Fashioning the Dangerous Woman in ‘Killing Eve’

Villanelle wearing a Molly Goddard dress. Costume design by Phoebe de Gaye. BBC America/Sid Gentle Films, 2018.

Killing Eve’s female-led approach to the spy thriller reverses a number of gender stereotypes. However, reversing a stereotype is not always the same as challenging it, and one stereotype that the series struggles to challenge is the trope of the dangerously fashionable woman.

In Killing Eve, this woman takes the form of sharply dressed assassin, Villanelle. Her passion for her work is matched only by her passion for designer clothes, and she stalks the streets of Europe in an array of the latest fashions. A hit in Tuscany requires a lace-trimmed Burberry dress, for example, while one in Bulgaria calls for a satin Miu Miu bomber jacket. In Berlin, she dons a frilly JW Anderson top to hide in plain sight as she spies on MI5 agents before changing into a brocade Dries van Noten suit to stab one of them. Then, of course, there is the striking Molly Goddard dress and Balenciaga boots ensemble that she wears to visit her psychiatrist in Paris. Villanelle’s fashionable clothes are both her tactical wear and markers of her confident, fearless character.

Crucially, Villanelle’s fashionable appearance contrasts her with that of Eve, the unassuming MI5 agent tasked with hunting her down. Favouring ill-fitting suits and anoraks, Eve is so decidedly unfashionable that Villanelle feels compelled to send her a selection of designer clothes. Yet Eve cannot let herself enjoy them, for they represent all that she feels she is not. Over the course of the series, her unfashionable appearance thus becomes associated with a certain rationality and self-control, thereby distancing her from Villanelle both visually and characteristically. Villanelle’s fashion sense might appear confident and fearless, but it can become unruly and ostentatious when contrasted with Eve’s appearance.

Eve. Costume design by Phoebe de Gaye. BBC America/Sid Gentle Films, 2018.

In some respects, it is exciting to see a woman as fashionable as Villanelle on screen. Fashion and costume are so often viewed as mutually exclusive, but Villanelle’s costumes show how fashion can be utilised in costume design without appearing distracting. Furthermore, it is unusual for a female character to embrace fashion without fear of being perceived as frivolous or overly feminine, and to completely own her appearance. In turn, Villanelle’s costumes are refreshing because they allow both her and the viewer to unashamedly indulge in fashion.

However, this also makes it all the more frustrating that Killing Eve then associates Villanelle’s fashionable appearance with wrongdoing, for the trope of the dangerously fashionable woman is as old as the moving image itself. More often than not, the fashionable woman is confident and assertive, independent and liberated; her fashion sense, as a visible manifestation of modernity and change, comes to symbolise these dangerous characteristics. There is a reason that the vamp always wears a short dress and bobbed hair, for example, and that the femme fatale wears shoulder pads and red lipstick. Her fashion sense others her, often prefiguring her downfall.

Villanelle’s fate may not yet be known, but positioning her as the dangerously fashionable woman nonetheless renders her character as dated as it is enjoyable. Might the characterisation of Killing Eve’s leads feel different if, for instance, Eve were the fashionable one?

Mamma Mia! and the Enduring Appeal of 1970s Fashions

Split between 1979 and the mid-2000s, the dual-focus narrative of the recent Mamma Mia! sequel allows for some lovely period costumes. However, I was struck by how modern the 1970s costumes appear and, in turn, by the number of 1970s styles featured in the 21st century costumes.

Contemporary and period costumes together, highlighting their influence on each other. Poster by Universal Pictures, 2018.

In part, this is likely due to the fact that period costumes are never entirely historically accurate. Character development tends to take precedence over historical accuracy, and factors such as time and budget constraints and performance and aesthetic requirements mean that total accuracy is also difficult to achieve on a practical level. Furthermore, historical costumes have long reflected contemporary fashions, whether for commercial purposes or to ease comprehension for modern viewers. The 1970s costumes in Mamma Mia! are therefore infused with contemporary touches, such as Donna’s loose perm or her helix piercing. It is then fitting to reference the 1970s costumes in the modern ones because a desire to connect to the past is central to the film’s plot.

