It is not entirely clear when The Personal History of David Copperfield takes place, mainly because, as far as we understand, it is not entirely clear when Charles Dickens’ original novel takes place either. If we go on its initially published serial timeline that puts the story at circa 1849, allowing for a few years either side. Point is; it’s the Victorian era. This period in history was lengthy, however, with many technical and industrial advances, such as the advent of aniline dyes – basically the first synthetic dyes – in the latter half of the 19th century. And, boy, did those Victorians go wild for a bit of colour.
Red was a massively popular Victorian dye colour, in all variations from crimson to cherry to blush to garnet (we’re referring to female clothing here by the way). Depending on setting, period and cultural significance, red has many connotations. It could potentially symbolise passion, danger, excitement, even evil. In present context for the Chinese New Year it actually implies health and vigor, especially when paired with gold. In The Personal History of David Copperfield it seems to be representative of fury. The women who wear this colour are to be feared. For example, the character of Mrs. Steerforth (Nikki Amuka-Bird), James Steerforth’s (Aneurin Barnard) terrifying mother, is introduced in the most vivacious red dress and accessories. There is no doubting her power on screen, which is only reinforced by her authoritative demeanor. She could have been wearing a vivid blue or yellow, though immediately our response to her would be different; she would be someone to notice but not someone to be scared of – and Mrs. Steerforth is someone to be scared of. She figuratively squeezes the testicles of young David Copperfield (Dev Petel) as he bumbles through their first meeting. Contrast this with goofy ne’er-do-well Mr. Micawber (Peter Capaldi) who is also attired in flashes of red by joint costumiers Suzie Harman and Robert Worley. Micawber is the exception that proves the rule. He has the appearance of court jester; his red is to be laughed at and pitied. In general, men experimented with colour further on into the century so this fits historically, too.
The colourful palette of The Personal History of David Copperfield reflects its cheerful tone. More dramatic Dickens interpretations tend to play down colour to reinforce the dark misery of poverty stricken streets, poorhouses and factories. This can explain why, in some instances, period costume design is not always seen as ‘authentic’ during this era. Consider though, first and foremost a costume designer’s responsibility is to the story being told by his/her director, whether this be a wholly legimate recreation or otherwise. The costumes here just so happen to represent the period with an effective degree of accuracy. The concept of colour in the film extends to its revelatory colourblind casting of African, Indian and Asian actors in traditional ‘white’ roles. What matters is not whether the idea that, say, solicitor Mr. Wickfield (Benedict Wong) would actually be English-Chinese, but that he could be. People of colour did exist during this era. By not drawing attention to the fact (James Steerforth is white while his mother is black, but it’s never even alluded to), we normalise this melting pot to the point that it hardly registers. David Copperfield himself is played by two English-Indian actors; it’s there on screen from the outset and yet never feels distracting or a gimmick. Director Armando Iannucci has hopefully paved the way for the future of casting in typically Colgate period pieces.
Monied great-aunt of David Copperfield, Betsey Trotwood (Tilda Swinton) primarily wears a orange dress and is probably the most acerbic character in the film. Yet this colour actually softens her manner, hinting at the empathetic and caring person (buried deep) inside. Colour is vital to the narrative of The Personal History of David Copperfield. It functions alongside the story and not merely as part of its mechanism. The movie is a joyous one because it embraces the inherent vibrancy of an era so often overlooked as depressing and grey. In this capacity alone, the costume design is perfect.
The Personal History of David Copperfield is currently on general release.
© 2020, Lord Christopher Laverty.