TBT: The Wings of the Dove (1997)

3

In our podcast, we declared The Wings of the Dove (1997) to be 99.9% perfect, and it still holds true. This adaption of the Henry James novel stars Helena Bonham Carter in a darker, more complicated role than her earlier frock flicks, with stunning costumes by Sandy Powell. Now, back when we podcasted it, we also released a video-slideshow that includes images of what we’re talking about — check it out here:

But we didn’t cover all the costumes, so it’s time to go in-depth and look at all the fantastic outfits in this film.

Director lain Softley specifically set this film in 1910, instead of 1902, when the novel was published, to emphasize the modernity of the story. He said:

“Visually, 1910 was completely different from a decade before. Electricity was suddenly more prevalent. The London Underground had just been built. And fashion was changing dramatically. There were revolutions and changes all around. It was the beginning of the modern world as we now recognize it — and the beginning of the way we act within it.”

So costume designer Sandy Powell created costumes that lean towards the future more than the Edwardian era. There’s a sense that this film’s costume design is distinctly different than the Merchant-Ivory Howards End (1992) and A Room With a View (1985) that Helena Bonham Carter had previously featured in. Powell commented that she wanted to contrast the London clothes with the Venice clothes specifically:

“In Venice, I wanted to enhance the fact that the characters had been totally removed from the repression of city life. There is a release and a liberation that is reflected in their flowing, unstructured garments. I was keen to avoid a ‘cream lace’ look and instead the costumes in Venice feature lighter, brighter colors and have more of an ethnic, North African look.”

But that “cream lace look” comment sounds like a reference to the Edwardian frock flicks where the design team of John Bright and Jenny Beavan used plenty of creamy tones and lots of lace. Which is fine! This movie has a very different story, so the costumes should reflect that. I also think the styles tend to be a bit closer to the mid-1910s than strictly “1910” as the title card pronounces.

Let’s go through The Wings of the Dove costumes chronologically through the film.

 

 

Taking the Tube

The film opens with Kate Croy (Helena Bonham Carter) on the London Underground, clandestinely meeting her lover Merton Densher (Linus Roache). She’s wearing a fantastically gigantic hat along with a slim teal blue suit.

The Wings of the Dove (1997)

Goddamn, the hats in this movie are fantastic!

The Wings of the Dove (1997)

This suit is worn several times at the start of the movie, but it’s barely seen full-length.

This suit style is worn by Kate throughout the film, but that high-cut waist with long tails isn’t exactly a common look in period imagery. This costume is more of an exaggeration of historical styles, such as these few that I could find.

1909 - De Gracieuse magazine

This one has the big collar & a little bit of a high-cut / long-tails style (1909 – De Gracieuse magazine).

1911 - De Gracieuse magazine

A more exaggerated high-cut / long-tail look (1911 – De Gracieuse magazine).

1912 - La Mode Illustre magazine

This one’s cut even higher in the front, but the tails are shorter (1912 – La Mode Illustre magazine).

 

 

Getting Ready With Aunt Maud

This scene is a twist on the usual dressing scene in historical movies — there’s nothing glorious about it, no dwelling on the luxurious garments, no pomp and circumstance. Instead, it’s like leading a cow to the slaughter as Kate’s imperious aunt (Charlotte Rampling) paints Kate up. The problem is that Kate was born of a wayward union of Maud’s wealthy upper-class sister and a poor lower-class fellow, and Maud is “rescuing” Kate from the same fate.

The Wings of the Dove (1997)

Aunt Maud is in control.

The Wings of the Dove (1997)

While she’s a stickler for societal rules for her niece, she dresses as quite the bohemian herself.

 

 

London 1910 Wedding

The primping was to attend someone’s wedding, unclear who, but it’s quite the social event. A title card here tells us the date. Kate meets Lord Mark (Alex Jennings), who will be relevant plot-wise later.

The Wings of the Dove (1997)

Stunning beaded gown & little crescent hair ornament.

The Wings of the Dove (1997)

This is a super formal afternoon event, and Aunt Maud is wearing a loose burnout-velvet robe. Her unrestrained wardrobe is an odd contrast to the rigid lifestyle she pushes on her niece.

The Wings of the Dove (1997)

She’ll wear this again, so don’t worry that this is not a great view.

While all the wedding guests are beautifully attired, I specifically noticed this lady, who Lord Mark refers to as Lady Bering’s daughter. I love the beaded gown and coordinating turban!

The Wings of the Dove (1997)

 

 

Out and About London

Kate meets with Merton and seems to make an engagement (in the rain!). Coming home, Kate argues with her aunt and is forced to cancel a date with Merton.

