At Anthony Fabian Mrs. Harris goes to Paris, Lesley Manville plays the title character, a London housekeeper who finds a new purpose in life when she spots a Dior dress in a wealthy client’s closet. By saving and saving, Ms. Harris is saving enough money to travel to Paris and buy her own original Dior, but it will take more than moxie and cash to realize her dreams. Despite being thwarted by Dior’s fearsome Madame Colbert (Isabelle Huppert), Ms. Harris perseveres with a little help from a model, Natasha (Alba Baptista), and the company’s accountant, André (Lucas Bravo ).
In a film where clothing defines class and creativity, costume design was essential. “I always knew it was a costume designer’s dream,” says Fabian. The filmmaker sought out Jenny Beavan, whom Fabian describes as “one of the greatest costume designers Britain has ever produced”. Over the past forty years, Beavan has been nominated for eleven and won three Oscars®. Having created the looks of movies like Gosford Park, A room with a view, Sense and sensitivityand Mad Max: Fury RoadBeavan instinctively knew how to mix high fashion and character development to best tell the story of Ms. Harris.
We spoke with Beavan about studying 1950s fashion, working with Dior, and bringing joy to history through clothing.
You’ve created costumes for period films throughout history. What interested you about working in 1950s England and France?
I personally remember the 50s. Maybe not 1950 itself, but in 1957 I had memories of that period. It was kind of fun to go back and see what my family was wearing then. They were musicians, which was not a well-paid profession at all. We lived in a basement apartment in Kensington. Like other families, we didn’t have a lot of clothes, but what we did have, we took care of. It was a simpler time because the clothes you had were so much simpler. For that reason alone, Ms. Harris seeing a Dior dress for the first time would have had a much bigger impact on her than it does today.
Did the fashion of the time interest you?
Only in terms of telling the story. I loved characters like Mrs. Harris and her Jamaican friend, Vi. When I was younger, we had a Jamaican nanny who became a very good family friend. In terms of current fashion, I remember that my mother received a dress with a cinched waist and a large skirt very inspired by the New Look. At the time, I don’t think I paid much attention to fashion since I was such a tomboy. Looking back, I can see what a great time of change it was and how Dior, in this post-war period, did its part to bring joy to people’s lives.
In the fashion show, how many dresses were original Dior creations, replicas or created by you?
There were five at Dior, but they weren’t original from the fifties. They were Dior recreations of the archives’ heritage collection. I created three dresses. And the rest were recreations of photographs and Dior’s book of the time. In the book, each dress had a design made by Dior, a fabric swatch, and design notes. Fortunately, I had the skills of John Bright and Jane Law to make these dresses. It was a lot of work. Due to Covid we didn’t have enough costume props. Many of the dresses were made to measure and fitted in Budapest the day before the shoot.
How did you design the two dresses, Temptation and Venus, that Ms. Harris chose for the show?
First, Mrs. Harris had to fall in love with them, so they had to have color. One of the dresses I had seen in the archives from the 1950s was a red dress with the most amazing sequins. I believe all were hand sewn all over the dress. When creating Ms. Harris’ top pick, Temptation, we did it crimson red, but the hand-stitched sequins were beyond our ability. I got a sample from the North of England which I thought would work. It would look like Dior and was the closest thing to recreating that particular dress I had seen in Paris. The green dress, Venus, which was her second choice, had to fit her well but also had to fit Rose well and be able to burn. The funny thing is, I chose a canvas because I thought it would ignite, but when it came to igniting, it didn’t burn. The silk burned, but not the canvas.
Many of the characters, like Ms. Harris and Natasha, have two looks: Dior fashion and their everyday outfit. How did these characters play the two modes of clothing?
It is the pleasure of work. That’s what I do. It’s very important that you know who the actor is, but you also take each character and find out who they are. When I read the script, I always see the action and the characters in my head. Then I go to a place like Cosprop and pull clothes that fit me well. Of course, I make mood boards for each character. Audrey Hepburn, for example, was a reference for Natasha.
How did you dress the French and the English differently in the film?
Many French costumes are centered around the Dior house: the customers who go to see the parade, the staff who work there, etc. Obviously, it’s a much higher class of people who can afford Dior, so the French were generally better dressed. Most of the English, whether in pubs or dog racing, were working class.