A Touch of the ’20s in The Chaperone (2019)


Elizabeth McGovern stretches out of her typecasting as Cora, Countess of Grantham, and returns to somewhat more complicated roles as the central character in The Chaperone (2019). She’s a naive Kansas wife, Norma, who volunteers to accompany 16-year-old Louise Brooks to attend dance school in New York City. While Brooks is later to become a silent-film star and we know her story, Norma’s complicated past and secret-filled present drive the action here.

The Chaperone had a brief theatrical release in March 2019, then was made available on PBS Passport online, and finally aired on PBS Masterpiece in November 2019. The movie feels more like a TV movie than made for the big screen, so nothing is lost by watching it streaming. Set mostly in 1922, the period details are beautiful and fairly accurate, although some of the press indicates that the movie was made on a tight budget.

Speaking of accuracy, the story comes from a historical fiction novel by Laura Moriarty (Julian Fellowes adapted the screenplay). McGovern’s character is wholly invented. There are some elements of truth — Louise Brooks was from Kansas and was sexually molested as a girl. She was a dancer and attended the Denishawn School of Dancing modern dance company in 1922, when she was 15. However, the school was in Los Angeles, not New York City (Denishawn later opened a branch in the Bronx, NY, in 1927, not that Brooks attended), so the central premise of this movie is false. Still, the book’s story makes for an entertaining frock flick.

And goshdarnit, this is a pretty little movie! Apparently, costume designer Candice Donnelly (who has mostly worked in theater) hardly built any full costumes specifically for this production, due to time and budget limitations. In Beyond Fashion Magazine, she said:

“Usually [when shooting a film] you have months and months. We only had three weeks to shoot the movie and pre-production was three before that. The whole process was about two months.”

As a result, Donnelly “ended up buying a lot of vintage clothes on [online]. I also borrowed something from England.” This is stunning when you see how lovely the show looks and how well the clothes evoke the period. She must have some mad shopping skillz! Plus, she knew what she was looking for and what she was trying to achieve. In Times Square Chronicles, Donnelly said:

“I love doing the research. I love fabrics and trying to re-create the way they moved. I found myself digging up and looking at old photographs. What was beautiful then is different from now. How women look and their decorum was based on their clothes.”

I’m not an expert in 1920s fashion, but in my cursory perusal of catalogs and photos, oh yeah, she nailed it here. Moreover, the costumes reflect the characters and in subtle ways that don’t hit you over the head. OK, maybe with one exception, which I’ll explain. Though I’ll keep most of the plot points secret because I enjoyed how they rolled out in the movie, just watch it for yourself!

The Chaperone (2019)

We first everyone at Louise’s dance recital in Kansas.

The Chaperone (2019)

Doesn’t this audience look nice & proper?

The Chaperone (2019)

Myra Brooks, Louise’s mom, is a little artsy / unconventional in her fashion, compared to the rest of Wichita. It’s true that Myra was a classical pianist, & Louise was raised in an arts-filled home due to her mother.

The Chaperone (2019)

We first see Norma wearing a simple dress & very pretty hat (which she’ll wear many times throughout the film).

The Chaperone (2019)

At home, Louise wears sporty casualwear, emphasizing her youth.

The Chaperone (2019)

Good proper hats on everyone as Norma & Louise leave the Kansas train station.

The Chaperone (2019), photo by Karin Catt, courtesy of PBS Distribution

This promo shot (by Karin Catt, courtesy of PBS Distribution) shows lovely details on Elizabeth McGovern’s skirt that I totally missed in the film.

The Chaperone (2019)

On the train, this is the last of Louise’s sporty casualwear. She’ll start dressing more grown-up in NYC.

The Chaperone (2019)

At the dance school, teacher Ruth St. Dennis (Miranda Otto) wears flashy red, while a random student has perfect fingerwaves & a sweet embroidered dress.

The Chaperone (2019)

St. Dennis may be fashion-forward, but she hasn’t bobbed her hair.

The Chaperone (2019)

She does wear an exotic oriental coat though.