The Wings of the Dove (1997)

Aunt Maud again wearing inscrutably unusual clothes, now in regal black & gold.

The Wings of the Dove (1997)

Gold lace stripes on black satin.

Kate had been wearing the same blue suit as the earlier day, but she was caught out in the rain with Merton. So she changes into this blue velvet tunic to call him.

The Wings of the Dove (1997)

Gorgeous loungewear!

1912 - Paul Poiret dress at the Met Museum

The “chemise” style gown was made popular a little later than this film (1912 – Paul Poiret dress at the Met Museum).

The next day, Kate goes to see Merton. He wants to get married, she puts him off again. Then she goes to visit her father and learns that he’s being paid off by Maud.

The Wings of the Dove (1997)

Awesome toque hat, first of several (I wondered if they were all the same hat, re-trimmed, but no, if you look closely, the materials are different).

The Wings of the Dove (1997)

Merton with Kate / Kate’s dad with Kate — yes, crappy screenshots, but trying to get a full-length view of this suit with a tiered stripe skirt & black jacket that’s worn with that toque hat.

The Wings of the Dove (1997)

The blouse worn underneath the suit has a stripe pattern too.

Kate and Maud argue again, and Kate really breaks it off with Merton now. She has a big sad.

The Wings of the Dove (1997)

Both are wearing repeat outfits, but these are fantastic tunics & I love them!

 

 

A Dinner Party Three Months Later

Kate meets American heiress Milly Theale (Alison Elliott), who’s stopping in London on her way to Venice with her companion Susan (Elizabeth McGovern).

The Wings of the Dove (1997)

Susan will wear this necklace throughout the movie.

The Wings of the Dove (1997)

Milly wears white lace with pale gold underneath.

The Wings of the Dove (1997)

Light & dark, innocent & scheming, contrasted.

The Wings of the Dove (1997)

This must be her “best” evening gown because she wears it again, while the wealthy Milly doesn’t repeat gowns.

The Wings of the Dove (1997)

OMG HOW MUCH DO I LOVE AUNT MAUD?!?!

The Wings of the Dove (1997)

She is all my #TurbanGoals & #CaftanLife forever!

1911 - De Gracieuse magazine

The closest historical reference I can find for Aunt Maud’s style is things like this opera cape (1911 – De Gracieuse magazine),

 

 

Bookshop Meeting

Kate scrubs her mother’s tombstone clean, then takes the bus, where she sees Milly emerge from a doctor’s office. Kate follows Milly to a bookshop.

The Wings of the Dove (1997)

My & Kendra’s favorite outfit in the whole movie! It’s the same as earlier but with a big hat instead of a toque, & of course you can see it better.

The Wings of the Dove (1997)

There’s that high-cut style like the blue suit, with a waistcoat underneath.

The Wings of the Dove (1997)

Giant freakin’ hat with giant freakin’ feathers!

The Wings of the Dove (1997)

Milly’s suit is a more typical 1910s style (no high-cut waist), all in teal blues.

The Wings of the Dove (1997)

With a giant freakin’ hat, covered in netting.

The Wings of the Dove (1997)

 

 

Party at Leighton House

The movie doesn’t say whose house or party this is, but it’s filmed in the Arab Hall and Narcissus Hall at Leighton House, London. Designed by artist Frederic Leighton starting in the 1860s, this combination house and artist’s studio features magnificent rooms inspired by Leighton’s travels to Turkey, Egypt, and Syria. Most of the tiles are from Damascus in the late 16th to early 17th centuries. This setting hints at the exoticism of Venice to come, as do both Kate and Milly’s costumes. Kate is wearing a blue Fortuny-style gown that reveals her shoulders, and she adds a black Poiret-style coat embellished with a peacock. Milly’s teal-blue gown is accented with rich goldwork, evocative of the tiled rooms they’re in. This is the first time Milly sees Merton, and Kate and Merton reconnect, setting the stage for the events of the second half of the film.

The Wings of the Dove (1997)

With Lord Mark.

The Wings of the Dove (1997)

Her outfit coordinates with the setting.

The Wings of the Dove (1997)

Seen from above.

The Wings of the Dove (1997)

Glimpse of Kate’s peacock coat.

The Wings of the Dove (1997)

Underneath the coat.

 

 

Around London Again

Milly and Kate share a carriage for some reason — unclear why or where they’re going because Kate soon ditches Milly and ends up at Merton’s newspaper office.

The Wings of the Dove (1997)

But Milly wears a teal velvet coat & coordinating toque hat.

