During last year's Oscars, legendary costume designer Jenny Beavan won the Oscar for Best Costume Design with her de Vil-ishly stylish work on Cruella. Onstage, she admitted that when she was asked to design the movie, "I actually nearly said no. Glad I didn't!" If anything, Beavan has staked her career on saying "yes" to the most formidable of costuming challenges, and has taken home three Oscars for it: Before Cruella, she had won for Mad Max: Fury Road in 2016 and A Room With a View in 1985 (sharing the latter award with frequent collaborator John Bright).
Her latest Oscar nomination is in recognition of her work on the high-fashion fantasy, Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris. Adapted from Paul Gallico's classic novel, Mrs. 'Arris Goes to Paris, the film follows Mrs. Ada Harris (Lesley Manville), a cleaning lady working in 1950s London, who falls in love with a Dior dress she finds in a wealthy client's armoire. On a whim, she travels to Paris so that she can purchase a haute couture dress of her own, only to find herself up against the gatekeepers of the House of Dior (including Isabelle Huppert's Madame Claudine Colbert).
Despite decades spent exemplifying elegant design work in her early Merchant Ivory films, and then breaking those rules in her rebellious later phrase, Beavan initially questioned whether she was the right woman to bring back to life the couture of arguably the most famous fashion designer of the 20th century.
"I was in this incredibly lucky position that I had a magnet for costume designers that very few would've been able to resist," director Anthony 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."
Fashion is not Beavan's thing, in so much as she is not into designer labels and largely ignores global fashion trends. "But it was another form of storytelling that had to do with fashion," she says of what appealed to her about Mrs. Harris. "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, including fabric samples, design sketches and photos, and referenced Christian Dior: History & Modernity, 1947-1957 by fashion curator Alexandra Palmer. Using those resources, she set about designing replicas of Dior dresses from the '50s, presented on-screen during a 10th anniversary couture 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" – alongside five gowns from Dior's 1955 Heritage Collection, on loan to the production. "But that's their recreations, not the original ones," clarifies the designer. "They made them in the 1990s, all black and white. But we wanted to inject color in, so we made all the rest."
Fabian says of Beavan, "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 [Temptation] that she really falls in love with — those dresses are what I call 'Jenny Beavan Dior.' They are designed by her, created by her, but inspired by Christian."
As if designing three custom gowns fit for Dior wasn't the most glamorously daunting task in and of itself, Beavan did so under the most challenging of circumstances: "Quarantine, lockdown, doing up buttons in surgical gloves," she lists off. "Trying to assess a costume on an actor wearing a mask. I never realized before how important it is to really see the whole body and expression, while wearing a mask oneself — which I found difficult to think straight in!"
Shot in the fall of 2020 under pandemic safety precautions, Beavan found herself working in a new city (Budapest, standing in for London and Paris), communicating in an unfamiliar language ("Hungarian is not the easiest language to navigate!"), with only the actors' measurements to work from. "All the dresses were made to measure. We couldn't get anyone in for a fitting, due to COVID-19. They were made to measure, sent to Hungary, and fitted by Lauren and I the day before we shot them."
(The experience would ultimately prove to be invaluable, as, "We carried this method on into the next film, Furiosa," Beavans notes. Due to quarantine restrictions in Australia, "We worked via photos, Zoom, and FaceTime... It's not the same as being 'hands on' but it can work.")
And then, there was the budget, which is never as much as you want it to be even in so-called "normal" times. "Modest is a polite way of putting it!" Beavan exclaims. Still, "I think we are a resilient bunch, us costume designers, so we just made it work!"
All of which makes her latest Oscar nomination — her 12th — feel that much more special. "This nomination is particularly thrilling, as this film was made under challenging conditions and the nomination is really a celebration of my extraordinary crew!" Beavan says. And for the costume designer, it couldn't have come for a more fitting film. "Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris seems to me exactly what we all need at the moment — a heartwarming, feisty film about achieving your dreams! Go Mrs. Harris!!"
Reporting by Nadja Sayej
This article was originally published on July 14, 2022 and has been updated throughout.
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