The King’s Man: An Edwardian Action Movie

17

The King’s Man (2021) is an origin story for two previous modern-set movies (Kingsman: The Secret Service and Kingsman: The Golden Circle). All of them are spy/action movies based on a comic book series, but this one is set in the Edwardian era — just before, until midway through, World War I. Ralph Fiennes is the “Duke of Oxford,” who runs a secret spy ring and is busy trying to keep his son from enlisting in the army.

Overall, I enjoyed the movie, although I did zip through a few of the action scenes. There’s a fun range of characters, and I liked the connections to real history — while at the same time, groaning as they rewrote certain established facts. But then, that’s what this kind of movie does!

The costumes were designed by Michele Clapton (Game of Thrones, The Crown, The Nevers), and they lean heavily on the best of Edwardian style: structured wool suits. Clapton told Grazia magazine,

“The cloths then were heavier and we found original pattern books of original fabrics, so it is like coating fabrics that we would use now that suits are made. And you need the fabric to be heavy to create the silhouette, to make movement. We found some coating which we liked, we wove pieces, we found some great Scottish weavers who wove us lengths of fabric for us to make suits from and we found some original pieces” (Costume Designer Michele Clapton On ‘The King’s Man’ Fits).

In what I think is a connection to the later movies, a fictional tailor’s shop called The Kingsman is a key location, and in an early scene, Oxford takes his son, Conrad, to be fitted for his first adult suit. According to the website of the Savile Row tailor Huntsman, Clapton did much of her extensive historical research in their archive:

“Huntsman’s archive of military, equestrian and civilian garments were influential in developing the styles and silhouettes for each character. Our 1919 ledgers revealed new post-war styles, such as the lounge suit, which were influential in creating costumes for the movie. Michelle was particularly conscious of developing a signature style and colour palette for each role. Often Campbell would draft and develop from original patterns from the period” (Huntsman & The King’s Man).

2021 The King's Man

The characters frequently meet at the tailor’s shop (note the bolts of fabric).

2021 The King's Man

A period tailor’s book from The Huntsman website.

Clapton confirmed,

“We found all these books when we were researching, which were fabrics from 1910. They were the old tailors’ books. I found them halfway through when we’d been buying all this fabric, and it was incredible — the colours and brightness — so actually we felt really confident that it could be that bright and that the suits could be lighter in that way” (The Suits of The King’s Man).

2021 The King's Man

We get to see Conrad’s finished suit, although I think it was a missed opportunity to see a real fitting.

Clapton said the director (Matthew Vaughn) gave her five months to research the period, which is an unusually long period of time. This worked because,

“I get to understand what his taste was, and to talk about fabric and colours and show him period pieces — the really high collars, the starchiness of them and then cut of the suits … With the knitwear, again we knitted our own jumpers, we created ties. We even knitted socks and designed the boots and shoes. It doesn’t happen that often when you actually have that much control over the image that you are putting on screen, and that is what made it so exciting” (Interview: How ‘The King’s Man’ Found its Signature Style).

When dressing Fiennes as the Duke of Oxford,

“What we ended up doing was creating a wardrobe of clothes so that we had the suits spotted where we knew that we should have them, but within that in the mornings we would say, “Look, which tie do we think? What is his mood today?” And so, he is very involved in how he thinks his character would be at that moment. With a limited amount of clothing, but it is almost like if we open up the wardrobe door and there it all is, what do I want to wear today?” (Interview: How ‘The King’s Man’ Found its Signature Style).

There’s a definite generational difference between Oxford and his son. I particularly liked Conrad’s more casual wear, but even in formal wear, Clapton says, she made his suits,

“more modern because he’s the young person that younger audiences will relate to. His suits are made by a modern tailor. They have narrow trousers and are high-waisted. The jackets were usually three buttons, cutaway, so you have that lovely length … We looked at lots of catalogues from that time. For instance, the sunglasses that Harris wears on the motorbike, we actually found evidence in the catalogues that they actually had that shape at that time. You wouldn’t believe it because they look so modern” (The suits of The King’s Man).

2021 The King's Man

Dad in a formal starched collar and tie, son in a lovely sweater under a leather jacket.

2021 The King's Man

Subtle differences in eveningwear.

Oxford’s spy ring mostly consists of two of his servants, played by Djimon Hounsou and Gemma Arterton. Hounsou gets some nice suits, while Arterton’s cover as a nanny means she’s very tweedy too:

2021 The King's Man

At a funeral.

2021 The King's Man

Arterton’s work uniform.

2021 The King's Man

Great menswear-style collar and necktie!

2021 The King's Man

Another uniform.

2021 The King's Man

Slightly more casual with the sweater, but still with a hard collar and necktie.

2021 The King's Man

Her leather “action” suit.

One of the genius moves was casting Tom Hollander as cousins King George of Great Britain, Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany, and Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, all of whom were known for looking very similar. I laughed out loud when the three were introduced!

