IF Marie Antoinette and Lindsay Lohan had lived in the same era, they might have been best friends. They both love clothes, enjoy the perks and suffer the trials of fame. They understand that what a girl wears greatly influences her image. Lohan's life is still a work in progress, but Sofia Coppola's "Marie Antoinette," to be released Oct. 20, is a new interpretation of the brief, stylish and arguably tragic existence of the famously extravagant queen of France.
The film, starring Kirsten Dunst, devotes a great deal of screen time and considerable behind-the-scenes resources to Marie's passion for fashion. Two-time Academy Award-winning costume designer Milena Canonero was charged with dressing the cast in period costumes that would dazzle a contemporary audience. The French court members, and particularly Marie Antoinette's inner circle, are portrayed as style junkies who love to shop and dress up. It might be difficult for a modern teenager to get how Marie could enter into an arranged marriage with a dull fat boy she'd never met, but the attraction to a pretty pair of pumps transcends centuries.
Canonero was already familiar with the 18th century, having designed the costumes for "The Affair of the Necklace," starring Hilary Swank, and 1975's "Barry Lyndon," a romance set in Ireland. "The challenge with 'Marie Antoinette' was to show the essence of the period without being too academic," she said by telephone from Italy.
The costume budget wasn't large enough to support the design and manufacture of all the clothes worn by dozens of principals and hundreds of extras, so Canonero rented soldiers' uniforms and some clothing for members of the French court. She said, "We found a few things at costume houses we were able to work with and freshen up, but on a movie like this, you need to make an enormous amount of new clothes."
Five months before filming began, Canonero started scouring Europe for fabric and buying tulle, organza, taffeta and silk in France, England, Italy and Germany. The men's shirts were made of cotton lawn found in Switzerland and Germany. Corsets were constructed in Prague, Czech Republic, copied from originals from the period. Vintage laces were acquired from antique stores and private collectors. Even after production began, costumes were embroidered in workshops in Paris, London and Rome, and hats, petticoats, special stockings and hoopskirts fitted with wire were created.
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A single gown for Marie required 15 yards of material, and there were countless costume changes. "We were in the world of the aristocracy, and these people wore different clothes all the time," Canonero said. "Fashions changed, just as it does today, and they wanted to wear the latest."
Manolo Blahnik, the shoe designer, made a selection of elaborately detailed shoes that are presented in one scene to the queen by one of her fashion advisors, a pre-revolutionary stylist, so to speak. "We gave Manolo our research, sketches of some of the costumes and told him what our palette was and asked him to surprise us with ideas of his own, because he is a great artist," Canonero said. "He went into a look which is an interpretation of the period."
Taking small liberties with historical accuracy can make costumes more expressive of a character's personality. Canonero said, "I didn't want to use much embroidery on Marie Antoinette, because I didn't want her costumes to look too heavy. In the paintings you see of her, she looked very matronly, even though she was quite young. In those days, lace was like jewels are today. The richer you were, the more lace you had. On Kirsten and her two main ladies-in-waiting, using too much lace looked heavy and predictable. Instead, we went with organza and tulle and netting frills and made ruffles that looked fresher and softer. We also had borrowed beautiful necklaces, but I didn't use them a lot because they made her look dowdy and matronly."
Instead, Marie sometimes wore a slender ribbon around her neck. Costume designers don't think about how their work will influence fashion trends, but after seeing the young queen's breathtaking wardrobe, a modern princess might just slip into her own Manolo Blahniks, and tie a bow at her neck too.