Jill Burgess analyses how the glamorous fashions of the 1930s thread their way through dual love stories in W.E (2011, directed by Madonna).
Throughout W.E. two narratives are intertwined, first that of Wally Winthrop (Abbie Cornish), a lonely Manhattan wife married to handsome and philandering psychiatrist William Winthrop (Richard Coyle), second the infamous love story of Wallis Simpson (Andrea Riseborough) and Edward VIII (James D’Arcy). Wally becomes fascinated with Wallis and Edward during the Sotheby’s auction of their estate in 1998. She visits the exhibit leading up to the auction every day, wandering among the Duke and Duchess of Windsor’s possessions, taking solace from her own shaky marriage. Wally soon attracts the attention of Sotheby’s security guard Evgeni (Oscar Issac), who is intrigued by why she visits the exhibit so often.
Arianne Phillips, W.E.’s costume designer, Oscar nominated for her efforts and winner of the 14th Annual Costume Designers Guild Award for Excellence in Period Film, wove an elegant mid-1930s aesthetic between two concurrent love stories.
Wally’s overall style is ladylike, polished and modern, with heavy use of black and white. She wears patterned skirts with belted cardigans, a black Burberry trenchcoat and black pumps. As Wally becomes more fixated on Wallis, she replicates the lean thirties silhouette, incorporating blouses with graphic patterns. Wally’s hair is pulled back and styled around the face with soft finger waves, occasionally accessorised with jewellery, as Wallis often wore hers.
Wallis’ look for daytime comprises fitted suits, blouses and skirts, and dresses, sometimes narrow, sometimes with a circular skirt. Black and white is present, though by introducing floral prints and shades of blue for both day and night, her palette remains less severe than Wally’s. Wallis’ hair is worn up with finger waves framing the face, and her nails and lips are red. Evening gowns are frequently of metallic fabrics such as the silver and gold lamé dress worn when she first dances with Edward. Sparks fly between them and she evolves from Edward’s acquaintance to romantic interest, to woman he is willing to give up his kingdom for. Her clothes echo this progression, becoming ever bolder. Showstoppers include the black and cream-colored chevron-patterned suit she wears with a black hat and netting over her face, a blue and white-striped dress with full skirt and a diamond bow brooch at the throat, and the blue and silver velvet Elsa Schiaparelli evening ensemble, complete with matching fabric diadem.
As Wally’s home situation worsens — she wants to raise a child but her husband does not, plus he is lying to her about his nightly whereabouts — Wally imagines more of Wallis’ life with Edward in the months leading to his abdication. Wally’s black dresses, marking her an elegant and feminine New Yorker, could just as easily be read as mourning clothes; she is grieving for the love and life she desires yet cannot have. Wallis appears to Wally, sometimes as an apparition, sometimes dispensing advice, even at one point proclaiming she, “Get a life.”
Evgeni eventually becomes Wally’s friend and they coffee together:
“What’s your thing with the Duke and Duchess?” he asks.
“Little girls love fairy tales,” Wally replies with a shrug.
“How do you know they lived happily ever after?” he counters.
Jewellery is another way Wally and Wallis are connected. Wallis was famously gifted some of the most glorious jewellery ever created, the bulk of which was made by Cartier. There is no shortage of this in W.E., such as cocktail rings, diamond brooches, earrings with precious stones, cuffs featuring Art Deco detailing, long jet beads and a necklace with pearls the size of gumballs. Receiving its own movie montage is one of Wallis’ most famous pieces, the Cartier bracelet incorporating nine jeweled Latin crosses dangling from a platinum and diamond bracelet. Each of the crosses was set with different stones and engraved with a date special to Wallis and Edward. One scene takes place in the Cartier workshop, showing a cross crafted by the artisans, followed with Edward gazing through a loupe at the finished article. He furnishes the crosses to Wallis in unexpected ways, such as when they are on holiday aboard on a yacht:
“Your tea, Mrs. Simpson.” Bringing the cup to her lips, Wallis discovers instead of tea a jeweled cross at the bottom.
“You certainly know the way to a woman’s heart,” she tells Edward.
“I was aiming much lower,” he shoots back at her.
Wally’s jewellery is simpler with period touches. For much of the film she wears diamond stud earrings and a gold “W” pendant with pavé diamonds. The 1930s is echoed in a vintage wristwatch with black leather strap, similar to Wallis’ own, and the pearl necklace and earrings chosen when bidding at Sotheby’s for an assortment of white kid gloves belonging to the duchess.
Obsession reaches its peak with a trip to Paris where Wally requests Mohammed Al Fayed (Haluk Bilginer), who purchased the Paris house belonging to the Duke and Duchess, permit her access to Wallis’ private letters. Wally is now a dead ringer for Wallis, wearing a black open weave cardigan over sleeveless white dress or black dress with white collar, centre placket and side panels. Reading through the letters, Wally finally comes to understand that Wallis’ and Edward’s life was far from romantic bliss; it was a hard road fraught with uncertainty and sacrifice leading up to their 1937 wedding and then a life of exile after it.
As Wally slowly escapes her unhappiness, subtle amendments become apparent, her hair is worn low to the shoulders and trenchcoat alters from austere black to beige. When Wallis appears to her for a final time on a bench in Central Park, still perfection in a gray wool flannel double-breasted suit with a wide collar, matching hat, pearl necklace and red lipstick, Wally has changed her view of the so-called ‘perfect love’. She is now capable of focusing on her own happiness, willing to embrace what she already has.
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