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For Modern Eyes Only

August 18, 1993|BETTY GOODWIN

The Movie: "The Secret Garden"

The Setup: Frances Hodgson Burnett's classic children's story of orphan Mary Lennox (Kate Maberly, pictured at left), who is sent to live at her uncle's dreary estate and brings life to its English garden. Mrs. Medlock (Maggie Smith) is the strict housekeeper.

The Costume Designer: London-based Marit Allen, whose credits include "Little Shop of Horrors," "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels," "White Mischief" and "Wind."

The Look: Cute as a button, Edwardian style. Today's Gap Kids will pick up a bit of clothing history as the story unfolds. The opening scene wonderfully captures a time when rich little girls were dressed by servants in dresses over corsets, camisoles, bloomers and silk stockings that buttoned onto garters. Mary's wardrobe of black dresses is not for atmospheric effect--in 1910 a child in mourning wore black. Smith's black dresses are of the kind customary for head housekeepers of the time.

Allen holds the line on gewgaws so contemporary viewers can relate to Mary and her cohorts Colin (Heydon Prowse, pictured at right) and Dickon (Andrew Knott, pictured at center) without breaking into laughs. She opts not to put boys in stiff starched collars and bow ties like little men, choosing equally-accurate period round collars and soft bows. Rather than make Mary look untouchable in miles of lace and satin, Allen has her in plaid skirts, chunky sweaters, pretty velvet hair ribbons, pinafores, ankle boots, long white nightgowns and a down-to-earth sailor dress. ("Every girl of 10 of her class all over the world, from America to Russia, wore them," says Allen.)

Inspiration: Allen found two: a photo album showing an identified family who lived in the country and a picture book about Russia's Czar Nicholas, wife Alexandra and their children.

Trivia: Gardener Ben Weatherstaff (Walter Sparrow) sneaks up with the single best garment in the movie, a cap affixed with carved wooden heads of a dog, duck and parrot. Allen says the idea came during location research with director Agnieszka Holland. At a grand Elizabethan house, a gardener appeared wearing a similar cap. He said that when he came across good pieces of hazel wood while caring for the estate's hedges, he'd later whittle them into the animal shapes.

Quoted: You have to look at period clothes "with a contemporary eye," says Allen. "You translate them, keeping authentic references intact in a way that modern eyes can accept and that are also accessible to the child actors."

Sources: All the costumes were custom made at Cosprop in London. Mary's corset, silk stockings and hair ribbons are vintage.

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