It is a truth universally acknowledged that in a period film, costumes are just as important as the plot and main characters. They allow the viewer to become immersed in the era. So as part of an ongoing feature in the blog, we are profiling our favorite costumes from period films.
Eliza Doolittle’s Embassy Ball Gown
When it comes to costumes from the 1964 film My Fair Lady, Eliza’s black-and-white Ascot dress and over the top, cartoonishly large hat seem to have reached iconic status. But her Embassy Ball dress — nay, gown; this no mere dress — is the one that always stuck in my mind. This is what I’d want to look like if I was trying to pass as an aristocrat: shimmering, rich, opulent, but not in a crass way. Costume designer Cecil Beaton really knew how to clean up a girl. Strictly speaking, the gown might not be completely historically accurate, and something about that hairdo reads very 60s to me, but even so: this is how you wear white.
As a lover of historical fiction and costume dramas, I’m constantly wishing someone would ask me what my favorite (aka most fascinating, most culturally interesting) time period is so we could get into a lively discussion about Victorian England versus the High Middle Ages versus early colonial New England or whatever. But alas, people are dull and boring and never ask me this.
If they did, they’d learn I have a thing with the American Civil War. I’m not sure if this is because I read Gone with the Wind at an impressionable age (12) or because I really like the over-the-top fashion madness that is the crinoline hoopskirt, but something about a country divided, the north versus south culture clash, and a four-year, nightmarish war intrigues me. And it’s also incredible to me that the whole Confederate business still has a hold on many Americans — like the people who drive around with Confederate flags on their trucks, even outside the South. What the hell?
So really it was just a matter of time before I got my hands on Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, which is set in the rural South during the Civil War. It’s one of my favorite historical fiction novels and one of my favorite novels, period. It does take a while to get through and the pacing is slow, I’ll admit. Think of it like slow-cooked barbecue: takes a long time to make, but the payoff is worth it.
The same year Gwyneth Paltrow was tricking us all with her fake English accent in Emma, the wonderful people who make British television tapped Andrew Davies to adapt the novel for TV and put Kate Beckinsale in the title role. Although it’s made for the small screen this Emma is a feature-length production, not a multi-hour miniseries like the BBC’s 1995 Pride and Prejudice. But never fear, the BBC has a new miniseries-length Emma — it premieres tonight in the U.S. on PBS! It’s like Christmas all over again here at Petticoat Junction.
While it might not be fair to review a movie by comparing it to another…too bad. Comparisons between the Gwyneth Paltrow Emma and the Kate Beckinsale Emma are inevitable.
One of the critical differences between the two films is the Mr. Knightley- Emma connection, which we alluded to in our review of the Gwyneth Paltrow film. In the British film Mr. Knightley feels much older than Emma — his treatment of her is more stiff, and his condemnation of her behavior is much more severe. There’s less friendly, playful banter between the two. He’s a stern creature in general — almost brooding. He has quite the angry temper, too. When he hears Frank Churchill is going to ride all the way to London just for a haircut he looks like he’s going to punch a hole through the wall.
So who’s the better Mr. Knightley? Jeremy Northam, the friendly, gentle critic, or Mark Strong, the stern, stiff moralist with the furrowed brow?
We at Petticoat Junction have been waiting, all squirmy and excited, for the new BBC-produced Emma, premiering on PBS in less than a week. We’re working through our jealousy for our British neighbors, whose networks seem to love costume dramas to bits, while we here in the States can go for years with nary a bonnet or petticoat on any of the major channels. Le sigh.
Anyway, since this is Major Television Event, I’m reviewing other Emmas — the made-for-TV film the BBC did in 1996 and the feature film that came out the same year. Three adaptations in fifteen years (four if you count Clueless) might sound like overkill, but it’s great fun to compare the different treatments of the source material. And, duh — we blog about costume dramas. This is our thing.
The 1996 Emma, starring Gwyneth Paltrow as the heroine and Jeremy Northam as Mr. Knightley, is one of those comfort movies I’ve returned to over and over again. Light and airy in tone and feel, featuring gorgeous scenery and costumes, this Emma is a pleasure from start to finish.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that in a period film, costumes are just as important as the plot and main characters. They allow the viewer to become immersed in the era. So as part of a new, ongoing feature in the blog, we are profiling our favorite costumes from period films.
Scarlett O’Hara’s green barbecue dress from Gone with the Wind.
I first saw Gone With the Wind as a sixth grader and was utterly besotted — not with the story or the characters, but the dresses. I got around to reading the book after my parents gave it to me as a Christmas present; only then did I come to appreciate the actual story. Now I much prefer the book over the film. Scarlett’s and Rhett’s characters are more forcefully felt in the novel, I think — but I still love the film’s costumes designed by Walter Plunkett. This dress that Scarlett wore to the barbecue at Twelve Oaks is my favorite of several gorgeous gowns. It’s pretty, light, flirtatious, and carefree. The deep green matches her personality, too; she’s a bit of a jealous, conniving bitch (in a good way!) and the hue conveys that.
If I had to hazard a guess, I would suspect that a larger percentage of readers of this blog would recognize the name of Elizabeth Gaskell compared to the general population. I was introduced to her novel North and South during a Victorian English class in college, but prior to that I had little knowledge of her or her work. While she was friends and co-authored several stories with some more famous Victorian counterparts such as Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins (Woman in White), she never achieved the same level of fame. The subjects of her writings were inspired by the real social, economic and political impacts of the industrial revolution on various classes, but she was also well-known among her peers for her biography of Charlotte Bronte, authoress of Jane Eyre (another Petticoat Junction favorite by default!). If interested, there is a free version of the biography available here – a future blog post in the making!
Everyone loves a good royal romance. At age fourteen I had a huge poster of Prince William hanging on my bedroom wall, I’m not ashamed to admit. Though there are those who believe the monarchy is an affront to human dignity (and we can see their point) we here at Petticoat Junction never let that get in the way of our fantasy life.
But we digress.
Happily for the fourteen-year-old inside us, The Young Victoria focuses on the relationship between Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert. They were in love, like, toad-ally; their marriage was a partnership based on friendship and mutual trust, with each promising to take care of the other — it’s the modern ideal, really. We’re not sure if this is an accurate depiction of their relationship, but it’s difficult to resist the pair’s chemistry. Very cute, although Victoria doesn’t let Albert forget who wears the crown and who’s just the spouse.