by side, the subtle costume differences hint at their personality differences that will become bigger over the course of the story. Louis, left, in his warm neutral tones, contrasted with Lestat in his darker yet sparkle-bedecked formal suit. I’ll note that both seem to be wearing long pants and high boots, because American movies can’t deal with historically accurate breeches, tights, and shoes on men.
Now Lestat is introduced as all flash, all power, all wildness. Cruise plays him as the Brat King of the books, and for all the controversy before this movie came out, I do think he did a decent job. Lestat is an arrogant asshole, and Cruise nailed that brief. He was apparently into it, having read Anne Rice’s books, losing weight to appear gothically gaunt, learning to play piano, and visiting Versailles and Paris museums to see period furniture and clothes. He was coming to this film as the big pretty-boy star, playing a weird bad-guy for the first time, so it was definitely a risk.
Sandy Powell did note in the New York Times though: “Tom Cruise was lovely to me, but there were many discussions about his height in relation to Brad Pitt’s. There are always vanity concerns.”
Once you can get past Tom Cruise in a blond wig, you’ll realize that Lestat’s costumes are spectacular. Sandy Powell made him into the iconic vampire look of the modern film age, just as Anne Rice had written this book as an updated version of the vampire myth. Previously, vampires had been ugly, corpse-like things (Nosferatu) or stiffly formal and distant men (Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee‘s Draculas) or an alternately slutty-then-crone woman (any Dracula’s daughter or Countess Bathory riff).
Instead, Lestat was elegant and powerful with layers of details in his look that spoke to the complexity of a vampire’s life. There’s no tricks like a cape to hide behind either. Just the darkness, which Powell added subtle sparkle and sheen throughout Lestat’s costumes so you can almost, but not quite, catch him in the light. It’s a really magnificent effect to watch on the big screen or in HD, and these screencaps don’t do her designs or the cinematography justice.
As Lestat introduced Louis to the vampiric life, they attend a party at a nearby plantation. So Louis has to dress up for a change, though Lestat is definitely the peacock here. His blue velvet suit is covered in gold trim that goes with his golden hair.
The formal suits that Lestat and Louis wear at this party (and Louis wears all during the start of the film) are reminiscent of the court suits of France and England from the 1780s. While higher-cut coats did come into style in the 1790s, that was not the most formal style like these, which remained required wear at court from the 1780s through the early 1800s.
Louis’s suit doesn’t have all the trimming that Lestat’s does, but he’s in a shiny satin coat and breeches with a stunning gold brocade waistcoat. This is the fanciest thing Louis wears, as he tries to be a proper vampire, and fails spectacularly (blame the poodles!).
And check out what look like death’s head buttons on Louis’ coat. Compare with the buttons on this extant coat:
The guests at the party are also dressed quite fine, in particular, Lestat’s target, the Widow St. Claire and her young lover.
While hanging around Louis’ plantation and freaking out all those who’re still enslaved, Lestat wears more of his flashy formalwear. He wears a lot of blue, which is flattering with his blond hair, as well as other cool tones like silver and grey. The blue and gold suit for the party is one exception, and I think it’s because the gold is such a strong match for his hair that it works. He always has some metallic embroidery and / or sequins or beads on his coat as well.
The only other woman of note when they’re living out on the plantation is Yvette (Thandwie Newton), an enslaved woman that Louis previously had sex with when he was human. She’s worried about him, and nope, this doesn’t work out well. At least she got one good outfit.
After burning down the plantation, Louis moves with Lestat to New Orleans. It’s not stated but I’m guessing by the slight costume changes that time progresses about a decade. I swear, this is my obsession when watching frock flicks: figuring out the procession of time via fashion! Because most movies and TV shows don’t do it, they’re lazy and use the same period costumes for a time span ranging from 10 to 80 years. Clothes styles don’t need to change every single year (real people hold on to and continue wearing their clothes, after all). But if there are major style changes from decade to decade, folks who have the money are going to keep up, and at some point nobody wants to look out of date unless that is a plot point.
Here, we have vampires who, in some ways, don’t care about time because they can live forever. But these ones do have access to funds and they make a point of socializing with aristocratic humans, so they would need to appear fashionable. This mostly happens accurately in Interview With the Vampire, but it can be confusing when a character does say what year it is or how much time has passed and the fashions don’t quite match. But they’re close.
Then they find a little girl and turn her into a vampire, Claudia (Kirsten Dunst). The cut of Lestat’s waistcoat has also changed, shorter and with a small collar, for the late 1790s or 1800s.
Claudia gets her own full wardrobe, but it’s all childlike gowns in the same general high-waisted, puff-sleeved style for now.
Louis’ voiceover says 30 years pass, so it’s somewhere in the late 1820s to 1830-ish. The fashion looks a bit more late-1820s to me.
Claudia has this rich blue-green gown that’s a lot like the rest of her high-waisted little-girl gowns but more elaborate and with piped seams, as if she’s trying to assert more adulthood. Thought it’s still unclear what exact year her clothes are supposed to be from, and I think it’s because of the childishness of the style. But Lestat’s coat is very late 1820s/early 1830s with full sleeves, and again in a shiny, light-catching material and cool-toned grey-plum hue.
Louis isn’t bereft of shine — reminiscent of the gold brocade waistcoat earlier, he has this gold stripe one.
