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Vanity Fair and Reverse Colonization

Colonialism is a term often thrown around whenever we westerners adapt or reimagine tales and stories of other cultures; be it Asia or Africa. Most of these adaptations tend to impose a very western view on the source material and, therefore, "colonize it". But it's very rare to talk about this process in the inverse direction.

2004's adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray's novel; Vanity Fair is one of those rare instances where an oriental filmmaker (Mira Nair in this case) colonizes a western work, adapting it through the scope and views of an Indian reader.


The relation between England and India has always been a rocky one and through a long process of colonization spanning from the 18th century to the mid-20th century, India has been forced to adopt English literature. Most schools study it even more than their own. This has translated into a lot of loose adaptations in Bollywood cinema. For instance; the amount of their films that uses the Romeo and Juliet story is actually immense. But that type of adaptation is never actually an adaptation; it's more of an inspiration (generally moving around the time period and the location until only the bare bones of the story are recognizable).

But this movie is not loosely playing with the original novel; it's an attempt to do a pretty by the books adaptation of Thackeray's classic. Only that it's done by an Indian filmmaker.

The choice of novel is not coincidental. Thackeray was born in Calcutta, and the book and its mentality are closely knitted with British Colonialism.

So, how does an Indian filmmaker, read the western Regency period?

ABOUT THE STORY

Vanity fair tells the story of Becky Sharp as she climbs the social ladder of the British aristocracy, and progressively entangles herself into a deep web of lies, deception and abuse (by and towards her).

I had thought her a mere social climber. I see now she's a mountaineer.

One of the first changes, and most noticeable one, is the more likable approach to the character when compared to the original novel. She is still a schemer, but when put into perspective, the movie makes you realize that she didn't really have many other choices.

The second most obvious change is the inclusion of India as a key element in the story, as well as the adoption of a visual style and imaginary that is often associated with the Indian culture; diving into and highlighting the British fascination with the colonies and its exotic traditions.


ABOUT THE COSTUME DESIGN 

The costume design for this movie was created by the Hungarian designer Beatrix Aruna Pasztor. She is well known for her work in My Private Idaho (1991), The Fisher King (1991) and Good Will Hunting (1997), which makes her an odd choice for this movie for, you see, she had never worked on a period piece before, which might explain some of the few historical slips the movie has. But all in all, this is one remarkable design that is not only beautiful, but also very well thought out.


The main idea behind the whole look is the idea of British society, in particular British aristocracy, as a lair of vanity where one parades itself as if it were a peacock. Because of this, the costume design favors bright colors and big shapes over the more mild ones that we usually see in Regency set movies. The idea is to accentuate the ridiculous aspect of it all. To do this, it adopts certain dramatic flair and coloration from India; using numerous repetitive elements that are a constant throwback to the colony: from prints to sari-like shawls.

ABOUT BECKY SHARP

Rebecca Sharp is a quintessential character in literature, and as such, has had many incarnations on the silver screen. Most of those under her own name, but probably the most famous is under the name Scarlett O'Hara (yes, Becky Sharp was the inspiration behind Gone with the wind).  So, with such high precedence, how do you tell her story, through visuals, in a new and fresh way?


At the center of the designs for this new interpretation of the character lies, first and foremost, a bold use of color and shape that reflect her journey in a fun and enticing way.

Vanity Fair's story takes place, mostly, around the period going from 1815 to 1820 which happens to be the "transitional" stage between the Regency fashion (the elegant, classical, white dresses) and the more daring and extravagant looks of the late Georgian Period (1825-1840). This allows for a lot of experimentation and fun with the dresses. It also allows the design to consciously move away from the "little white dress" of the Regency (which after so many Austen adaptations, might be getting a little boring) and explore a more wild and colorful side of this period.


Color wise the designs for Becky center around a very simple idea: the base color for her is red, and depending on her social and emotional state her dresses have more or less red in them. The happier and more comfortable she is, the more red is included within the costume. However, when she is drifting away from her goals or plainly unhappy, her dresses go to darker and grimmer colors.


As for the shapes and silhouettes; they center around a similarly simple idea: the higher she climbs and the higher she wants to get, the wilder and bolder the silhouette gets.

Because of this, it's only logical that the first time the audience is introduced to Becky, she is wearing a very simple high-waisted bright orange typical regency dress with a very humble dark mauve long coat.


We first meet her as she is leaving the boarding school where she's been living in since the death of her parents. She's a girl of no means (no money and no name) with a lot of dreams and expectations of life. Therefore, her dress is very simple and humble in shape and bright and vibrant in color (as vibrant as her dreams). She is, by no means, where she would like to be, but she definitely feels that a change for the better is coming (and therefore, instead of wearing red, wears orange).

