A rose tinted view of the Roaring Twenties, Sonia Grande’s costume design for Midnight in Paris (2011, directed by Woody Allen) offers everything we expect of the era, e.g. achingly fashionable female trends and the increasing Anglophile influence in male suits, yet does not become bogged down in a precise timeframe. Furthermore as the story segues from past to the present, a non specific retro vibe remains palpable, especially in Rachel McAdams’ loose fitting shirt dresses and Owen Wilson’s nubby tweed jackets.
Wilson’s Gil is obviously intended to resemble Woody Allen during his late 1970s heyday, wearing natural waist trousers with brown leather belt, casual shirts and either two or three button tweed jackets, all in earth tones. If there was ever any doubt Allen is continuing an acting career through his leading men, this confirms it. All Owen Wilson needs is a pair of thick frame spectacles and he could actually be spoofing his appearance obsessed director. They even have the same slight build.
Gil’s stuck up fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams) appears to be channelling the mid-1980s, e.g. belted shirt dresses, designer jeans; lots of Ralph Lauren inspired natural fabrics, all very flattering on a curvy build (it is impossible not to notice that McAdams’ weight fluctuates throughout). At the start of the story Inez and Gil wear similar colours; moreover in the first scene in their hotel room they wear exactly the same colours – almost matching chambray blue shirts, suggesting a familiarity verging on bickering brother and sister rather than lovers. Although Gil is presented as being in love with nostalgia, explicitly Paris of the 1920s, it is Inez who personifies the Bright Young Things of this era best. The twenties embraced the idea of wearing your wealth on your sleeve, which by the capitalist 1980s had just become acceptable again.
Midnight in Paris is quite rightly in praise of the eccentric characters Gil meets during his nightime excursions. Most of these are real life historical figures, yet the most important is intended as a composite of several people. Adriana (Marion Cotillard) is introduced as Picasso’s mistress, of whom he had many, but more importantly she is the exact opposite of bourgeois Inez. Most of Cottillard’s costumes were genuine vintage. Presumably they required altering/strengthening to be wearable now, even if the plot does not require her diving through fire or hanging off a moving vehicle. Adriana’s first ensemble is when we truly understand that Gil has arrived in the Roaring Twenties; at the height of French fashion dominance.
Adriana dazzles in a black chemise dress, practically hitting her thighs, covered in appliqué including a large sequin butterfly, attached green and gold lamé scarves and finished by a lace headband stuffed with black feathers. Despite her beauty and awareness of male attention, Adriana does not sway or flounce, but rather slopes quietly. Just like Gil, this is not her time. Adriana is enraptured by the La Belle Époque (literally ‘the beautiful era’), Paris’ golden age of unrivalled gaiety. When Adriana visits this period toward the end of the story in a white and red trimmed shift dress with v-neckline and pleated skirt, an excited femme maitre d immediately remarks that she is ‘avant-garde’. Adriana’s differentiation is further pronounced by not wearing a coat – evidently a conscious choice by Grande as such garments were popular in the 1920s. Often collarless like long cardigans or trimmed with fur, they were considered chic for travelling to and from parties in an open top Rolls Royce.
The differences between Adriana and Inez are heightened by not just how they dress but their enthusiasm for clothes and accessories in general. Adriana is bored by fashion while Inez is immersed in it; when window shopping with her mother for wedding bands, Inez stresses, most emphatically, that “it has to be diamonds”. One gets the impression that Inez does not even know why, it just does. That Gil still has not seen Inez for the snob she is casts doubt over the intimacy of their relationship, thus providing justification for both parties to be lead astray; her by pseudo-intellectual Paul (Michael Sheen) and him by Adriana.
Inez’s personality can be summed up in a simple exchange with Gil over a pair of drop earrings: “I thought you liked simplicity?” he proffers. “That’s the problem,” she replies “they’re too simple”. This nonsensical response in effect walks Gil into Adriana’s arms. For Adriana, nothing could be too simple. However, Gil is due for a shock when they both visit La Belle Époque; for Adriana is just as in love with contrived opulence as Inez. In reality, neither woman is right for him.
Men’s clothing in Midnight in Paris is not a radical departure from what we expect of certainly the early twenties. Suits are fitted in the waist, lapels narrow (apart from the wide spread rebellion on Tom Cordier’s Man-Ray), collars soft and trousers slim – a Scottish/anglophile influence apparent through fabric (tweed). Possibly this is to ensure Gil does not stand out too much during his trips back, so his presence is unusual rather than instantly intrusive. Another point to consider is that all of Gil’s visits take place at night so the twenties’ penchant for diamond and zig-zag knitwear, plus fours and ‘Oxford Bags’ – sportswear in other words – would not be seen.
Rigidity in male dress during this time even extended to popular nightspots such as the Moulin Rouge. Stiff collars would have been essential despite the emergence of soft attached collars among the young. This makes for an enlightening scene with Gil and Adriana at the Moulin Rouge during La Belle Époque. Men in a formal environment would not have been wearing clothes staggeringly different to the 1920s – save for perhaps a tail coat and top hat.
With Midnight in Paris it is easy to become as enraptured with the past as Gil and Adriana, and for all the same wrong reasons. One important lesson fashion teaches us is that the present is always the past; whatever we tire of now, the world has already tired of twenty years before.
Midnight in Paris is released on DVD on 6th February.
You can watch Owen Wilson in Midnight in Paris at LOVEFiLM.com.483
© 2012 – 2014, Lord Christopher Laverty.