We may need a category just for “super beautiful but super depressing” movies, and The Portrait of a Lady (1996) would be right in there. I think I suppressed the memory Henry James novel it’s based on, and I almost wish I could do the same with the film except the costumes are SO GOOD I don’t want to lose those visuals. Unfortunately, that comes along with a sad-to-creepy tale of a seemingly independent woman making a terrible choice of husband and getting the life crushed out of her, plus watching said husband crush any potential life out of his illegitimate daughter. UGH.
So let’s just wallow in the glory of Janet Patterson‘s stunning costume designs for the 1870s (natural form) bustle gowns worn by Nichole Kidman (back when her forehead still moved, lol). There is an insane amount of detail in these creations that is just hinted at on screen, so it helps to find display photos and additional promo stills to see the costumes in all their glory.
Costumes play an important part in the story, in some ways symbolic and for plot points. The main character, Isabel Archer (played by Nicole Kidman) dresses in darker colors and more elaborate, restrictive clothing with more tightly coiled hairstyles as her life becomes constricted. As Rebecca M. Gordon explains in “Portraits Perversely Framed: Jane Campion and Henry James” (Film Quarterly 56, no. 2, 2002)
“Presenting Isabel as a portrait rather than as a complete subject, the film traces her social development and its effects on her outer person through costume and hair changes. Drawing from James’s images and her own cinematic repertoire, Campion uses lighting, mobile framing, and swift changes of point of view to race as closely as possible the internal drama of Isabel’s mind an the reactions other characters have to her.”
The costumes work with the filmic techniques to create this portrait of a lady, which differs from that in the novel, but is still strangely incomplete and even more open-ended. Just as clothing paints this portrait, costumes are used to advance the story — usually with negative impact. Isabel’s black-and-white stripe parasol becomes the instrument with which Osmond (played by John Malkovich) teases and practically hypnotizes her into their marriage. Later, in another pivotal scene, Osmond steps on her gown’s train to entrap her and accuse her of coming between Pansy, his daughter, and a wealthy suitor.
The story begins in 1876 in England and then moves to Italy for the next three years. In England, Isabel wears a few simple dark dresses and her hair is worn up but simply styled and a bit frizzy. She’s possibly in mourning, as she’s an orphan, visiting English relatives. In the article “‘I Am Isabel, You Know?’: The Antipodean Framing of Jane Campion’s Portrait of a Lady” (MC Journal, Vol 11, No. 5, 2008), Annabel Cooper notes:
[Director Jane] Campion has said the curly hair was Kidman’s idea, because she wore it like that as a girl and didn’t like it and it would signify Isabel’s lack of interest in her beauty; but she has also said that the inspiration for the film came while she was at the hairdresser, having ‘a colour job.’
The barely-contained red curls disrupt the constraint of Isabel’s Victorian clothing until the last scene before her marriage. They then abruptly disappear to be replaced by elaborate braids coiled and confined at the back of her head, like the style worn by Madame Merle (similarly entrapped in Osmond’s web), and do not return until Isabel flouts Osmond’s authority and travels to her dying cousin in England.
The curly hair stays with Isabel as she is bequeathed a fortune from her uncle and travels to Italy, while her clothing becomes more elaborate. She wears pale gowns that are at once appropriate to the warm climate and evocative of her youth and innocence. This will all disappear after she succumbs to Osmond.
This jewelry set and others in the movie came from antiques dealer Pat Novissimo, who said:
“When Janet [Patterson, costume designer] asked to borrow jewelry for The Portrait of a Lady, it was the first time my jewels were to be featured in a film, worn by a major actress and a full female cast. It was all very exciting for me. Janet took me to the area where they were creating all of the costumes for the film. I was able to see all of the fabrics and patterns and later how they matched jewelry to the dresses. It was wonderful to be able to gain such insight into the process of how the costumes enhance the personalities of the different characters in a movie.”
Have you suffered through The Portrait of a Lady for the costumes?
Love the costumes. But I fell that most of Henry James’ novels are propaganda for the patriarchy and/or depressing. I missed this one and might watch it for the gorgeous costumes.
Including “Washington Square”?
No, but that is the exception.
I have not suffered through Portrait of a Lady for the costumes, but now I think I want to!
Maybe turn the sound off?
I haven’t seen this since I was … fifteen? Sixteen? I have only two memories about it — the costumes were beautiful, and isn’t there this weird modern scene just randomly shoved into the film? Or was I hallucinating?
Yes – the film starts with a bunch of modern girls ruminating on their first kiss in a woodsy area! It screams ‘Lilith Fair’ to me. I’m sure it was meant to be relatable, & y’all know how we feel about that LOL.
Is it just me, or does Isabel look like a vampire in the dark post-marriage outfits?
I thought the costumes were lovely but I hated the film with a passion. The only Jane Campion film I’ve liked has been Bright Star with Ben Whishaw as Keats.
“Bright Star” was lovely. This looks thoroughly morose, but lordy, lordy, those dresses–that beading and embroidery! Why didn’t Nicole contrive to push him off a bridge, so she and Pansy could live in peace with their wardrobes? (And why didn’t she stop tinkering with her physical self? She looks air-brushed these days; it’s creepy.)
Agreed, OMG AMAZING COSTUMES and such a depressing film. I imprinted on the scene of Isabel and Madame Merle walking in the rain, and someday NEED TO RECREATE THAT MOMENT in a bustle gown and in an English garden.
YES!!! Let’s do eet!
I’ve never seen the movie, but those dresses are MAGNIFICENT!!!!
Henry James, ugh. I have had multiple arguments with a male friend re Henry James — my friend thought James was so insightful about women (why yes, he never had a female partner). My opinion is that James knew nothing about women — they are all suffering dolls with which James plays. I stay away from all books, films, etc. involving James (except snarky articles like this one).
Could Suffragette (2015) be considered for the Beautiful but Depressing Column?
I have a little terminology question thays been confusing me for a little while. Earlier in this post and also in the “age of innocence” review you refer to Natural Form bustle dresses and all the research I’ve done has lead me to understand that the focal point of the natural form era was that fashion eschewed the bustle for a few years. I’m not an expert so maybe someone can help clear this up?
It’s a shorthand – anything that brings focus to the rear of a gown with draperies, trims, etc. tends to get called “bustle” whether or not there’s a foundation garment underneath.
Fashion terms are not precise! This is one thing that 20th/21st c. folks get more hung-up on than ppl in the past did. It’s not like science where there are a genus & species & such for every single item ;)
Like how the terms corset and stays were essentially interchangeable, but today they’re used separately to distinguish what silhouette the garment in question produces?