Earlier this year, British costume designer Jenny Beavan won the Oscar for Best Costume Design with her de Vil-ishly stylish work on Cruella. (She's been nominated 11 times in total and won two additional times, for 1985's A Room With a View and 2015's Mad Max: Fury Road). Her newest project sees her taking on the tall order of designing for perhaps the year's most fashionable film, Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris.
The film, directed by Anthony Fabian, follows Mrs. Ada Harris (Lesley Manville), a cleaning lady working in 1950s London, who falls in love with a Dior dress she discovers in a wealthy client's armoire. After saving up the necessary money, she travels to Paris so that she can purchase her own haute couture dress, only to find herself up against the gatekeepers of the House of Dior (including Isabelle Huppert's Claudine Colbert).
"I was in this incredibly lucky position that I had a magnet for costume designers that very few would've been able to resist," Fabian tells A.frame. "The film is essentially a love letter to the House of Dior, so I could aim the bar very high in terms of who I went to for costume design. And the reason I chose Jenny is because I loved the fact that she could win an Oscar for A Room With a View, and then Mad Max: Fury Road. I love that rock and roll element to her. She isn't just a Merchant Ivory, pretty-pretty kind of creature. She would have the courage to be a little bit more outrageous if necessary."
For Beavan, this gig wasn't exactly easy, as she doesn't consider herself a fashion person, in so much as she is not into high fashion and typically doesn't follow global fashion weeks. "But it was another form of storytelling that had to do with fashion," she explains. "And if you're going to deal with fashion, Christian Dior is pretty much at the top of my list. I think he was such an interesting, quiet man and I love all the old black-and-white photos of the seamstresses working in the ateliers. There’s something about it that’s heartwarming, really."
Though there wasn't extensive research material to work with, Beavan acquired a copy of Dior's pattern book from 1957, with fabric samples, design sketches and photos, and referenced Christian Dior: History & Modernity, 1947-1957 by Alexandra Palmer. Using those resources, she set about recreating Dior dresses from the '50s, presented in the movie during a 10th anniversary runway show in the Dior atelier.
"I have to tell you that originally, I was under the understanding that Dior would do the Dior part of it, and I would be working alongside them, which I found exciting," Beavan explains. "But it wasn't like that at all. They were willing to be extremely helpful with the archives from the 1950s, but they didn't have any of the dresses. They actually didn’t have much because they didn’t see the importance of keeping it back then. They made a collection, sold it, moved onto the next. It wasn’t something they even thought about."
Beavan and her costume team (including associate costume designers Lauren Reyhani and Sally Turner) recreated 20 dresses for the runway show – "that was plenty" – as well as using Dior dresses from their 1955 Heritage Collection, on loan for the production. "But that's their recreations, not the original ones," Beavan clarifies. "They made them in the 1990s, all black and white. But we wanted to inject color in, so we made all the rest."
"Dior colors are simple, wonderfully real," she adds.
Fabian says, "She was really wonderful about respecting Dior's creations. All of the dresses that are in the show are actually recreations of real Dior across the 10-year period of his output, but there are three story dresses in the movie — the first dress that Ada sees; the Venus dress, the green dress she thinks she wants; and then the red dress that she really falls in love with. And those dresses, although they're inspired by Dior designs, they are what I call Jenny Beavan Dior. They are designed by her, created by her, but inspired by Christian."
Another highlight from that runway show is a yellow dress called the Cabaret, which has a 1920s flapper feel to it. "We dyed the fabric, thanks to the good silks we got from the costume house," Beavan says. "All the dresses were made to measure. We couldn't get anyone in for a fitting, due to COVID-19. They were all made to measure, sent to Hungary" — the movie was largely shot in Budapest, standing in for London and Paris — "and fitted by Lauren and I. Measurements were what we had to go from."
Beavan credits her success in costume design — a career that has spanned more than 40 years — to her research, creativity, and the team that she works with. "I am good at ideas. I'm very good at storytelling," she shares. "I work with a phenomenal team. Without that team, you can only do so much. It’s about how you impart your ideas. They take my ideas a step further."
Her advice for aspiring costume designers is to be open to all opportunities, even if it isn't how they dreamed of entering the industry. "Don’t assume you'll be a designer walking out of college," she says. "I started making coffee and doing laundry. Get every skill you can. Learn to dye, dress, sew and organize. If you have all the skills, the costume world is so diverse."
By Nadja Sayej