Finally, Claudia attempts to kill Lestat. Time still seems to be around the 1820s/1830s.
Claudia’s gown has a trim style called “rouleaux” that was popular on women’s evening gowns of the 1820s.
After ditching Lestat’s body, Claudia and Lestat plan to leave New Orleans for Europe. Well, Lestat wasn’t totally dead, so they have to burn down the house (a theme?) and jump on the ship. There’s a montage describing their European travels, then Louis’ voiceover says they arrive in Paris in 1870. First thing they do is take Claudia to the dressmaker where she gets a miniature adult wardrobe, featuring this elaborate blue bustle gown.
Now, it’s a beautiful gown! I love it to bits. But it feels a smidge later than 1870 to me. ’70s bustles are rounded, having come right from elliptical hoopskirts, and it took a few years to get this slim front shape with a bustle jutting straight back. This gown looks a bit closer to 1880. Some period fashion plates for comparison:
All of Claudia’s “adult” bustle gowns are in the same general shape and style, and they’re all elaborately made and trimmed. Even this gold one that’s seen from a distance and for a hot second (hence the blurry screencaps).
When the pair visit the Theatre des Vampires, Claudia wears a lovely purple and blue bustle gown. Louis is in a rather sedate checked suit, which is odd because he’d been in a tailcoat previously and this seems less formal.
And Louis gets another waistcoat for his collection.
Yes, I’ve skipped over Armand (Antonio Bandaras) even though I adore him and find his character the sexiest thing in this movie. But his costume isn’t particularly noteworthy — he mostly wears a red cloak over a Victorian shirt and waistcoat. So back to Claudia as she sets her sights on finding her own companion, Madeleine.
Louis lives on, now in somber tones and heavy Victorian fur.
Queen of the Damned exists only because Warner Brothers was running out of time on how long it owned the license to Anne Rice’s vampire book trilogy. The studio dicked around too long on making a sequel to Interview, and finally it slapped together this cheap mess. Oh yeah, it’s cheap — Queen cost about half as much to make as Interview, and that low budget shows onscreen. Painfully. Especially in the costumes or lack thereof. The designer Angus Strathie had just won an Oscar for Moulin Rouge! (2001) so he was capable of visually interesting costumes, but I’m guessing he had no budget, no staff, no time, nothin’ to work with here.
Much of Queen is set in the modern day, so I’m ignoring those bits costume-wise. I’ll summarize that Lestat (Stuart Townsend) wakes up in the 20th century and becomes a gothic-industrial rock star with a human band. His music “wakes” Akasha (Aaliyah), the ancient first vampire, who now goes on a killing spree. The other existing vampires stop her. These thin strands of plot are riffed from the Anne Rice books The Vampire Lestat and The Queen of the Damned, with a shit-ton of simplifications, more so than your typical movie-to-book adaption.
I’ll say that for as terrible a movie as Queen is (and yes, it is due to the visible cheapness, wooden acting, lazy plot, and uninspired dialog), there’s a little something that feels true to the stories, and that’s probably the ridiculous goth-rock concert scenes. Lestat as a rock star is silly in the books, and that plays out exactly as you’d think in this movie. Anyway.
In the middle of this nonsense, we get a flashback to how Lestat was turned into a vampire himself. The voiceover says it was in 1788, though in the book it’s more like 1781. None of this matters because the costumes are just vague ye olde-timey with only a hint of 18th century. Scroll back up to look at what Louis wore when he was turned into a vampire supposedly 10 years later, now look at this:
His vampire maker is Marius (Vincent Perez), which isn’t accurate to the book, but whatever, let’s go with it. This older vampire shops at Goths R Us — cool, dude, but not quite 18th-century fashion.
When Marius takes Lestat out for his first vampiric meal, we see their full outfits. Nope, not convinced this is the 18th century.
Everything these two guys are wearing looks like it came from Historical Emporium, though I don’t think the store was around in 2002. It’s all perfectly nice, serviceable “historical” clothes, but very generic and not meant to reflect a particular year or fashion, just a broad, general “period” style. And it doesn’t say much about the characters except, I guess, they’re not exactly in the modern time.
And I have to say, the cheapo shirts really offended me. They just look like they’re made of thick sheeting cotton, there’s no drape or softness, they’re all stiff and awkward, and the collars are weird.
Compare with the lush drape of the vampires’ shirts in Interview With the Vampire — there’s more fabric in the sleeves, the fit is better along the shoulders, and the shirt looks softer and more lived-in.
And here’s what Sandy Powell said of her costumes for Interview and this kind of shirt, in particular, for Marie Claire:
“Interview With a Vampire travels through time so I got the opportunity to dress Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt in many different looks but this costume is pretty much accurate for the 18th-century period. Tom’s character Lestat was meant to be handsome and charismatic so I always dressed him expensively and up-to-date. This shirt is particularly voluminous to give an air of romanticisim.”
Are you a fan of Anne Rice’s vampires? If so, what do you think about these movie adaptions?
Queen of the Damned is quite silly, and not at all historical really. But, there is a brief conversation between LeStat and Marius I enjoyed. Lestat asks how Marius got through the 1950s in red velvet, Marius said he slept through the 50s. Lestat says “You didn’t miss much” and Marius sums up the entire decade by saying, in a questioning tone “Elvis?”
Made me laugh
There is also a brief scene of Marius’ portraits in various art styles through the ages that is rather fun.