At the newspaper, we get a good view of Kate’s green velvet coat with a fur collar and yet another toque hat.

The Wings of the Dove (1997)

This one has a striped ribbon cockade & netting.

The Wings of the Dove (1997)

Plus some wonderful curled feathers!

The Wings of the Dove (1997)

 

 

Klimt Exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery

Milly is by herself, watching kids playing ball in the park. It’s so weird! Then it starts raining and she runs to the nearest building, which just happens to be the Serpentine Gallery where an exhibit of fairly erotic Klimt paintings is housed. And where she runs into Kate and Merton. OK.

The Wings of the Dove (1997)

Wildly decorated green cocoon coat & matching hat.

The Wings of the Dove (1997)

Love both their hats!

The Wings of the Dove (1997)

 

 

Weekend at Lord Mark’s Estate

Lord Mark is hitting on Milly because he needs her money, but he really has the hots for Kate. Awkward.

The Wings of the Dove (1997)

Kate’s wearing that black evening gown again.

The Wings of the Dove (1997)

Milly’s in a blue sheer embroidered gown, very floaty.

 

 

Lunch With Milly and a Plan

Kate sets up Merton for lunch with Milly (and Susan, of course). But Merton doesn’t know he’s being set up. Yet.

The Wings of the Dove (1997)

They’re wearing beautifully coordinated outfits — which they rarely do.

The Wings of the Dove (1997)

Blue/rust changeable satin.

The Wings of the Dove (1997)

Merton meets Kate later, and she explains, kind of.

The Wings of the Dove (1997)

Same blue suit as earlier, but new toque hat in curly lamb (or something resembling it).

The Wings of the Dove (1997)

Matching blue band on the side of the hat & spray of ostrich feathers along the back.

The Wings of the Dove (1997)

Later, at home, Kate tells Aunt Maud she’s going to Venice with Milly.

The Wings of the Dove (1997)

Maud wears that same burgundy velvet robe, all casual now.

The Wings of the Dove (1997)

And a brilliant emerald green turban!

Before leaving for Venice, Kate stops by her dad’s opium den with a gift.

The Wings of the Dove (1997)

The previous green velvet coat, now with yet a different toque hat, this one with an awesome feather spray.

The Wings of the Dove (1997)

Textured pattern on the toque.

The Wings of the Dove (1997)

 

 

Arriving in Venice

Kate and Milly arrive in Venice at night, still wearing distinctly “London” clothes.

The Wings of the Dove (1997)

So many buttons!

The Wings of the Dove (1997)

Milly takes off her jacket.

Merton soon arrives, upon Kate’s insistence.

The Wings of the Dove (1997)

Still wearing big hats.

The Wings of the Dove (1997)

Promo pic of Kate’s outfit shows the tunic style.

The Wings of the Dove (1997)
1911 - Madame Handley-Seymour fashion plate

The tunic style would become quite common (1911 – Madame Handley-Seymour fashion plate at the V&A Museum).

 

 

Picnic on the Church Steps

1997 The Wings of the Dove
The Wings of the Dove (1997)

Love the back view of Kate’s hair caught up in a faux Grecian style.

The Wings of the Dove (1997)

Promo pic of Milly looking very sexah.

The Wings of the Dove (1997)

Both Kate & Milly have literally loosened up.

 

 

Touring St. Mark’s Basilica

The group walks around and through the empty church.

1997 The Wings of the Dove
The Wings of the Dove (1997)

This promo pic juiced up all the colors — they’re much softer in the film.

The Wings of the Dove (1997)

Milly is wrapped in pale green.

The Wings of the Dove (1997)

Her gown has a kimono-style top & sleeves.

1910 - De Gracieuse magazine

Milly’s dress is typical of the times (1910 – De Gracieuse magazine).

The Wings of the Dove (1997)

Susan is wrapped in light blue.

The Wings of the Dove (1997)

Her dress has subtle embroidery.

The Wings of the Dove (1997)

Kate is in darker blue.

The Wings of the Dove (1997)

Another tunic-style gown with a lace overlay.

 

 

Masquerade in the Streets

What’s Venice without a bit of Carnevale? Even though it’s not February / March in this movie (traditionally Carnevale takes place before Lent, which is 40 days before Easter).

Wings of the Dove (1997)

Kate is a bull fighter, Milly wears a sparkly silver dress, & Merton is also kind of a bull fighter.

Elizabeth McGovern, The Wings of the Dove (1997)

Susan wears black & silver with a mask.