2021 The King's Man

Nicholas, George, and Wilhelm.

2021 The King's Man

Nicholas with Tsarina Alexandra, who had terrible posture and a lovely blouse.

2021 The King's Man
2021 The King's Man

Nicholas with his wife, son, and lineup of daughters.

2021 The King's Man

King George looking very naval, if I’m correct.

2021 The King's Man

Kaiser Wilhelm was played for comedy, and it worked.

As you can see, uniforms played a big part in this film. Clapton said that these:

“were truly authentic. We had a lot of original pieces that we model it on and then we created and made a lot of the stuff in Poland. Because military clothing, I had an incredible designer who worked on all the military pieces to ensure it was as correct as we could possibly make it. But I’ve found all the military people disagree, you can have one advisor saying this and another one saying like that” (Interview: How ‘The King’s Man’ Found its Signature Style).

2021 The King's Man

The uniforms also included an early scene set during the Boer War (1902).

2021 The King's Man

That’s Charles Dance as Lord Kitchener…

2021 The King's Man

… and Matthew Goode as the fictional Captain Maximilian Morton.

2021 The King's Man

And Ron Cook (The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling; He Knew He Was RightLittle Dorrit; Mr. Selfridge) as Archduke Franz Ferdinand with his wife.

The film jumps around Europe to Hungary:

2021 The King's Man

Note several members of the crowd in Hungarian regional dress.

But the best scenes were with Rhys Ifans as Rasputin. Ifans did an excellently disgusting job with the role, even if his Rasputin was apparently a skilled dancer? But the costumes were also the most fun and glam. Clapton took late 1910s evening dress and made it more art deco than it really should be, and it was certainly pretty even if it was slightly crazy. According to that interview with Grazia, Clapton said,

“I loved the Russian ball. I love when Rasputan [sic] and his two female cohorts walk in and scan around the room. That was a really fun to design for. There was a lot of balls in Russia where they dressed up in traditional Russian headpieces. It was slightly fantastical, which was exactly what happened back then. We made these metal headpieces, and pretty much all of the costumes in the room. It was so satisfying” (A Debonair Bunch: What It Was Like to Design Costumes for the Cast of “The King’s Man”).

2021 The King's Man

Definitely the platonic ideal of Rasputin. His prostitute companions are in exposed corsets and artfully draped piano shawls. They look insane by period standards, but they are effective cinematically!

2021 The King's Man

Ifans was impressively disgusting © 2020 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

2021 The King's Man

The female attendees all had silver crowns that looked straight out of an art deco fantasy.

2021 The King's Man

A few wore “diamond” (rhinestone) tiaras.

2021 The King's Man 2021 The King's Man

A few final thoughts:

2021 The King's Man

Mata Hari (right) seemed to think it was the 1940s.

2021 The King's Man
2021 The King's Man

Flashback Queen Victoria in a bustle gown.

2021 The King's Man

Mrs. Bennet (Alison Steadman: Pride and Prejudice) has a small role!

 

Did you catch The King’s Man? What’s your take?

Tags

About the author

Kendra

Website

Kendra has been a fixture in the online costuming world since the late 1990s. Her website, Démodé Couture, is one of the most well-known online resources for historical costumers. In the summer of 2014, she published a book on 18th-century wig and hair styling. Kendra is a librarian at a university, specializing in history and fashion. She’s also an academic, with several articles on fashion history published in research journals.

17 Responses

  1. mmcquown

    Looking forward to this. In an earlier Rasputin film, Christopher Lee played the maleficent monk, and had a scene where he danced. I think the tailor shop front is probably a nod to “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” which co-starred David McCallum. Set in NYC, DelFlorio’s tailor shop was the entry to the secret headquarters.

    Reply
    • Kat

      The tailor shop front is a carry-over from the first two films where the cover for the Kingsman agents is that they’re tailors; Matthew Vaughn, the director of the films, has apparently the visiting the real Huntsman tailor shop mentioned above for years, which gave him the inspiration to make that their HQ, since in the comics you only ever see their secondary HQ which is a manor estate.

      Reply
      • Heinrich

        I really wanted to watch this movie for the costumes, but the story is so full of homophobia and misogyny that I found it totally unwatchable. Ugh.

        Reply
  2. mmcquown

    Addendum: a lot of British military officers’ uniforms were custom-tailored, which might account for the variation in detail mentioned in the interviews.

    Reply
      • MoHub

        When W.S. Gilbert joined the Army in the late 1860s, he did a pair of cartoons: The Lovely Uniform, and The Bill for It. Very funny and accurate.

        Reply
    • Lmaris

      Much of the individual tailoring had decreased by the time of the Boer War as officers no longer purchased and therefore owned their commissions to do with pretty much as they pleased.