Of course, the mid-2000s setting is now period itself, but an exact year is not made explicit. Ergo, narratively essential but potentially anachronistic vintage styles can be incorporated into the modern costumes with particular ease. However, the filmmakers could probably have specified a year and still avoided anachronisms, as it is also possible that the 1970s costumes appear modern, and the modern costumes appear retro, because 1970s styles are so frequently in fashion.

Season after season, 1970s influences appear on the catwalks. Over the past year, there have been flared jumpsuits at Gucci, shearling coats at Louis Vuitton and patchwork pieces at Dior. Longchamp’s SS19 collection is nothing but 1970s styles. On the high street, too, 1970s fashions have remained popular for decades. The late 1990s saw a 1970s revival, for example, followed by a ‘boho’ trend in the early-mid 2000s. Most recently, disco-inspired festival fashions have gone mainstream.

1970s-inspired fashions advertised at Temple tube station, September 2018. Photograph by the author.

This longevity can be partially attributed to the cyclical nature of fashion. Another possibility is that 1970s fashions have endured because the popular cuts—flared, high-waisted, A-line—are comfortable and flattering. Or perhaps it is the great variety of styles which is appealing. The 1970s was the first decade in which expressing individuality through dress became widely popular, and this, coupled with a new demand for vintage clothes, led to an unprecedented bricolage of trends on the high street. This tendency towards individuality has also led many 1970s fashions to become inextricably associated with youth and countercultures, with freedom and fun, and it is surely this quality which remains especially attractive—however commercialised certain trends might have become.

At the end of Mamma Mia!, the cast performs Super Trouper dressed in comically exaggerated disco styles. The costumes play to a common perception of 1970s fashions as excessive and garish, but it is unsurprising that the most extreme styles are the best remembered. The rest of the film is a reminder that the decade’s everyday fashions are just as significant.

Chagall: Fantasies for the Stage

Chagall: Fantasies for the Stagea whimsical look at the costumes and sets Marc Chagall created for four theatrical productions, is on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art until January 7th. This exhibition examines the three ballets and one opera that Chagall designed. Beginning in 1941 with the ballet Aleko and ending in 1967 with the opera The Magic Flute the exhibition showcases Chagall’s artistic process in designing for the stage.

Using 41 costumes, 100 sketches, reproductions of the original backgrounds, and footage from both the 1942 production of Aleko and a contemporary production of The Firebird that continues to use Chagall’s designs, this exhibition guides the viewer through and examines the evolution of Chagall’s career in the theatre. The exhibition is divided into four sections each focusing on one show. Moving chronologically, the show begins with Aleko, then moves to The Firebird, then Daphnis and Chloe, and finally ends with Chagall’s only opera, The Magic Flute. 

In each section the original costumes, many of which were hand painted by Chagall, are juxtaposed with the sketches he created in the design stages. Seeing the costumes in both the design conception and realization phases is an invaluable look into not only Chagall’s process, but he way he translated his painting and drawing style into clothing as well. Take for example the design for The Firebird of the Sorcerer Koschei. The drawing has all the hallmarks of Chagall’s typical style – lyrical movement, folkloric subject material, and a masterful use of color. The costume takes these elements and plays with them in different ways. The fluid lines are found in draping folds of cloth and intricate embroidery, the folksy subject is found in the inspiration from Yiddish lore he used to create the firey sorcerer, and the mastery of color is found in the rich, bold fabrics.

In the final cycle of costumes for The Magic Flute Chagall has clearly become more comfortable with dressmaking. In his early costumes for Aleko he stayed in his comfort zone by relying mostly on hand painting plain fabrics, and occasionally adding in embellishments such as netting or beading. By the time he was designing for The Magic Flute in the 1960’s Chagall is using fur trim, feathers, and appliqué. The anthropomorphized lion costume he created consisted of hand painted cotton, chiffon, silk appliqué, and feathers. Even his preparatory sketches were more intricate than those he created for his previous costumes. In the paper designs for The Magic Flute he used bits of shimmering gold paper and fabric. He worked for three years on the costumes and sets for The Magic Flute and the intricacy and care shown in both the preparatory sketches and the clothes themselves shows how confident and successful Chagall had become in costume design.

