With exclusive contributions from Le Divorce costume designer Carol Ramsey, Jill Burgess, creator of Everything Just So, analyses the film’s distinctive sartorial presence; specifically how a Hermès ‘Kelly’ bag can be elevated from status symbol to movie character.
In the 2003 Merchant Ivory movie Le Divorce, based on the novel by Diane Johnson, Isabel Walker (Kate Hudson) travels from Santa Barbara to Paris to visit her pregnant sister Roxeanne (Naomi Watts), who is subsequently abandoned by her unfaithful husband Charles-Henri de Persand (Melvil Poupaud). Isabel becomes involved with an older married politician, Edgar Cosset (Thierry Lhermitte), uncle of Charles-Henri, thus further complicating matters in this comedy-drama of impeccable manners.
During her Parisian stay, Isabel makes a thorough costume transformation from casual California girl to glamorous soignée French mistress. Crucial to Isabel’s change is the red Hermès Kelly handbag she receives as a gift from Edgar prior to the consummation of their affair. Her acceptance of this expensive present is the point at which the viewer understands Isabel is willing to lie to her family in order to conduct this secret dalliance.
Le Divorce costume designer, Carol Ramsey, speaking exclusively to Clothes on Film, had a budget of just $200,000 for the entire movie, eye-opening when you consider she had to dress not only Hudson and Watts, but other stars such as Leslie Caron, Stockard Channing, Glenn Close, Stephen Fry, Matthew Modine, Bebe Neuwirth and Sam Waterston. She notes that Merchant Ivory films—she has designed for six of them—are “notoriously low budget,” but believes that since the French have an affinity for the filmmakers’ work designers such as Céline, Chloé, Hermès and others were happy to open their showrooms to her, allowing Ramsey to clothe the central cast in style.
In designing Isabel’s initial look Ramsey wanted to “play up the French’s image of a California beach girl.” Isabel arrives at Charles de Gaulle Airport in a long pale green sweater, sheer white peasant blouse with pale blue bra visible underneath, pale blue knit pants, pink flip-flops and carries a long brown leather bag with fringe that reaches below her knees. The effect is casual, hippie and more than a little of Kate Hudson’s own bohemian, vintage-inspired style.
Was that an influence when designing for Isabel? Ramsey is quick to remind that Hudson was very young when Le Divorce was shot, just 23, and “less of a fashion icon at the time.” Perhaps the development of Kate Hudson’s personal look, so recognizable today, took a cue from Ms. Ramsey’s work and not, as one might initially think, the other way around? “I could see that was a good style for her,” Ramsey says of Isabel’s wardrobe on Kate.
Other key pieces of Isabel’s original look include a slate-blue embroidered Victorian jacket with back peplum and lace cuffs and a 1920s red velvet jacket with wide lapels and a double row of buttons. The red velvet coat worn with jeans is Ramsey’s favorite look of Isabel’s from the entire film.
Isabel, having originally met Edgar at a de Persand family lunch hosted by his sister Suzanne (Leslie Caron), becomes more interested after she sees him on political TV talk shows. She telephones Edgar on learning from Roxy that, while married, he and his wife stay out of each other’s way. Charmed by her interest, he suggests they convene for lunch in order to “polish” her French.
When Isabel meets Edgar at a rooftop restaurant overlooking Paris, her look has evolved dramatically to manicured and chic. She wears a one-shouldered white blouse embroidered with cutwork lace, sequins and pearls, wide brown leather belt and white fitted pants. Isabel’s new look extends to her hair, a bob, makeup, featuring red nails and lipstick, and jewelry, with long thin gold earrings.
After proposing to Isabel at a later lunch that she become his mistress, Edgar sends her a present that changes everything—a red crocodile Hermès Kelly 28 (the number refers to the length in centimeters across the bottom of the bag). The Kelly was made famous after Grace Kelly was photographed in 1956 carrying it to shield her pregnancy from the paparazzi, after which Hermès renamed it in her honour. Ramsey thought of the Kelly as “a character in the movie” and says that director James Ivory wanted to go with a caramel color, as it was written in the novel, because he thought Edgar would give Isabel a Kelly in a traditional color. Ramsey, meanwhile, wanted to give the iconic bag “a twist on what you’d expect.”
She and Ivory visited the Hermès showroom in Paris, with Hermès representatives offering possible Kellys in sedate colors. Ramsey spotted the red crocodile and thought it was more Isabel’s style. Ivory’s first question to Ramsey upon seeing the bag was, “Can we fit a gun in it?” referring to a pistol featured in the denouement, a question which makes Ramsey laugh to this day. “I will never forget standing in a Hermès showroom in Paris with Jim Ivory asking me that,” she says.
Did the Kelly, on loan from Hermès, and a bag that, at the time, Ramsey estimates was worth $10,000 ($30,000 and upwards today), require a bodyguard to make sure it remained on set? No, she says, but every day after shooting they had to “take it home and lock it up at night.”
The Kelly may not have had a bodyguard but it did have a stunt double, a knockoff used any time the original “had to get banged up.” While the real Kelly was returned to Hermès after the film wrapped, Ramsey still has the stunt bag in her office at Western Costume Company in Hollywood, where she prepares before every film or TV shoot.
The Kelly was just one part of Isabel’s Parisian makeover. Ramsey describes the look as “higher style, sleek, more expensive, more coordinated.” She also intended Isabel to look older and “as if someone is helping her shop.” Important pieces include tailored pantsuits and a pale trench coat from Chloé, featuring an arm patch emblazoned with lions and a champagne glass.
Isabel’s use of the Kelly allows Suzanne to deduce that she is sleeping with Edgar since she knows the exclusive bag is her brother’s trademark gift to women he beds. Knowledge of the affair compromises the relationship between the Walker and de Persand families during Roxy and Charles-Henri’s contentious divorce, Roxy’s suicide attempt, the contested ownership of a painting of St. Ursula and Roxy’s stalking by Tellman (Matthew Modine), the husband of the woman Charles-Henri left her for.
By time both families pressure them to end the affair, a pressure Edgar yields to, Isabel retains some of her mistress look, but her hair is growing out and elements of that earlier California style seep back into her wardrobe—denim, hoodies, longer jackets. When she gives the Kelly to her mother Margeeve (Stockard Channing), who tells her it is too middle-aged and ladylike for her, it signals the affair is truly over between Isabel and Edgar.
The Kelly has one last big scene, however, atop the Eiffel Tower as Tellman, wielding a gun having just shot and killed Charles-Henri, takes Isabel, Margeeve and other family members hostage. When Tellman accidentally fires a shot, spooking himself, he slides the gun over to Isabel, yelling at her to put it in her handbag and throw it over the side.
The next imagery is of the red Kelly flying above the rooftops of Paris as it makes its fanciful trip down from the Eiffel Tower. Knowing the bag would be flung this way, Ramsey believes her memories of the 1956 movie The Red Balloon (Le Ballon Rouge), in which a boy finds a red balloon that follows him through the grey streets of post-war Paris, may have subconsciously lured her towards choosing a red bag in the first place. Ramsey’s colour selection marks the Kelly as a symbol of sex and romance, a reminder of, as Edgar says in his goodbye to Isabel, “How beautiful it is to be young”.
By Jill Burgess, creator of Everything Just So and true bag aficionado.
With thanks to Carol Ramsey.
You can watch Kate Hudson in Le Divorce at LOVEFiLM.com.
© 2011 – 2014, Lord Christopher Laverty.