TBT: The Portrait of a Lady (1996)

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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 Portrait of a Lady (1996)

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.

The Portrait of a Lady (1996) - Isabel - white

Isabel’s arrival in Italy.

The Portrait of a Lady (1996) - Isabel - white

Sweet, ruffled.

The Portrait of a Lady (1996) - Isabel - white

Beautiful hats.

 

The Portrait of a Lady (1996) - Isabel - white embroidered & parasol

Isabel darts in & out of shadows wearing this white embroidered gown.

The Portrait of a Lady (1996) - Isabel - white embroidered & parasol

Details of the outfit in a promo photo.

The Portrait of a Lady (1996) - Isabel - white embroidered & parasol

The all-important parasol.

The Portrait of a Lady (1996) - Isabel - white embroidered & parasol

Osmond’s seduction of Isabel.

 

The Portrait of a Lady (1996)

Isabel’s hair is still frizzy as she tells her past suitors of her engagement to Osmond.

The Portrait of a Lady (1996) - Isabel - blue

Blue stripe gown.

The Portrait of a Lady (1996) - Isabel - blue

Elaborate bodice details.

The Portrait of a Lady (1996) - Isabel - blue

Omg, the stripe patterning!

 

The Portrait of a Lady (1996) - Isabel - stripe

In the last scene before they’re married, this stripe gown is barely shown.

The Portrait of a Lady (1996) - Isabel - stripe

Up close.

The Portrait of a Lady (1996) - Isabel - stripe

On display — bustle details unnoticed onscreen!

 

The Portrait of a Lady (1996) - Isabel - blk asymmetrical

Three years later, we see Isabel again, married to Osmond & living in Rome. She wears this dark gown with her hair in a high, tightly braided coiffure, as she darts through the dark halls of her new home.

The Portrait of a Lady (1996) - Isabel - blk asymmetrical

I lightened this screencap to show some of the details — the gold trim is militaristic, as if she’s in a uniform, playing the good little soldier to her overbearing husband who barks orders at her & his daughter.

The Portrait of a Lady (1996) - Isabel - blk asymmetrical

Thank goodness for promo photos like this that show more of the costume.

The Portrait of a Lady (1996) - Isabel - blk asymmetrical

The outfit went on sale — front view of the bodice.

The Portrait of a Lady (1996) - Isabel - blk asymmetrical

Back view.

The Portrait of a Lady (1996) - Isabel - blk asymmetrical

The full outfit for sale.

 

The Portrait of a Lady (1996) - Isabel - red damask & velvet

So often, we only see Isabel in full length at a distance, such as walking through hallways or rushing away.

The Portrait of a Lady (1996) - Isabel - red damask & velvet

In the rest of this scene, as Osmond berates her, the frame is tightly focused on Isabel’s face. Only the neckline of her gown is visible.

The Portrait of a Lady (1996) - Isabel - red damask & velvet

And here’s the entire gown on display.

 

The Portrait of a Lady (1996) - ball scene

The ball scene is chock full of gorgeous costumes, but it’s all in low light so you can’t see details.

The Portrait of a Lady (1996) - Isabel - ballgown

Isabel’s gown mostly looks black with flecks of gold on film & the train is not noticeable.

The Portrait of a Lady (1996) - Isabel - ballgown

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.”

The Portrait of a Lady (1996) - Isabel - ballgown

On display, the gold-green color of the gown is more apparent.

The Portrait of a Lady (1996) - Isabel - ballgown

And all the layers of embroidered mesh with sequins that are just barely hinted at onscreen.

The Portrait of a Lady (1996) - Isabel - ballgown

The lighting of a display brings out different colors in the gown.

The Portrait of a Lady (1996) - Isabel - ballgown

Notice all of that embroidery in the train — totally unseen in the film!

The Portrait of a Lady (1996) - Isabel - ballgown

EMBROIDERY ON THE UNDERSIDE OF THE TRAIN!!! THAT IS INSANE, WHO DOES THAT?!?!

 

The Portrait of a Lady (1996) - Isabel - peach lace

Isabel comforts her step-daughter Pansy. Compare this much more elaborate pale gown with what she wore when she first arrived in Italy. Also, this scene lasts for exactly one minute.

The Portrait of a Lady (1996) - Isabel - peach lace

On display, all the beading is visible.

The Portrait of a Lady (1996) - Isabel - peach lace

Skirt beading & ruching details.

The Portrait of a Lady (1996) - Isabel - peach lace

So much bodice trim! Isabel does wear this gown in another scene, for a dinner, so at least a glimpse of the bodice occurs again.

The Portrait of a Lady (1996) - Isabel - peach lace

Back train draperies not shown in the film because Isabel is either shown from the waist up or sitting.

 

The Portrait of a Lady (1996) - Isabel - blue

This blue gown harkens back to the blue gown Isabel wears when she announces her engagement. Here, she says good-bye to the first man who proposed to her.

The Portrait of a Lady (1996) - Isabel - blue

The gown on display.

 

The Portrait of a Lady (1996) - Isabel - purple

In the scene where Osmond is most physically cruel, Isabel wears a deep purple gown that resonates with the blue of her eyes. The whole room is plunged in blue shadows (I lightened this screencap to show details).

The Portrait of a Lady (1996) - Isabel - purple

Osmond stops her by stepping on her gown’s train.

The Portrait of a Lady (1996) - Isabel - purple

The gown on display.

The Portrait of a Lady (1996) - Isabel - purple

Rich embroidery that’s barely seen on film, just adds texture.

The Portrait of a Lady (1996) - Isabel - purple

The train that gets stepped on. *sob*

 

The Portrait of a Lady (1996) - Isabel - orange

She’s miserable, but beautifully dressed (this movie in a nutshell).

The Portrait of a Lady (1996) - Isabel - orange

There’s a ruched front panel on her gown that coordinates the sleeve ruchings.

 

The Portrait of a Lady (1996) - Isabel - fur hat

Determined to return to England, Isabel’s hair is back to curls underneath another fine hat.

 

Have you suffered through The Portrait of a Lady for the costumes?

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About the author

Trystan L. Bass

Twitter Website

A self-described ElderGoth, Trystan has been haunting the internet since the early 1990s. Always passionate about costume, from everyday office wear to outrageous twisted historical creations, she has maintained some of the earliest online costuming-focused resources on the web. Her costuming adventures are chronicled on her website, TrystanCraft. She also ran a popular fashion blog, This Is CorpGoth, dedicated to her “office drag.”

19 Responses

  1. Susan Pola Staples

    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.

    Reply
  2. Heidilea

    I have not suffered through Portrait of a Lady for the costumes, but now I think I want to!

    Reply
  3. Charity

    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?

    Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      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.

      Reply
  4. Saraquill

    Is it just me, or does Isabel look like a vampire in the dark post-marriage outfits?

    Reply
  5. Elizabeth K. Mahon

    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.

    Reply
    • M.E. Lawrence

      “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.)

      Reply
  6. Kendra

    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.

    Reply
  7. Cheryl from Maryland

    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).

    Reply
  8. Brandy Loutherback

    Could Suffragette (2015) be considered for the Beautiful but Depressing Column?

    Reply
    • Amanda

      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?

      Reply
      • Trystan L. Bass

        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 ;)

        Reply
        • Amanda

          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?

          Reply

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