There has always existed a tension between art and fashion. Chagall: Fantasies for the Stage demonstrates just one of the many ways that clothing and fine art can come together.

Olivia Chuba

All photos by the author.

Costume Trainee Lily Bailie on Game of Thrones, Music Videos and Belfast’s Fashion

Lily Bailie studied Performance Costume at the Edinburgh College of Art as an undergraduate before embarking on a career in costume design. In this interview Lily reflects on her first jobs, her love of music videos (she is also a DJ) and her future. Her first roles after graduation as a costume trainee were for Game of Thrones, Zoo, and The Woman in White.

What was your job at Game of Thrones?

I was a costume trainee, which allows you to do a bit of everything. I worked in the Crowd costume department, which focuses on fitting and dressing the extras. It is a fun department to work for because every day is different: from making alterations and organising stock to loading costumes on a truck before driving to set. Given the number of costumes and extras, being organised is essential for any production’s costume department. I also worked on set, which often required me to work long hours in sometimes relentless weather conditions. It was nonetheless an amazing to experience and good fun.

What did you enjoy most about the job?

Being a trainee is great, because you experience different roles and gain a general understanding of the costume world in film and television. As a trainee, you hop between different departments, which allowed me to see the full journey of a costume from the sewing room, to a fitting and to being worn on set. Higher positions don’t offer the same breadth of experience, as they are more specialised.

How did you get the job?

My supervisor from a previous film sent my name as a recommendation to Game of Thrones. When working in costume, it is important to always work hard and make a good impression, because you never know who might get you your next job.

What other projects are you working on?

I am currently working on the BBC production The Woman in White, which is a Victorian drama series set in 1850. I also worked on a film called Zoo, which is a film based on the true story of a Belfast zoo during World War II. Belfast’s wartime fashion was interesting, because it was everyday dress rather than high-end fashion.

I also recently worked on the music video No Reason for Bonobo, which was an ambitious shoot with an amazing team. The video shows eighteen different rooms, which gradually decrease in size to signify claustrophobia. It was a bizarre and fascinating project which blurred the boundaries between costume design and art.

What are some of your favourite costumes?

I love the music video for M.I.A.’s Bring the Noize. All dancers are dressed in white while moving through a warehouse with UV-lights, which creates an interesting interplay between the costumes and lighting.

What project would you love to design costumes for in the future?

I would like to develop a style for a music video that can also be used for live gigs and album art work. I like design crossing over from the art department to costume, to style, to fashion; I love it when everything comes together.

To see more of Lily’s work, please visit her site www.cargocollective.com/lilybailie.

Unmasking Rococo Masquerade Costume

From the 1720s until the end of the eighteenth century, large masquerades epitomized vice and excess in European cities. In spite of this, people from almost all walks of life frequented masquerades, including nobles, clergy, townsfolk, and prostitutes. There were only two requirements for admission: first, a purchased party ticket, and second, a costume. With the blurring of class boundaries, excess food and alcohol consumption, and libertinage came the necessity to hide one’s identity. Thus, revelers donned fantastical costumes and masks to disguise themselves as they met in assembly rooms and pleasure gardens. At the height of masquerade madness, artists depicted how these partygoers adapted fashionable dress to create costumes that complemented the topsy-turvy atmosphere.

Henry Moreland, The Fair Nun Unmasked, c. 1769. Oil on canvas. Temple Newsam House, Leeds Museums and Galleries (LEEAG.1948.0009.0001). Available here: http://www.leeds.gov.uk/museumsandgalleries/pages/object.aspx?oid=43215.

Henry Moreland, The Fair Nun Unmasked, c. 1769. Oil on canvas. Temple Newsam House, Leeds Museums and Galleries (LEEAG.1948.0009.0001). Available at this link.