During her visit at Amelia's house, she slowly works her charm on Amelia's brother, Joseph, whom falls in love with her. As he takes her to an Indian themed picnic, she appears wearing a bright red, high-waist, muslin dress with a shawl heavily inspired by the Indian Sari.


At this point, things are definitely going her way. She finds herself liking Joseph, a very prosperous merchant, and he likes her in return. And so, the vibrant reds pop up in her costume for the first time in the movie. This is a very natural look; from the simplicity of the dress to the simplicity of the hairstyle), which helps reflecting the state of the character, whom at this point is still fairly innocent.

The shawl is a clear nod to India, both in the print and in how she wears it. But, funny enough, is a pretty historical addition. In the early 19th century, the Indian shawls became really popular in England. It became known as 'paisley' in Britain because one of the leading manufacturing centres of such shawls was Paisley in Scotland.

Portrait of Empress Josephine
wearing an Indian Shawl

But life is never kind to Becky for too long, and George (Amelia's fiancée) convinces Joseph that he should not marry a woman like Becky (a mere governess), and so she leaves Amelia's household and goes to live with her employer: Sir Pitt Crawley, as governess to his daughters.

As she leaves London under the pouring rain and arrives at the Crawley's state, we find Becky dressed in a dark and grim, dark-blue coat and dress.


It lacks the vibrancy and life that her other costumes posses and it's for a good reason: she has just been cast out of the world she wants to live in, and has been reminded of her place. Still, the design incorporates certain elements with that vibrant red that we will come to associate with Becky (the gloves and the band decorating the high-waist line of the gown are both red).

For the next few scenes, the strategy of the design will be the same: dark blue with red elements that pop up. It's the perfect visual description of the character as she's feeling at this point of the story: held down by her birth status (hence the darker colors) but confident that she will find a way to improve her station (hence the more vibrant elements).


When Sir Pitt's half sister, Miss Matilda Crowley, and his eldest son, Captain Rawdon Crowley visit the state, Becky is presented wearing that same blue dress but with a red jacket over it.


As we can see, red is gaining terrain within the design as she becomes more essential to the family and starts to see a way to climb up.

During this period, we see another significant change in her style: she goes from sporting half loose, flowing hair to sport her hair in various up-do's. These are, still, very natural and fresh; basically doing several variations on the "Greek" up-do that became very popular during the Regency period.

Queen Louise of Prussia is portrayed
here sporting that very same look

As she moves in with Miss Crowley as her personal companion, we see her, once again, with the same red dress she wore at the Indian Party with Jos.


Except this time she' wearing a jacket and her shawl is used as a scarf. She also has her hair up in a similar manner as she wore it during the visit at Sir Pitt's state. And though it might seem the same look as the one she wore with Jos, this few changes actually pose a significant difference. This look is slightly less natural and flowing; the addition of the jacket is just a bit too much, making her look slightly over dressed.

Why all this? She has told her first lie (even though a minor lie) in order to ascend a bit into the ladder of society. It's her first step towards her climb. And as such, the costume visually tells that first step by creating that difference.

From here on, the designs for her outfits will slowly and gradually become more and more over the top and pompous, as will her hairstyles.

During the visit of Amalia and George to the Crowley's, Becky is presented wearing a dark-red dress with a vibrant red shawl and a knotted hairstyle.


The change that was subtly perceived in the last scene is made perfectly clear in this design, which she wears as she seduces Rawdon in secret, going behind her mistress' back.

The difference, as always, is in the details. Even though the main structure of the dress is the same (high-waisted Regency) the details are much more over the top here.

She's once again wearing red (as things are going really well for her) but it's a darker red, as if to visually establish that her "happiness" will eventually come at a cost.

Probably, the most radical change in her look is the change in hairstyle. This time, she is shown wearing an Apollo Knot (hairstyle that would be hugely popular during the 1830's but that started to be used in the early 1810's). The hairstyle consists of a high bun at the crown of the head that is generally decorated with stiff loops of hair, braids and bows or feathers.


The main characteristic of this look is that it's highly artificial; just like she is slowly turning into a highly artificial and false person.

As things, once again, take a turn for the worst, Becky is back to the dark, more muted colors. After Miss Crawley and Sir Pitt find out that she has secretly married Rawdon, Becky is kicked out of the house. And, once again, she is wearing her dark blue coat with red ribbons.


But underneath it she is wearing a rather bright blue-green dress that sums up her emotional state very well. She might have been kicked out of the Crawley's house and might have lost the trust of the elderly Miss Crawley, but she is still married to Captain Rawdon. So things are bad, but there is still a glimpse of hope and happiness; hence the brighter colors underneath the dark coat.

