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Review: Lincoln

Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn
Directed By: Steven Spielberg

For a film made by the best known director on the planet, with a cast of recognisable faces and a deeply evocative story, perhaps the biggest compliment we can pay Joanna Johnston’s costumes in Lincoln is that you hardly notice them. Considering this is a time of top hats, frock coats, crinolines and bonnets, this is high praise indeed. Not for one second does Lincoln evoke that horribly redundant phrase the ‘period drama’. Instead we are gently submerged into an era that in lesser hands could have been costumed to death as the world’s most expensive school play.

Johnston has waited long enough for award recognition. Somehow she has never been Oscar nominated despite working for some of the most prestigious names in Hollywood (Spielberg on five occasions). If Lincoln does not reward her considerable ability, nothing will. Yet despite this being a period piece it is not one abundantly rich in colour, especially for men. Apart from the Civil War battlefield, 1856 in Washington D.C. does not translate well to cinema. The frock coat was ubiquitous, as it would be for another forty years, but was worn almost exclusively in black. As Lincoln features a lot of politicians with aggressive facial hair conversing in dimly lit rooms, this could have meant a sea of dull black coats and not much else. This is where Joanna Johnston comes into her own; taking just minor liberties with history she brings her costumes to life through texture, shade and fine detail.

Lincoln_Black coats mid_Image credit 20th Century Fox-001

Lincoln features 140 speaking parts and around 4,000 extras – a monumental task for costume designer Joanna Johnston.

These details pervade the great man himself; his slippers, shawl, gathered shirt sleeves, the red lining of his stovepipe, even the walnut brown fabric of his coat. In reality President Lincoln’s (Daniel Day-Lewis) coat was black broadcloth, but this would have blended a little too well on screen – he needed to be marked out as something special. Johnston further sidesteps the issue of too much black by using different shades for secondary characters, such as dark grey, work black, even dark blue for Secretary of State William H. Seward (David Strathairn). These characters walk in and out of the story with subtle costume signifiers. Look for fit and fabric; the velvet smoking jacket worn by Francis Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook), or hints of pattern in messy eater William N. Bilbo’s (James Spader) embroidered waistcoats. Yet most of the colour in Lincoln is left for women to provide.

Women were dressed as trophies and then oddly treated as millstones. Wives were there to be seen and not heard. It was the height of the crinoline, just as wide and preposterous as it could be. Almost as if by making it difficult for the opposite sex to move around men were equally stifling their voice. First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field) is presented here as something more than a trophy. She has opinions, fears, a voice, although only as much as her husband will tolerate. Johnston acknowledges that Mary needs to be seen, but holds back on historical notes that would prove distracting. While splashes of Mary’s favourite fuchsia are evident, decking the White House footman in the same colour would look ridiculous, even though it is something she actually did. True life costume is a balancing act; too little and the film lacks authenticity, too much and it becomes difficult for an audience to accept.

Lincoln_Sally Field blue dress full 2_Image credit 20th Century Fox

Johnston ensures that all costumes in the film are aged appropriately so nothing looks too clean or off-the-rack. For gentlemen a well-tailored frock coat could be worn for a decade or more. Women’s clothes were newer as they followed Parisian influenced fashion, though only for those who could afford them.

If the skill of Joanna Johnston is that you do not notice her costumes, the skill of Steven Spielberg is that you forget the assassination. Lincoln is not about that moment, it is a journey, a trudge on occasions, through the thick mud of bureaucracy leading to one of the most important legal statutes in history. Speech after speech, most delivered in convincing fashion by Day-Lewis, but that is politics. Even if you find yourself in no hurry to see Lincoln again, once is essential.

Lincoln was released in the UK on 25th January and U.S. on 9th November.

You can watch Daniel Day-Lewis in The Last Of The Mohicans at

© 2013 – 2014, Lord Christopher Laverty.