Concealment was the chief aim of masquerade costume. An issue of London’s Universal Spectator in 1729 declared that “Everyone…wears a Habit which speaks him the Reverse of what he is.” As such, costume contrasted with the everyday personality of its wearer. For example, in Henry Morland’s The Fair Nun Unmasked, though the woman’s cross and veil indicate that she is dressed as a nun, the low cut of her dress hardly conveys the piety required for the role. Further, the beauty patches on her mask indicate flirtation, both drawing attention to details on the face (or, in this case, the mask) and communicating secret meanings through patch position. A nun costume blatantly sexualized the wearer in eighteenth-century Protestant England: to be called a ‘nun’ meant one was a whore.

Detail of Charles Nicolas Cochin II (design) and Charles Nicolas Cochin I (engraving), Decoration for a Masked Ball at Versailles, on the Occasion of the Marriage of Louis, Dauphin of France, and Maria Theresa, Infanta of Spain, c. 1860 reprint of 1764 plate. Etching with engraving. The Metropolitan Museum of Art (Credit line: Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1930). Available here: http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/359942.

Detail of Charles Nicolas Cochin II (design) and Charles Nicolas Cochin I (engraving), Decoration for a Masked Ball at Versailles, on the Occasion of the Marriage of Louis, Dauphin of France, and Maria Theresa, Infanta of Spain, c. 1860 reprint of 1764 plate. Etching with engraving. The Metropolitan Museum of Art (Credit line: Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1930). Available at this link.

Costumes designs varied widely, as seen in Cochin’s print of the Yew Tree Ball of 1745. The most popular styles included fancy dress (toned-down costume dresses), pastoral (particularly shepherdesses), Oriental (Turkish or Chinese dress), seventeenth century (dress inspired by Rubens’ 1638 portrait of Hélène Fourment), and harlequin. People were hardly confined to these styles, however. Just as the masquerade encouraged bodily excess, so too were revelers encouraged to play with extremes when designing their costumes. Cochin etched one extreme into posterity by depicting the namesake of the Yew Tree Ball: at this masquerade, celebrating the marriage of the Dauphin, King Louis XV and his male courtiers dressed as topiary yew trees. In a world ordinarily controlled by pomp and carefully honed manners, this and other costumes embodied the magical escapism of the Rococo masquerade.

Further Reading

Ribeiro, Aileen. The Dress Worn at Masquerades in England, 1730-1790, and its relation to Fancy Dress in Portraiture. New York: Garland Publishing, 1984.

Thinking Pink Outside the Classroom

In addition to studying Rebecca Arnold’s MA at the Courtauld, I also work as a gallery assistant at Christie’s. In this part time role I work across various sales, engaging with clients, specialists and a wide range of art and historical objects. By lucky and unexpected chance, I occasionally come across wonderful treasures relating to dress history. It was on my shift attending the ‘Old Master & British Drawings & Watercolours’ December sale viewing, that I discovered an illustration by George Barbier. Made in 1925, the costume study, likely intended for a theatrical production, depicts a poised lady drinking a cup of tea, wearing a dramatic gown in a buffoon-style 19th century silhouette. Dress historians may well be familiar with Barbier’s Art Deco style illustrations, made famous by his collaboration with Paul Poiret. The graphic artist was also involved in creating and documenting sumptuous costume and set designs for the theatre. Though I had previously encountered printed examples of Barbier’s work, this was the first time I had seen an original drawing. What struck me about this sketch was the paradoxical play between and historical accuracy and dramatic artificiality.

A lady in a floral dress holding a cup of tea signed and dated 'GEORGE/ BARBIER/ 1925' (recto) and extensively inscribed and titled [...] “La tasse de thé/ Séraphine en rose et noir [...]' and with stamp '147 E' (verso), George Barbier (Nantes 1882-1932 Paris), traces of pencil, pen and black ink, grey wash, watercolour, height 26.3; width 20.4 cm.  Copyright: Christie’s.

A lady in a floral dress holding a cup of tea signed and dated ‘GEORGE/ BARBIER/ 1925′ (recto) and extensively inscribed and titled […] “La tasse de thé/ Séraphine en rose et noir […]’ and with stamp ‘147 E’ (verso), George Barbier (Nantes 1882-1932 Paris), traces of pencil, pen and black ink, grey wash, watercolour, height 26.3; width 20.4 cm.
Copyright: Christie’s.

