TBT: Suez (1938)


The only reason I decided to watch Suez (1938) was because of the gorgeous images of the costumes worn by Loretta Young as Empress Eugenie. I had a feeling going in that it wasn’t going to be The World’s Best Cinematic Experience, and I was right. That being said, there was more of Eugenie than I expected, and her costumes were indeed gorgeous.

The movie starts in Paris, with Tyrone Power as real-life French diplomat and designer of the Suez Canal, Ferdinand de Lesseps … except right now, he’s in love with Countess Eugenie “of Madrid.” Neither they, nor half the actors in this film, have appropriate accents, btw. Lesseps gets stationed in Egypt where he gets the idea to build the Suez Canal. He goes back and forth between Egypt and France, running into Eugenie multiple times, and meeting a cute tomboy French girl who lives in Egypt but cleans up nicely. There’s a LOT of colonialist, “Great Nations Must Build Great Projects for the Greatness of the World, Oh We’re So Self-Sacrificing,” lots of stereotypical Egyptian characters, and some ludicrous plot points. In the end, Eugenie ends up married to Napoleon III, the Suez Canal gets built, and Lesseps gets A Major Award.

According to co-screenwriter Philip Dunne,

“Tyrone Power played Ferdinand de Lesseps, the Lee Iaccoca of his day. So he dug the Suez Canal, so what? My partner Julien Josephson and I invented a love story with the Empress of France (Loretta Young) to keep audiences going. We had to. The man was the world’s biggest bore” (Philip Dunne looks back at movies’ golden age: [SA2 Edition]Jim Bawden Toronto Star 27 Jan 1990: G8).

… and yeah, you can tell they dialed it in.

The costumes were designed by Royer (Lewis Royer Hastings), who also designed In Old Chicago (1938), The Three Musketeers (1939), The Story of Alexander Graham Bell (1939), Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), Little Old New York (1940), and Bugambilia (1945). Unfortunately I can’t find any real information about Royer or his work on this film, so we’re just going to have to go with my experience watching it on film.

I am, of course, primarily focused on the women’s costumes, and even more so on Eugenie, who starts off watching Lesseps play in a public, indoor tennis match while wearing an outfit meant for frolicking in the garden at most:

1938 Suez

This is a ludicrous outfit for her to wear inside.

1938 Suez

“Hooray, tennis!”

They are clearly referencing the multiple portraits of Eugenie painted by Winterhalter. On the one hand, I get it, this is probably the most well-known image of Eugenie. On the other, let us dress for the occasion, shall we?

Franz Xaver Winterhalter, Eugénie of Montijo, Empress of France, 1857, Hillwood Museum

Franz Xaver Winterhalter, Eugénie of Montijo, Empress of France, 1857, Hillwood Museum.

Next up, Lesseps and Eugenie go to a ball where they meet the future Emperor Napoleon III, currently president. Eugenie is BALLS OUT in a faaaaabulous satin and tulle ballgown with tons of embroidery:

1938 Suez

This didn’t disappoint on screen.

1938 Suez

She has a fabulous jeweled snood. That’s Napoleon III on the right, and Lesseps/Power on the left. Sorry, so not interested!

Here’s some more shots of this outfit:

1938 Suez

Piles o’ tulle!

1938 Suez

I’m underwhelmed by the fan, but that’s ok.

Lesseps gets posted to Egypt and tries to get Eugenie to marry him, but she won’t take the risk. She’s trying on a super-cute hat made by a milliner and wearing what I call her curtain dress:

1938 Suez


1938 Suez

It worked better on screen, but it’s just SO twee.

Lesseps heads off to Egypt, where he meets Toni, played by French actress Annabella (no last name), who Tyrone Power would marry after this movie. She is the granddaughter of a French soldier, all tomboy, and preposterously dressed:

1938 Suez

In particular, she has a short pixie haircut that is completely wtf by 1850s standards.

As Toni gets to know Lesseps, and develops a crush on him, she starts to dress more femininely but in a totally 1930s way:

1938 Suez

At one point Lesseps threatens to spank her, and she says, “Yes please!” I loled.

Lesseps heads back to Paris, where he discovers Eugenie is engaged to Napoleon III. I think she must be wearing this outfit as he passes her in a carriage, because I don’t remember seeing it on screen.

1938 Suez

I feel like this would have been memorable. It’s a great take on the suit-esque women’s oufits of the era, although the hair AWFULLY big.