Once she finds out that she is carrying Rawdon's child and she realizes that she can use that to get back in the good graces of the Crawley's (and avoid getting Rawdon disinherited), she goes back to the bright reds and oranges.


She is once again wearing the red dress she wore on the Indian party earlier on (this movie really knows how to reuse costumes) but with a another Indian inspired shawl.

It's very interesting that they decided that, whenever she is truly happy, she appears in some sort of Indian inspired clothing or motif. This, to me, is a very clever way to foreshadow the ending of the movie.

All Indian motifs are gone in the red ball gown she wears next, in the officer's ball in Belgium (where they have been summoned to fight back Napoleon). At this point in the movie, she has already started to be perceived by most of the high society as a social climber; most men adore her and most women don't stand her. There is no game to hide anymore. And her gown reflects exactly that.


The red, high-waisted gown is decorated with rhinestones and other shiny elements, which create both an alluring aura and a dangerous one as well. To that, one must add the high collar she sports, the shape of which highlights the idea of the character as a peacock. She's there to parade herself around.

This is, without a doubt, the tackiest dress she's worn up until this point in the story; the fabric looks cheap and so do the rhinestones covering it. But this is done on purpose. Most of the "high birth" women that we see in this movie dress in a similar fashion, and so, the more she wants to be like them and the closer she gets there, the tackiest she dresses.


Her hair is, once again, done in an Apollo Knott, and it's highly decorated. It's big and it calls attention to itself; which is why it's done like that in the first place. But it's also highly inaccurate, historically speaking. Whilst the Apollo Knott was already used by 1815, that height and complexity would not come around until 1825.

Drawing dated around 1825

The version of this hairstyle that became popular around 1815 was actually much more tame and less over the top.

1815's Apollo Knott

But there is a clear vision behind such transgression; they wanted Becky to look as tacky and over the top as possible, and the 1830's Apollo Knott was the perfect style to achieve that.

During the party, the army is called upon to march towards Waterloo and Becky and Amelia are left to fend for themselves in a city at the brink of collapse (due to the ever approaching French forces). As she fears for the life of Rawdon and the possibility of being left a penniless widow, Becky navigates the city in a dark, ominous purple gown, following the color code already established by the movie.

Unfortunately, this was the only pic I could find of the gown.

Luckily for Becky, Rawdon comes back victorious from the Battle of Waterloo and we see her go back to the red gowns and the Indian motifs (covered, in the picture, by a red apron).


This is the last time we will see her in red, and not only that, it's the last time that we will see her in such a natural look; from the hair to the simplicity of the dress.

Right after this, she realizes that her family is almost bankrupt and have a lot of debt that they cannot pay. In order to put an end to that, she goes back to her ways and plays around with her rich neighbor. Because of this, the designs turn back to the darker colors (mostly blues and blacks) and the gowns start to be more and more gaudy and over the top (especially the collars).


This satin blue dress is the one she wears when she first takes money from the neighbor; which is the action that will result in her spiraling out of control.

Soon after, as she sings for him, she is presented in a dark purple velvet dress with a huge necklace and a similarly huge hairstyle.


From here on, until her unavoidable downfall, she will always be sporting out-of-period Apollo Knotts.

And the deeper she goes down the lion's den, the more radical her look gets, as clearly seen in the magnificent black gown she wears at her next party.


This became one of the iconic images of the movie for a reason. It's not only an astonishing design, it's also really narrative in its conception. She's a poor girl that has climbed through the favor of men up to the cuspid of society. She's inhabiting a world she does not belong in, and she's doing this by playing a very difficult game that is making her more unhappy than she wants to admit.

Because of this, she's the only character dressed in black in a party where everyone is dressed in white and red. The costume is made to visually reflect that she does not belong with these people. Also, the choice of black for the dress helps to underline the idea that she is playing a mean game and that will end up badly for her.

The scene that follows is probably the most controversial in the whole movie and the biggest departure from the source material: her rich neighbor presents the King with a ballet of exotic Indian dancers led by Becky herself.


Leaving aside the merits or failures of this scene, there's nothing really interesting that I can say about the design of the Indian inspired look. It's really pretty to look at and it flatters the actress and it does what it has to do: be provocative but still not show too much and underline the fact that this is not a "feel good" scene. She's in too deep and there is no way to get out now.

At this point, she owns too much to Lord Steyne (the rich neighbor) and he forces her to repay the debt with sexual favors. For this scene, Becky is dressed in a fabulous purple taffeta gown with an outrageous collar and pink details.


It's, once again, purposefully gaudy and it stands for what she always thought she wanted: to be on the top. But being on the top is not as pretty as she though, and so is the dress.