Portrait of Lady Adelaide Stanhope, Alfred Edward Chalon (1780-1860), Watercolour, bodycolour on paper, height: 35 cm; Width: 27.1 cm.  Copyright: © The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London

Portrait of Lady Adelaide Stanhope, Alfred Edward Chalon (1780-1860), Watercolour, bodycolour on paper, height: 35 cm; Width: 27.1 cm.
Copyright: © The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The gown’s silhouette, tightly corseted at the waist, with a ballooning skirt, reminded me of an earlier sketch our class encountered in the Courtauld’s prints and drawings room. A half body watercolour portrait of Lady Adelaide Stanhope by Alfred Edward Chalon (1780-1860), shares many similarities with the upper section of Barbier’s illustration. From the straight cut across the bust, to the unnatural slope of the shoulders, the use of sugary floral adornments, tight shiny ringlets and passive gaze. Barbier’s graphic illustration disrupts this representation of soft femininity through the dramatic explosion of floral motifs cascading down the thick black band at the hem of the skirt. Barbara Matorelli, who has written about Barbier’s work, believed his conception of staging design consisted of uniting simple scenes with sumptuous costumes that were intended to stand out against the neutrality of a dark background. These costumes were perceived to be ‘theoretically accurate’ through their silhouettes, however their surfaces functioned like a canvas, through which Barbier could theatrically renew past styles, cleverly evading anachronism. This is particularly evident with the sketch sold at Christie’s, which fuses historical dress construction with a contemporary graphic illustrative design style.

Reference: Matorelli, Barbara. George Barbier: The Birth of Art Deco. Italy: Marsilio, 2009.

Everyday Dress

Everyday dress on stage

Everyday dress on stage

This month the Tanz Wuppertal Pina Bausch company presented their annual season at the Sadler’s Wells theatre in London. The company continues to stage and tour the work of the late choreographer, this year presenting ‘Ahnen’ from 1987 and ‘Auf dem Gebirge hat man ein Geschrei’ (On the Mountain A Cry Was Heard).

I was lucky enough to see these performances, and was struck by the use of dress in each production. The normality of the costumes in contrast to the set, which in the case of ‘Auf dem Gebirge hat man ein Geschrei’ was pine trees and a pile of soil in which the performers regularly rolled, sat and fell into, was extremely interesting. The costumes, which included tea dresses, suits and swimming costumes, worked in parallel with the choreography, to create a world that blurred the lines between reality and dreams. The performers are presented as ordinary people, not fixed in a specific time or place, but rooted in the everyday, participating in strange and erratic behaviour observed from life. Unlike other contemporary dance or ballet performances, where one is acutely aware of costume and characterisation, the costumes here felt like ready-to-wear garments. This is testament to the skill of Marion Cito, the costume designer for the company, who designed the ‘everyday’ costumes, whilst still allowing for the freedom of movement and flexibility necessary for a dancer.  Cito says of the costumes: ‘…the Tanztheater costumes are interesting in that they present the dancers primarily as normal people – in dresses, suits, high heels and everyday shoes – as opposed to performers in traditional leotards and ballet shoes’

 Cito, herself a trained dancer, took over the role of costume designer after the untimely death of Rolf Borzik in 1980. The first costumes she designed were for the piece ‘1980 – Ein Stück von Pina Bausch’, a piece that dealt with some of the issues of grief for the loss of Borzik. Cito continued the aesthetic and ethos of Borzik’s work, taking inspiration from everyday life that contrasts the often absurd, surreal and dysfunctional elements of what takes place on stage. Cito worked closely with Pina – looking through old photographs for inspiration. Unlike other dance companies where the costumes and sets are created before production begins, Bausch worked in a different way.

Cito had to design costumes ‘speculatively’, guessing the direction of the choreography – designing alongside Bausch’s choreographic process, entrusting each other with the shared task of creating a harmonious performance that only came together in the final stages of production.

