When my oldest daughter was invited to her high school winter formal, she needed a formal gown. Her mother was not one for this sort of thing, so I was stuck with the job of helping my daughter pick out the perfect formal dress for a freshman’s first high school dance. Now, most men would find this to be a pretty horrible task. Yet, it turned out to be one of the most enjoyable Saturday afternoons of my life. I brought along my second daughter, who regularly read Vogue, and we went to a formal dress shop in a nearby mall.
Daughter two dug into the racks and pick out seven potential dresses, and we watched as my oldest came parading out in gown after gown. Honestly, what could have been more fun? Seriously, guys. If you have a daughter, tell her mom to stay home and go dress shopping with her. It’s a total and complete blast and every father should do this with his daughter. Moms shouldn’t be hogging all this fun!
Which brings us to the costume drama, a genre of film set in a particular historical time period and brimming with lots of balls, fancy clothes, and amazing hair and shoes. Now, I’m not talking about the swashbuckler, a pirate movie in which all the men have poofy shirts, or the blood and sandals epics set in ancient Rome, or the western, which can be viewed as a type of costume drama except everyone looks shoddy and like they just got off a horse. (Although, to be fair, the costumes worn by Paul Newman and Robert Redford in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) are, frankly, ab-fab, especially the hats.)
No, today we’re talking about authentic costume dramas, usually set in England, France, or Russia in the 16th-early 20th century. Most of them are based on royal characters or aristocrats. You know, lecherous counts, conniving duchesses, that sort of thing. The key to the costume drama is fabulousness. The bigger the dress, the higher the wig, the more ornate the candelabras, the better.
These are not to be mixed up with the period drama. Who doesn’t enjoy a nice Jane Austen movie? But the dresses are all a bit sedate and proper. The costume drama is about the outrageous gowns that are brocaded, sweeping, enormous, and completely impractical. That’s what I want to see. Gimme some plunging décolletage, heaving bosoms, and wigs the size of a mountain lion! So here we go, my favorite costume dramas. These costumes are way better than anything you’d see on a red carpet. (Well, except for Glenn Close’s 41-pound gold lamé gown on the 2019 Oscars red carpet. Now that was something.)
Both of these movies are a blast, but for different reasons. The original stars Norma Shearer as the teenage Austrian princess who becomes Queen of France and Tyrone Power as one of her lovers. In the 1930s and 40s, Hollywood produced a number of what they called “women’s movies,” which were melodramas generally about unhappy wives coping with unhappy marriages. This is an epic version of that basic story, complete with 1930s morality.
There were about a dozen writers who worked on the screenplay, among them F. Scott Fitzgerald. The spectacular gowns in this film were designed by noted fashion designer Adrian, who also designed the ruby slippers worn by Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz (1939). In addition to his film work, Adrian ran a thriving couture business of his own.
The 2006 version is by Sofia Coppola and stars a sassy and self-possessed Kirsten Dunst. The film was booed when it debuted at Cannes, but those booers got it all wrong. It is a fascinating portrait of a girl overwhelmed by and then taking command of a bizarre situation. It’s actually a feminist document with amazing gowns by Milena Canonero, one of the best costume designers in film history and the winner of four Academy Awards.
This film is, in my opinion, the most visually beautiful film ever made. It is jaw-droppingly gorgeous at times, and on a number of occasions, it feels as if you are looking at a painting by Antoine Watteau brought to life. Directed by Stanley Kubrick and starring Ryan O’Neal and Marisa Berenson, it tells the picaresque tale of the rise and fall of an 18th-century Irish rogue. Kubrick used special lenses that had only recently been developed to shoot certain scenes entirely by candlelight.
Gowns again by Milena Canonero. Her work here was so notable that the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) did a special exhibit of the costumes from this movie. She studied paintings by Gainsborough, Reynolds, and Menzel to design the gowns and the incredible military outfits. This is one of those movies, like Lawrence of Arabia, that is best seen on the big screen. But don’t let that hold you back. If you’ve never seen this movie, rent it.
Okay, fine, this movie takes considerable liberties with historical facts to tell the tale of Elizabeth I’s ascension to the throne of England. Whatever. I loved this movie. Cate Blanchett is pitch perfect here, and the rest of the cast is marvelous too, and includes Joseph Fiennes, Geoffrey Rush, Richard Attenborough, and a delightful cameo by John Gielgud as the pope.
This is a story of power, conniving, and intrigue at the highest levels, all done in amazing outfits. Elizabeth I was probably the most powerful woman who ever lived, and she liked dressing up, often with high, ornate collars, lots of brocading, and pinchingly tight bodices. Costumes designed by Alexandra Byrne, who also did costume design for Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) and Thor (2011).
For me, the two best novels ever written are A Light in August by William Faulkner and Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. The story of a doomed and tragic love affair between Anna and the dashing Count Vronsky is so rich and compelling. Unfortunately, this movie stars Keira Knightley, whom I am no fan of, mainly because I don’t think she’s a very good actress. And she is paired with a nearly-as-average Jude Law. They both look good on screen, I do give them that! Great script here by the British playwright Tom Stoppard.
Costume design by Jacqueline Durran, who also did the gorgeous costumes for Disney’s live-action version of Beauty and the Beast (2017). Her work here is notable because she basically ignored Russian court fashion of the 19th century, and went instead for a look more inspired by 1950s haute couture. This movie is a classic of the costume drama form—it is first and foremost a beautiful movie to watch. Historical accuracy, fidelity to the original book, compelling acting? Not so much. But who cares? It’s great to look at.
Forget what you’ve heard about 17 bunny rabbits in the Queen’s bedroom and duck races as being at the center of this movie, it’s really about women slyly obtaining and wielding power. Queen Anne was a woman whose life was haunted by ill-health and 17 failed pregnancies. Her two realms of England and Scotland united into one sovereign state of Great Britain under her reign, making her the first Queen of Great Britain, but she was a tragic figure. When she came to power, she brought with her an old friend, Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough. Churchill was Anne’s “favourite” and used that role to be the literal power behind the throne.
Costumes for this film were designed by Sandy Powell, who has been Martin Scorsese’s costume designer for several of his pictures, including The Departed (2006), Shutter Island (2004), and Gangs of New York (2002). Special kudos to the wigmakers and hair and makeup artists in this film, led by Beverly Binda and Nadia Stacey. The wigs are just jaw-dropping—and I’m talking about the male courtiers’ wigs. According to Vogue, there were more than 100 wigs in this movie, and only three were made for women. Olivia Coleman, who plays Queen Anne, had a wig made of yak hair. This is a deeply strange and yet powerfully real film, despite the eccentric nature of the characters and the bizarre world they inhabit. Don’t miss this one.
David Raether is a veteran TV writer and essayist. He worked for 12 years as a television sitcom writer/producer, including a 111-episode run on the ground-breaking ABC comedy “Roseanne.” His essays have been published by Salon.com, The Times of London, and Longforms.org, and have been lauded by The Atlantic Magazine and the BBC World Service. His memoir, Homeless: A Picaresque Memoir from Our Times, is awaiting publication.