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?