The Chaperone (2019)

Norma treads that border of late 1910s to early 1920s.

The Chaperone (2019)

You can see the contrast here — Norma still has a ’10s waistline while Louise has a ’20s dropped waist. But their hats are very similar.

The Chaperone (2019), Photo by Barry Wetcher, courtesy of PBS Distribution

Another view of Louise’s orange dress. Photo by Barry Wetcher, courtesy of PBS Distribution.

The Chaperone (2019)

I wonder if that’s vintage trim on the hats, especially Louise’s green ribbons?

The Chaperone (2019), Photo by Barry Wetcher, courtesy of PBS Distribution

Norma meets someone from her past. Her lavender dress has a slightly lower waist & looser shape. Photo by Barry Wetcher, courtesy of PBS Distribution.

The Chaperone (2019)

Adorable blue peasant dress on Louise!

The Chaperone (2019)

Another contrast. Also, accessories, yay!

The Chaperone (2019)

They go out to the theater in evening dress. I lightened the screencap, & Norma’s gown looks like it uses sari material.

The Chaperone (2019)

Not quite the typical ’20s fringe cliche.

The Chaperone (2019), Photo by Barry Wetcher, courtesy of PBS Distribution

Hint of a garter belt there on Louise. Photo by Barry Wetcher, courtesy of PBS Distribution.

The Chaperone (2019)

Several times throughout the story, Norma complains about her corset, until, at the end, she ditches it. Sure, it’s a metaphor for her loosening up emotionally & mentally. Fine. Whatever. And yes, the 1920s were when fashions changed from the Edwardian corsetry. It’s not done as clunkily as *some* frock flicks have, but I’m still not sure if I’m OK with this generally over-used trope.


Have you seen The Chaperone? Did you read the book?


About the author

Trystan L. Bass

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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.”

15 Responses

  1. MoHub

    AutoCorrect has been having fun with you. Norma keeps coming up as Normal.

  2. Aleko

    I’ve always imagined how inhibiting, rather than liberating, it would have been to toss aside one’s corset and go without if one had worn one all one’s life; at least for a woman who had any bosom worth the name.

    • Trystan L. Bass

      Yeah, I’d feel odd going corset-less. It’s like bra-less — sure, around the house is fine, but never in public! Especially as a middle-aged woman of some size.

    • Nesseire

      I’ve read there were other kind of corsetery for women who weren’t young or slim, and had womenly features. They weren’t propper corsets, but they kept everything in place

      • Aleko

        Well, of course that was exactly when the bra was invented (or reinvented: there’s always the 15th-century Austrian bras found in Langberg Castle, or the apparently one-off two-piece boned wrap-round Napoleonic-period one in the Kyoto Institute), but even so I bet it must have felt weird and insecure wearing one at first, with the subliminal fear that something might fall out . . . ! Which is why, like Trystan, I just can’t get on board with the trope of ‘woman flings aside her corset to become a free confident spirit’ trope.

  3. Susan Pola Staples

    I enjoyed it and thought the costumes well thought out.

  4. Cheryl Hansen

    I enjoyed the book and ditto on the MIranda Otto comment. She always brings it!

  5. mjsamuelson

    The film was cute enough, and I enjoyed watching Elizabeth McGovern do something a little different. It made me long for a proper Louise Brooks biopic, though.

  6. Saraquill

    I recognize the ice cream shop. If it’s not my local since-the-Edwardian-era ice cream place, it looks very similar.

  7. Roxana

    You know, I used to hate twenties fashions. The dropped waist silhouette is so not me! But Frock Flicks has helped me see twenties clothes can be beautiful.

  8. Jennie

    I really liked the show. It addressed some pretty daring issues for the times. I have to say concerning the corset issue. My grandmother wore a corset from the time she was 13. When she couldn’t wear one anymore, she was quite shapeless, as she had no stomach muscles to speak of.

  9. Frannie Germeshausen

    I collect and wear a lot of 20s, and this movie hit most of the notes just right. The hats were especially good.