He runs into Eugenie in the palace, just back from riding:

1938 Suez

At first I thought we’d jumped into the 1870s, but luckily, just a riding habit.

1938 Suez

Another cute hat in the same style.

Here’s the real Eugenie dressed for riding:

Charles-Édouard Boutibonne, Eugénie, Empress of the French (1826-1920), before Jul 1856, Royal Collection.

Charles-Édouard Boutibonne, Eugénie, Empress of the French (1826-1920), before Jul 1856, Royal Collection.

Later there are Political Shenanigans that I zoned out on. The short version is President Napoleon leads a coup making him emperor, and somehow Lesseps takes the blame. Eugenie/Young rocks the velvet and fur:

1938 Suez


1938 Suez

More of this look.

The “wheat” embroidery reminded me of some Charles Frederick Worth gowns from the end of the 19th century:

1900 House of Worth Met Museum

Ball gown, 1900, House of Worth, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Somehow Eugenie gets roped into talking Lesseps into things, but then finds out Napoleon is throwing Lesseps under the bus and Has a Sad. It all hinges on Lesseps’ Suez Canal project. I space out.

1938 Suez

There’s some unnecessary skirt hiking. Learn how to glide, Loretta Young.

1938 Suez

Lots of great bling in the hair, tho!

Lesseps has a Pissed Off, but luckily Toni is in Paris too, learning how to read (??) and being turned into A Woman(tm).

1938 Suez

Your only shot of Power. You’re welcome. Toni continues to get girlier, but in a totally 1930s, Snow White way.

Eugenie apologizes to Lesseps, but he’s bitter now. Toni tries to defend him.

1938 Suez

Eugenie dresses in a mourning-type outfit, I guess because she’s visiting incognito?

Toni keeps Learning How to Woman:

1938 Suez

Going full Dickens Fair, I see.

Lesseps gets the canal project really going with the help of the English led by Disraeli, who is also “Great Countries Must Be Colonialist Assholes If They Want to Do Great Things.”

Eugenie has a Disappoint as she learns that Napoleon’s judgement is clouded by his ambition.

1938 Suez

Hopefully her satin outweighs her Disappoint?

Toni has reached the pinnacle of Proper Gender Expression, AND can read now!

1938 Suez

Sausage curls, baby!

Lesseps and Toni head back to Egypt to work on the canal. I zone out. There’s a giant sandstorm crisis.

1938 Suez

Toni gets more relaxed in Egypt, but still keeps it semi-feminine.

Not giving away ALL of the plot, at the end, the canal is finished and Lesseps wins A Major Award from Eugenie.

1938 Suez

Look! NECESSARY skirt hiking!

1938 Suez

Eugenie in court dress…

I think that court dress is referencing this painting. In the film, Eugenie has a CRAZY long train which is fabulous.

Franz Xaver Winterhalter, Empress Eugénie in court dress, 1853, Musée d'Orsay.

Franz Xaver Winterhalter, Empress Eugénie in court dress, 1853, Musée d’Orsay.

Some close-ups of the court dress:

1938 Suez

Crumb-catcher FTW!

1938 Suez

I spent the entire movie admiring Young’s cheekbones.

And by the way, I talked about Eugenie’s hair in my post about how 1930s movies do period hair, if you’re interested.

Suez (1938)



Have you seen Suez? What’s your take on Eugenie’s gowns?


About the author



Kendra has been a fixture in the online costuming world since the late 1990s. Her website, Démodé Couture, is one of the most well-known online resources for historical costumers. In the summer of 2014, she published a book on 18th-century wig and hair styling. Kendra is a librarian at a university, specializing in history and fashion. She’s also an academic, with several articles on fashion history published in research journals.

13 Responses

    • Heather Ripley

      Thank you @NuitedeYoung, I did a double take at first. Toni (or Annabella) in a few photos looks astonishing like Madeline Kahn!

      @Kendra, yet another great collection of photos. And you are right, Young was so damn beautiful – those cheekbones! I’m going to need to rent this to drool on those beautiful gowns….and I have a crush on Tyrone too :-)

    • M.E. Lawrence

      Goodness, she looks like Nancy Drew in that one shot–all the better to contrast with Loretta in full regalia? (I liked L.Y. a lot better in her early roles, where she got to change expression and stuff.) But that 1900 Worth ball gown with the wheat sheaves…scrumptious.

