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The costume designer who had to recreate the classic Dior – and did it well


The set was in Budapest. The client and seamstress were in London. The fashion house that had to issue its seal of approval before any of the costumes could appear on film was in Paris. And it was the spring of 2020. Borders were closed, as were fabric stores.

In other words, these were not ideal conditions to make a film about the magic of fashion.

But Jenny Beavan, the costume designer of ‘Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris’, went to work and bought fabric online – ‘which is not the way to buy fabric; you have to feel it, feel the weight and the sculptural qualities,” she says — and FaceTimed models in France as they tried on replicas of 1950s Christian Dior gowns at the label’s headquarters. “It was all lastminute.com, to be honest.”

You’d never know it from looking at the final product, an acclaimed, visually lush dramedy about a widowed English cleaning lady in the 1950s who has a chance encounter with a Dior dress and embarks on a whirlwind adventure to get her hands on one . “Mrs. Harris,” based on a 1958 novel by Paul Gallico, argues that meticulously tailored French haute couture can inspire, excite and empower. But the convincingly glamorous styles on screen were, in fact, a bit of a magic trick, made on a modest budget and by resourceful sleight of hand in the midst of a global logistical catastrophe. The performance earned Beavan, 72, her 12th Oscar nomination, and a win would be her fourth.

As Beavan is quick to point out, “All the movies competing this year would have had to deal with” a lot of complications from the coronavirus pandemic. “I’m not the only one by a long shot.” Modest? Yes. But that’s also the magic of Jenny Beavan: a humble, practical approach that suddenly makes the task seem very simple.

Born and raised in London, Beavan began her career in set design. But in the late 1970s, a friend introduced her to Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, who often made films set in Edwardian England. “They thought I was a costume designer, so they started hiring me,” recalled Beavan. “Things happened organically. I never decided anything in my life.” But in 1987, she won her first Academy Award alongside her friend and frequent collaborator John Bright, for “A Room with a View.” Beavan won again in 2016 for “Mad Max: Fury Road” and in 2022 for “Cruella”.

“Ms. Harris,” says director Anthony Fabian, “I thought, ‘Anyone who can do EM Forster And Mad Max is definitely the girl for me.’ ”

“Mrs. Harris” would have been a daunting challenge for any costume designer even without the pandemic. Although the intention was to convey the splendor of 1950s Christian Dior to the screen, especially through one particular scene where Mrs. Harris attended a fashion show, the very real and still-existing fashion house could only provide limited assistance with the costumes. Beavan quickly learned that “In those days, [Christian] Dior would collect its collection, they would make it, they would sell it and they would move on. They didn’t see the need to keep records,” she says. “They have a few and they have a few accessories. But it’s very little – and you should never wear it. (The company did not respond to a request for comment on this story.)

Review: ‘Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris’ is a feel-good fashion fairy tale

Dior lent Beavan as many as five replicas of 1950s Dior outfits made in the 1990s, as well as other material, such as a catalog of notes, fabric samples and sketches. However, all five outfits were black and white, “which meant that Ms. Harris, a woman who likes a bit of color, … wouldn’t be attracted to them,” says Beavan. A fashion show also often has much more than just five looks. So the rest would have to be recreated from sketches and photographs – or entirely from Beavan’s imagination.

Beavan enlisted her boyfriend Bright and his costume company Cosprop to help with the tailoring. He and Beavan looked at footage from a 1957 Dior show — the same year the label’s namesake died — and looked at photos from the same era to get a sense of how a Dior dress moved through space: ” It moves away from the body, but it’s still a part by the body. It’s a very gentle movement, but that’s because the material is so fine,” he says. “We wouldn’t have known that if we hadn’t seen the video.”

Three pieces of faux haute couture from “Mrs. Harris,” explains Beavan, his original Jenny Beavans that pass for Diors (with the label’s stamp of approval, of course): the “Venus,” a dark jade ballgown with a jewel-encrusted bodice; the ‘Temptation’, a deep burgundy red ensemble consisting of a slightly sparkling sleeveless dress with a wide skirt and a neat taffeta bolero jacket of the same color; and the “Ravissant,” the shimmering soft pink strapless number with floral appliqués that first catches the eye of Mrs. Harris when she sees it in the wardrobe of a snobbish cleaning client.