After Rawdon abandons and rejects her, we see her moping around the streets of London with, what I think is, the same purple dress she wore during the Battle of Waterloo.


It's a purposefully depressing dress. She has just lost everything she risked her integrity to gain, and so she's dressed in dark, muted colors, with her hair barely pulled up (it looks as if she hasn't even combed herself). It's a rather sad moment and the costume and look really brings forward that sadness.

We meet her again twelve years later (which, according to my calculations would be around 1833-35) in a house of ill-repute, where she has been living and working since the death of Captain Rawdon.


She's wearing a dark purple, high-waisted dress with some fur decorations and a rather cheap-looking veil. She has too much makeup on and just with one glance, we, the audience, know that these past years have not been kind with her. The whole ensemble of this gown screams of cheap materials and gaudy textures and motifs, which is perfect for someone who is, basically, a prostitute.

After her chance meeting with Major Dobbin she reunites with Josh (Amelia's brother) and he offers to take her to India with him, to what she agrees. And so, the final scene takes place there, as Josh and Becky enter a city on an elephant, and, for the first time in the whole movie, Becky appears wearing a white ensemble.


This color decision seems as to be pointing to the fact that this is the first time ever that Becky is actually and truly happy with being herself and at the other end of the Empire she has finally found herself.

And that's perhaps the biggest contribution the heritage of the filmmaker brings in, really colonizing the novel by bringing something unique. The movie, through script, mis-en-scene and costume design, creates a very interesting role reversal between Britain and India. Here we found India portrayed as an escape from a stiff social ladder. A place of beauty when this incredibly intelligent character is not judged by her birth but by her virtues.

Because of this, suddenly, the constant back and forth between the bright colors with Indian motifs and the dark, muddy English textures bring about a whole new meaning to colonialism and the relation between the two countries, creating a truly interesting commentary on the subject.

ABOUT EVERYONE ELSE

The best part of the designs for this movie is that nobody gets neglected. Every single character, no matter how small, gets an appropriate design.

First, we have Becky's best friend: Amelia Sedley. She is kind and gentle and everything a lady, back then, should be. Because of this, she is dressed in more pastel colors, and her silhouette is always softer, less bold.


Her designs are meant to highlight her naiveté and innocence over Becky's, whose designs always makes her look almost feral. Also, Amelia's hairstyles are always much more historically accurate. mainly because the Regency hairstyles were meant to look innocent and cute, which Becky is not.


After the Sedley's loose their fortune, her designs are appropriately ragged and out of fashion (as if she had been wearing the same gown for years), which makes it really easy for the audience to perceive her economic problems.


Then there are the male characters. For them, military outfits are the order of the day. The most interesting element of those designs are the stiff high collars and the numerous cravats (some of them very, very extravagant).


Those elements help underline a certain stiffness of high society and a certain artificiality, the same way that Becky's over the top collars did. But, funny enough, they don't have to stray too much from the real fashion of the period to achieve that.


The regency period had a lot of high, stiff collars for men and over the top cravats as well. Perhaps the biggest stray is in the material itself, for I doubt they made their officer's uniforms out of silk taffeta.

For the rest of the characters, the designer really knows how to create and interesting environment out of the late Regency fashion, once again avoiding the over-abundance of the "little white dress" and exploring at its fullest the wide array of options the period offers.


All this period extravaganza is put to very good use in order to highlight the ridiculousness of the higher classes and of their rules and prejudices.

CONCLUSION

The movie, all things considered, does take many historical licenses, but every change and every choice is made in order to make a very clear point in the story. It's not inaccurate for the sake of inaccuracy, but to create a wardrobe that speaks mainly to the narrative and the themes they are trying to reinforce. All in all, it's a very effective use of costume.

It's also very refreshing to see a movie that takes place during the Regency and yet does not fall back to the "little white dresses" of the Jane Austen world, and instead paints the screen with loud and vibrant colors and textures that speak of a much more complex world.

Though, perhaps, the most relevant aspect of the film is the fact it's a look at Great Britain through the eyes of the colonies and not the other way around.

Comments

  1. This posts makes me wish to see the film. And to read a Gone With the Wind and some Jane Austen film review from you some day (maybe the recent Love and Friendship if it is noticed during this awards season. But I do not think the designs very that special even if they were quite nice).

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm glad you liked it! And as for reviews for Gone With the Wind and Jane Austen films; they will eventually come. They have been on our to do list for a long time. But we sort of write whatever we feel at the moment, not with an exact calendar, and somehow we still haven't gotten around them. But we will.
      As for Love and Friendship, I still haven't seen it, but I agree with you that the designs don't look very special. I hope I'm wrong though.
      Thanks for the comment!

      Delete

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