The Wings of the Dove (1997)

 

 

Milly and Merton Tour Venice Alone

Kate leaves after the masquerade night, so Milly and Merton play tourists together.

The Wings of the Dove (1997)

Blue with tons of embroidery & the first parasol they’ve used.

 

 

Rainy Days in Venice

After that brief fun time together, it rains a ton, and everyone stays home. Finally, we see some of the Fortuny-style gowns this film is known for! They were first made and worn in 1907, and the ones in this film were created by Patricia and Charles Lester. As Charles said:

“Patricia was originally asked to make a dress each for Charlotte Rampling and Helena Bonham-Carter by Sandy Powell. After the dresses had been fitted and delivered, Sandy Powell’s assistant rang very early one morning to say the director loved the clothes and wanted lots more. So she and Patricia went through colours, styles, and ideas and figuring out what they’d like and what Patricia thought would be possible.”

They ended up delivering quite a few dresses and quickly, which was much appreciated. Director lain Softley noted:

“There is a softness and sensuality to the Fortuny-inspired designs that the women wear. They are like pre-Raphaelite models — it’s almost as if the female characters are becoming part of an allegorical world as they move through Venetian society. The period trappings fall away and they are at once modern and timeless.”

The Wings of the Dove (1997)

Milly wears an orangey-rust colored Fortuny style gown, while Susan wears a sky blue one.

1909-1920 - Fortuny dress, V&A Museum

1909-1920 – Fortuny dress, at V&A Museum

The rain hasn’t stopped for three days, and Milly goes to see Merton.

The Wings of the Dove (1997)

She wears this light coat, which she’ll also wear later.

The Wings of the Dove (1997)

Catalog image, front.

The Wings of the Dove (1997)

Catalog image, back.

 

 

Milly and Merton’s Dinner

They have dinner, and Milly drinks too much (on purpose?). They walk home through the streets of Venice.

The Wings of the Dove (1997)

She’s wearing this gossamer-light tunic — painted silk, I’m guessing? — over a white Fortuny-style gown.

The Wings of the Dove (1997)

 

 

Kate Writes a Letter to Merton

Their dinner is intercut with scenes of Kate, in London, miserable, writing to Merton about how she’s the one who loves him. Btw, this is the only scene she actually wears this red Fortuny style gown and the red velvet robe in. The outfit is pictured in all the movie promo material (and the cover of the DVD, back in the day), but there is no scene in the movie at all of the three of them in a gondola together, much the less wearing these outfits.

The Wings of the Dove (1997)

Just this glimpse of the red velvet robe is shown in the film!

The Wings of the Dove (1997)

Promo pic.

The Wings of the Dove (1997)

Another, bigger, promo pic.

 

 

Merton and Milly’s Final Meeting

Milly and Merton have another tourist jaunt, this time to a church under renovation. Milly wears that blue coat again. Meanwhile, Kate tells Lord Mark about her and Merton, who runs off to Venice to blab to Milly. Of course, then she’s pissed off at Merton. But finally Susan intervenes.

The Wings of the Dove (1997)

Looks like she’s headed straight to Downton Abbey next.

Milly meets with Merton for the last time, and she’s positioned all in white, laying on a white couch. Could she be any more cliche dying girl?

The Wings of the Dove (1997)

This has to be the white Fortuny style gown that was under that painted silk tunic at their dinner.

 

 

Milly’s Funeral and the Return to London

It’s all black from here on out.

The Wings of the Dove (1997)

Bye Susan!

Kate comes to see Merton. It won’t end well.

The Wings of the Dove (1997)

This may be her biggest hat yet. It’s certainly loaded with the most feathers, ribbons, & netting.

The Wings of the Dove (1997)

Sheer pleated black “mourning” dress.

They have very un-sexy sexytimes.

The Wings of the Dove (1997)

This is a promo image, but she didn’t wear a smock or chemise in the film scene.

The Wings of the Dove (1997)

I’m sure someone thought “I’ll be faster / easier / sexier to show her just ripping off the corset & boom she’s totally nude.” Insert massive eyeroll. Sorry it ends on a weak costume note like this!

 

 

 

So that’s why we call The Wings of the Dove 99% perfect! What do you think?

3 Responses

  1. gelasticjew

    So happy to see this in my inbox this morning, and what a good review of the costumes!

  2. Frances Germeshausen

    I need to dig further into the slide show, but I’ve gotta say: TWO Delphos dresses while sprawled in a gondola? That’s just showing off. LOL.

  3. Paul Vale

    Sean Barrett does so much millinery for film and TV. From this to the The Crown to Gentleman Jack.