The Ravissant was perhaps the most important illusion to pull off. It had to both look convincing as a Christian Dior and believably pique the interest of a 1957 character – and a 2022 audience – in Christian Dior, without actually being Christian Dior. In addition, says Beavan, it had to be believable that the snooty customer picked and bought it, and “it also had to be believable that Mrs. Harris would just go”Wow.‘” And it had to be flowers: “We know that Mrs. Harris likes flowers, because she wears double flowers that’s when she finds out.”

The real Dior “would have been hand sequined, hand appliquéd, hand whatever. And it would have probably cost £10,000, even at the time,” explains Beavan. “And it would have taken months.” With neither the time nor the budget for such an undertaking, Beavan and Bright began to experiment and found that the best way to achieve Ravissant’s delicate yet luxurious look was to place an inexpensive colored fabric under “an embroidered, appliquéd net.” lay. And then we put a pretty strong mauve behind it, which is pretty, iridescent, and then we added extra glitter on top.

Fabian, the director, says he wanted the Ravissant to have “that fairytale, magical quality”. And when he saw the fashion show dresses, he knew he had hired the right designer. “That’s the genius of Jenny, being able to make those decisions: what needs to be authentic Dior, and then what needs to be improved to better tell the story.”

Beavan’s staff marvel at her talent for finding inspired yet practical ways to use clothing to enhance the credibility of storytelling. However, hearing Beavan tell it is like hearing someone explain that she just decided to go to the grocery store for start cooking: She always starts the creative process by thinking about what the characters need rather than what looks best. For example, superhero uniforms sometimes seem to be designed with aesthetics in mind rather than function, says Beavan. In “Fury Road,” on the other hand, “we tried to make sure everything was there for a purpose. So the weird masks, like Rictus and Immortan Joe wear, were actually about breathing tubes, and Rictus’ weird backpack is oxygen,” says Beavan “They just happen to have them decorated weird, and they sure have something crazy about them. But it’s about keeping them alive.”

Beavan’s character-driven approach to costumes proved prodigious for the cast of ‘Mrs. Harris.” “My costume changes with Jenny were the most influential thing for me in creating her character,” Lesley Manville, who played the title character, wrote in a statement to The Washington Post.

‘Of course, Jenny is used to telling a story through costume – that’s what she does so brilliantly. But to me, her thoughts on Ada as a postwar ‘make and mend’ woman, who genuinely loved clothes but didn’t have the money and was quite adept with a needle and thread herself, was like character gold dust to me,” Manville wrote. “She has no ego as a designer. She wants the best for the character, for the color palette of the set and most importantly for the story. She is a rare genius.”

Sure, Beavan may be picky, but she’s dedicated to the craft. Caitlin Albery Beavan, a film producer and Beavan’s daughter, says that as a small child she traveled with her mother to performances around the world, went to school in India, Prague and Paris and played solitaire under costume rails on film sets. (Eventually she became miserable and asked her mother to stop moving so much, which she did.)

Today, Albery Beavan often applies her mother’s wisdom. “She makes everything possible and achievable. “Bite-sized chunks” is her great expression,” says Albery Beavan.

Beavan’s humility usually sticks with those who know her, and it’s gotten her jobs but probably cost her one or two. “I remember once being asked to make a movie by a really nice American director who said, ‘So how are you going to put your stamp on it?’ Beavan muses. “And I thought, Put my stamp on it? I said, ‘I don’t want to my stamp on it.’ I’m sure I have a style’, but ‘it’s quite naturalistic’.

“Mrs. Harris goes to Christian Dior. She talks about Christian Dior. We’re at Christian Dior’s house,” Beavan adds with a laugh. “So why would you want Jenny Beavan?”

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