Recreating an Icon: Costuming W.E.

05/01/2012 § 2 Comments

“I’m not a beautiful woman. I’m nothing to look at,
so the only thing I can do is dress better than anyone else.”
Wallis Simpson, Duchess of York

James D’Arcy and Andrea Riseborough as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor,
wearing costumes from the film W.E. by Arianne Phillips,
photographed by Tom Munro for Vanity Fair.

[W.E. costume designer Arianne] Phillips’s business was to discover the precise detail of Simpson’s fashion aesthetic. She started at New York’s Metropolitan Museum, Paris’s Musée de la Mode et du Textile and London’s Victora & Albert Museum – the three great repositories of Simpson’s attire. In the film, Riseborough has around 60 costume changes, including three wedding dresses. Most famous was the pale, “Wallis”-blue Mainbocher dress, in which she wed the Duke of Windsor in 1937. The original is in the Met but, said Phillips, has not lasted well: “We were lucky enough to see it, but, unfortunately, the colour has faded into a dingy bluey-green.” So the dress Riseborough wears is a replica hired from Cosprop, a London-based costumery. The other 59 outfits, however, were not so simple: “She was a client of haute couture in Paris in its heyday, the Thirties” said Phillips: “so I had to figure out how I was going to recreate it. The problem was my whole budget could have gone on making one dress.”

So Phillips hustled, using her fashion-world contacts. The Duchess was a client of Madeleine Vionnet – “who has been cited as the mother of couture” – and a rifle through the company’s archives, held in the Louvre, revealed precise details of what Simpson had bought and when. Phillips took her findings to Vionnet’s owners, and – hey presto – they agreed to make four new couture dresses for the film. Perhaps the most beautiful is the sparkly silver dress used in a scene where Edward and Wallace host a benzedrine-enlivened cocktail party. “I wanted something twinkly for that scene, for all the intoxication and jazz. I’d seen the original in the Louvre and fallen in love with it.”

Wallis Simpson was also one of the first clients of Christian Dior, and the house remade three dresses for Andrea Riseborough based on Simpson’s originals. And in the very last scene – set in the Seventies – Riseborough wears Dior from a recent collection designed by John Galliano. Other companies persuaded by Phillips to pitch in include Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels, Roger Vivier and Dunhill. The hats were by Stephen Jones and recreations of outfits by another designer beloved of the Duchess, Schiaperelli, were made by Phillips and her team. Incorporating so many fashion collaborations into the costumes for a single film is, admits Phillips, unusual. Yet, it was by far the best way to recreate the world of a woman whose appetite for luxury was so very voracious.

From Inside Wallis Simpson’s Wardrobe by Luke Leitch for

“Wallis and the Duke both made a lifestyle out of presentation. . . . It was a beautiful façade,” says Phillips. “He said that because she never got a title he gave her jewelry to make her feel royal.”

From Windsor Dressing by Krista Smith for Vanity Fair.

All images via Vanity Fair.

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