Last year I saw these costumes on the London stage. The performers wore elegant dresses and suits, their splendid garb jarring with the poetic choreography, and the grass floor of the set. The glamorous eveningwear that features prominently in this piece came to be a common feature – a demonstration of beauty and desire, but also ‘…of how men and women interact with each other and use their clothing to hide or reveal themselves accordingly.’

Sources:

http://www.pina-bausch.de/en/dancetheatre/costumes/cito.php?text=lang

http://www.pinabausch.org/en/pina/rolf-borzik

http://www.anothermag.com/art-photography/2029/pina-bausch-costumes

Biography of Objects at the Museum of London

Last week our MA History of Dress class was lucky enough to be allowed into the clothing store at the Museum of London, where over 27,000 objects of dress are conserved, catalogued and housed. This was my first experience in a museum store of any sort, so naturally I was very excited. Many of these objects enter the collection as part of a large lot bought at auction, often making it difficult to ascertain who owned it and how and when they wore it. We met one of the dress curators, Beatrice Behlen, who showed us how the key to unlocking the mystery behind the owner can often reside in the most unlikely of places: buttons, soles of shoes and pockets on jackets. Because clothing is something so personal, the 24,000 dresses, suits and shoes collected by the Museum of London, which range in date from the Tudor period to the present day, are more powerful a self portrait, than could be depicted using paint or photography, but only if the owner can be identified!

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Inside the dress store at the Museum of London

We were shown a variety of different garments, including a pair of shoes made and worn during clothing rationing in the Second World War, which had been reinforced with metal studs by the owner, to prevent wear and prolong their life.

One of the most intriguing objects we were shown, and arguably my favourite, was a very small blue leotard, covered with gold spangles, and finished with metallic lace. This rather unusual garment was donated to the museum in 1928, as part of a group of clothing which dated from 1860 to 1875. The task of the curator was to determine why this garment was made and who wore it.

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Leotard in the Museum of London collection

Beatrice explained to us how, by comparing the shape of the leotard, she was able to note similarities between it and costumes worn by famous acrobats in photographs taken at the time, with the distinctive deep-V neckline. This allowed her to give an approximate date to the garment.  However, external sources like photos can only take one so far. The rest of the deducting had to come from closely examining the object itself.

The metal buttons on the leotard where not all the same- they were made by two different designers, as was indicated by the tailors’ names on the surfaces. Some of the buttons came from a tailor called ‘Adolphus,’ on Leadenhall Street, while the others are labeled ‘J.W. Calver, Walthamstow.’ This simple fact alone suggests that the garment was not made professionally, although, of course, buttons may have been changed at a later date after loss or damage.  However, tracing the careers of these two tailors allowed Beatrice to confirm, with slightly more certainty, a date of creation. Aldophus went out of business in 1880, so these buttons must have been in existence before that date, while J.W. Calver only started his company in 1861. He continued working into the 1890s. This, along with comparisons made with the acrobats’ photographs, points to a date in the 1860s.

The silver lace, made of thread plated with a thin coat of silver metal, was comparable to other, much earlier examples of dress in the museum’s collection. This, along with the mismatched buttons, suggested that the leotard was made at home, reusing materials from old clothes. Its very small size indicates that a child wore it, and therefore, it is likely that it was made for (very elaborate!) fancy dress. This appears to be confirmed by the rather unprofessional style of stitching on the garment, particularly on the red rosette, which gives it an altogether homemade appearance.

It is fascinating to imagine the child who wore this costume, perhaps having been inspired by seeing an acrobat, or wanting to copy a popular celebrity of the day. This is truly an example of clothing’s ability to share the biography of its wearer. Maybe one day, someone will look through my old dressing up box, trying to piece together the story behind my childhood costumes, which, much like this leotard, were made for me by an equally doting, and equally talented, mother.

Sources:

Beatrice Behlen, ‘Acrobatic Mystery… belatedly continued,’ Museum of London blog, 7 February, 2012 http://blog.museumoflondon.org.uk/acrobatic-mystery-continued/