  1. Shashwat

    “Crumb Catchers”,1930s interpretation of bertha collars usually go so crazy and over the top,they stop looking like a bertha and more like the wacky heart shaped Elizabethan ruffs.SO.MUCH.FLOOF.
    The satin and hat game is on point in this film.30s is one of the few eras that manage to make mid Victorian clothing interesting,if not accurate(though truly talented designers like Tosi managed to do both).Most movies tend to forget that a boring silhouette could be compensated for by embroidery and beautiful accessories as was popular in the 19th century,but why would films do that(upholstery fabrics,poorly fitted corsets,horribly patterned armscyes,phobia of hats and bonnets,bare necks and ears with not a bauble in sight and either milkmaid braids or beachy waves.)

  2. Nzie

    I love the actual portraits of Eugenie, and some of the dresses are fab, and Loretta Young is just gorgeous. But the plot sounds ridiculous. I guess it was probably the studio system, which had everyone cranking out film after film, but when I read the screenwriter saying our main plot was a snooze fest so we had to fabricate a love story with a famous person–rather than just… write about something else, or even just go along with their made up character.

  3. Saraquill

    I’m more interested in that jellyfish necklace Eugenie is wearing in the bottom photos.

    • heatherbelles

      Loved this analysis of the film, and the real portraits of Eugene.

      Did a huge double take at the one of her on horseback though. The museum I work at has an almost identical version (also by Boutibonne). Only the actual colour of the dress and the gardens behind her are slightly different.

      Ditto the matching portrait of Napoleon III. Both on display. (Look up Cliffe Castle)

      (The wife of the chap who built the castle was a Roosevelt, and lady in waiting to Eugenie).

      The portraits are huge!

      The dresses then were ridiculous but I rather like them!

  4. hsc

    “There’s some unnecessary skirt hiking. Learn how to glide, Loretta Young.”

    Funny (though certainly not undeserved) that you should say this, because Gwen Wakeling was quoted as saying of Young:

    “…She could handle anything. She knew exactly how to handle the big hoop skirts in SUEZ. First of all, she wore bedroom slippers when she was sure her feet wouldn’t show because it was more like being barefoot and gives a graceful action. If you walk barefoot, you can really control your body. And as long as it is a long, long skirt, no one can see your feet anyway…

    “…The thing with hoop skirts is to watch when you sit down. They can fly up, but she knew exactly how to do it. In going through a doorway, she would take her skirt and go through semi-sideways. She knew how to handle clothes exactly…”

    Wakeling also said that Young got the petticoats from SUEZ and other period roles (“–without paying for them–“) and “gave them to her mother, who was a decorator who used to make lamp shades out of them.”

    (Quoted in THOSE GLORIOUS GLAMOUR YEARS, Margaret J. Bailey, p.329)

  5. Frannie Germeshausen

    Insanely, the Cairo Marriott has at its core the El Gezira Palace, which was built to house Eugenie et. al. for the Suez Canal celebrations. We stayed there, and appreciated that there was a bit of the old structure left, mostly for looks but leading into a lovely garden.

  6. Terry Towels

    As usual, I went wandering through wikipedia to learn about her, and whether I wanted to investigate further. Eugenie lived a long life.

    A little factoid– apparently that “cute hat” is known as a Eugenie hat. LOL. It needs a comeback.

    • Katie O.

      I did the same thing! Honestly a movie about her life sounds way more interesting than this lol. If Lesseps was so boring why did the studio decide they had to make a movie about him?

  7. Lee Jones

    I might be mistaken, but Eugenie’s “super cute” hat strikes me as wrong for the 1850s. If this had been set in the mid-to-late 1860s, I could understand her wearing it.

  8. Aleko

    “Look! NECESSARY skirt hiking!”

    But in period it would have been considered not only not necessary but very gauche. A lady never hiked her skirt at all, unless possibly to avoid mud (then again,a lady wasn’t supposed to go where there was mud in the first place, cf. the Bingley sisters sneering at Lizzy Bennet for getting her under-petticoat muddy). There’s an amazing short memoir by Christian Miller called ‘A Childhood in Scotland’, of her privileged (but weirdly deprived and neglected) 1920s childhood in her ancestral baronial castle in Aberdeenshire; she describes being put into a skirt several inches LONGER than floor-length and made to walk up and down the castle stairs without ever touching it, until she had fully mastered the art of not tripping over mega-long skirts, and could be confident that as an adult she would be able to float down grand staircases into ballrooms without ever disgracing herself by hiking her skirts, even infinitesimally.