      Reply
  3. Kat

    I loved seeing the variation of younger gentleman vs older gentleman costumes, especially with all of Conrad’s lovely sweaters (that cream roll-neck is my platonic ideal sweater); it’s not something you see too often on film, when the tendency is more to put all the characters, regardless of age, in formal/structured dress. I also really like the slight differences in class represented in the men’s suiting – how Djimon Hounsou and Aaron Taylor-Johnson are still well-dressed but you can tell their suiting isn’t quite as bespoke as Ralph Fiennes, because they obviously wouldn’t have the money for a full Savile Row suit.

    Reply
  4. Lynne Connolly

    My period is Regency, so I don’t know whether it carried on, but during the Napoleonic Wars, officers had to provide their dress uniforms, which were the fanciest of the fancy, with tons of gold and silver bullion, (those Hussar uniforms!) as well as their own horses, so being in a posh regiment could cost a fortune. They were definitely tailored. Officer dress uniforms were always tailored, right up to the present day, but by approved tailors and to accepted standards.

    Reply
  5. Lily Lotus Rose

    Oh, God. This movie was a hot mess–a beautiful hot mess! When they were at the Russian ball I thought, “Oh, they used the fairy ball scenes from Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell as their inspiration.”

    Reply
  6. Adele

    Utter bollocks, we turned off after half an hour.
    ‘Riffing’ on history is all very well in it’s place, but there are some things that are too big to be messed with and the origins of WWI is one of them. The film was also heavily dumbed down presumably for American audiences, as no European should need the relationship between George V and his cousins explained.

    Reply
    • Kendra

      Yes, I groaned as they Clearly Explained Things, but I’m guessing 99% of Americans wouldn’t have understood if they didn’t.

      Reply
    • Lynne Connolly

      So you didn’t see The Death of Stalin, then? Perhaps that’s as well. A wonderfully funny movie about another turning point in history, perhaps even more momentous that the causes of World War One. Written by a Brit, with a mixed American and British cast, received well in the US as well as in the UK. Nothing needed explaining.
      It might be the writing skills. I don’t know because I haven’t seen this one yet,

      Reply
  7. Lmaris

    I loved it. It was the first movie to accurately show the original concentration/death camps set up by the British in South Africa so the independent republic had to surrender to the Empire.

    The drama interspersed with humor showed it didn’t take itself too seriously, and I look forward to more from these folk.

    Reply
  8. Joe

    Even granting that the movie isn’t supposed to be 100% period-authentic, as a long-time student of the life and death of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Duchess Sophie, I still feel annoyed about the Sarajevo sequence. We’ll leave aside the fact that the Duke and his son were riding shotgun with FF and Sophie; the actual assassination scene is wrong. Gavrilo Princip wasn’t contemplating suicide though he was thinking about giving up and going home, and the scene is filmed from the wrong side (Princip should have been facing the car from the right-hand side; the Duchess was sitting to the right of the Archduke). Also, Sophie was shot in the abdomen, not the chest, and nobody knew she had been shot until people trying to render aid undressed her and discovered the fatal wound.

    Sorry. Excuse my rant; I’ve never yet seen a totally accurate rendition on film of this event, one of the pivotal ones of the 20th century. Anyway, the costuming.

    Ron Cook actually does look right for Franz Ferdinand, though a bit older and a good deal thinner (the real Archduke was fairly chunky and had to be sewn into his uniform tunic, which made it difficult for his aides to get it off him after he was shot). The uniform itself looks pretty accurate to me. Barbara Drennan, who plays Sophie, is an atrractive woman of about the right age (Sophie was 46, her husband was 51) but her physical look is all wrong; she’s a redhead where the real Sophie had dark brown hair, and she’s fairly slender where Sophie was tall and plump. I think the actress who looked the closest to the actual Duchess was Margaret Dumont – yes, that Margaret Dumont – who played her (uncredited) in the Kay Francis movie “Storm at Daybreak”.Then again, Drennan isn’t nearly as wrong a physical type as the French actress Edwige Feuillere, the German actress Luise Ullrich, and the Polish actress Lucyna Winnicka – all blondes – who also played Sophie.

    Once you get past that, though, I think Drennan’s costume for the scene is not too far off the historical dress (which is preserved at the couple’s estate Konopischt in the Czech Republic). She wears a high-necked dress with a broad sash (the original was green, and had a bouquet of flowers tucked into it) and a wide-brimmed, feathered hat. The dress has mid-length sleeves (accurate) and she wears long white kid gloves, which I believe is also accurate. Historical photos of the fatal day sometimes show her wearing gloves, sometimes not. One interesting little detail that’s not authentic is that the gloves have pearl buttons up and down the sides; you can’t see the detail in the scene as filmed, but a behind-the-scenes photo shows it. Her feet aren’t shown so I can’t tell whether the shoes were accurate; historical photos don’t show them clearly so I don’t know whether they were white or black. A slightly macabre note; after her death, Sophie’s gloves and shoes were cut up – the accounts I’ve read claim this was an Austrian custom – to be distributed as mementoes to her friends and family.

    Reply

Leave a Reply to Kendra Cancel reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.