Eagle-eyed viewers will have noticed plenty of liberties taken in creating the sumptuous costume drama Versailles. Now that series three is out we delve into some of the challenges that faced the team that recreated the most luxurious European court.
Trystan Bass told the blog Frock Flicks “it’s clear that costume designer Madeline Fontaine was limited in materials to work with for her large ensemble cast. She and her team worked hard on the historical styles overall, and there are times when, watching Versailles, I am truly transported away by the grandeur and the steamy, soapy stories. But occasionally, a small visual clunker brings me back to the 21st century.”
With thousands of costume fanatics around the world fixated on these gorgeous dramas the challenges for designers has never been tougher. A greater interest and awareness of historical costume has been combined with social media to make furious comments about pitfalls spread like wildfire. Many fashion historians argue that the chief role of a costume designer for film relies on the narrative far more than the visuals. These are afterall largely fictional stories.
Fontaine has held a firm stance on her decisions with Versailles in combining history with a little imagination. “Clothing always tells us something about the period and about the character of the people. I don’t think we had the mission to be historically perfect,” she told GFY. “I think we have to take both actors and public into a respectful feeling of a period, to make it believable and true, to use the reality of the body’s constraints which determined a language, adapting it to current physical ways of communicating and habits. The ‘stamp’ is totally dependent of a sensibility, and cultural references. I think it cannot be hidden.”
Fitting (And Comforting) Modern Bodies
As many historical costumers know all too well, original garments do not fit modern bodies. That is one of the key considerations Gwen Russell told Costume Rag readers to watch out for with patterns made from extant garments like those by the renowned Janet Arnold. On top of that costume designers has to adapt outfits in such a way that performers can still deliver their art. Fay Fullerton of the Royal Opera House discussed this process for the ballet Elizabeth – a clear challenge of mobility and Elizabethan garments.
For Fontaine the difficulty was keeping actors happy in their ‘architectural’ splendour. “I researched literature and paintings on the 17th century and adapted the costumes to today’s bodies, made them lighter, more livable for the actors,” she said. “So dresses come with girdles, but they are more flexible. Women then were wearing wooden “busks,” a type of girdle that was the central piece of the corset and went from the chest to the belly. It could also be in bone or metal. It was pure architecture.”
That said, the hunt for fabric was a key consideration that would not have accepted half measures. “I didn’t make replicas of these. I would have made enemies. Dresses required around 10 meters of fabrics each, same for the men’s costumes, which were made of three pieces — justaucorps, pourpoints and culottes. So we spent a lot of time sourcing fabrics, across France and Europe. Fabric-makers in France are closing down, so it was hard to find enough. We wanted great-quality fabrics. We did about 100 costumes ourselves. For extras, we created prototypes and manufactured them in series, providing the fabrics. There were around 200 of those, requiring miles of varied fabric.”