Skip to main content

Oscars Retrospective 2017: Florence Foster Jenkins

The inspirational biopic is, at this point, a subgenre riddled with cliches, tropes and tired redundancies even when compared to other formulaic cinematic genres. Why? Because it always does the same: it takes a real story, follows it loosely and cajoles it into fitting the standards and usual structure of these types of movies. And, unfortunately, Florence Foster Jenkins falls exactly into that category.

This is a paint by numbers movie. It goes exactly where you think it's going to go after watching the trailer, it brings no surprises, nor any sort of interesting thought and it sits back and relies on the performances of admittedly great actors to keep the boat afloat.

And yes, we can't deny that this is a somewhat competent movie made by a competent director, but it's otherwise completely unremarkable. It's mathematically designed to be a crowd-pleaser and this creates more problems than anything, particularly in regards to the story, as it just doesn't seem to be able to decide if it's a really funny story or a really cruel one.

This movie focuses on the last year of Florence's life; an American heiress and New York socialite that, despite having no musical talent, believes she has a gift for singing. Her husband, due to her tragic illness, indulges her and organizes a series of concerts in which he basically lies to her by buying off the audience so that she will continue to believe that she's a good singer. All of this is played as a touching story, but I couldn't help feeling like everyone was abusing her confidence just to get her money. Maybe it's just my reading of the story, but it made the whole movie really grating and upsetting.

Despite all that, today we are here to talk about the Costume Design. And, on that regard, there certainly is a great deal of work and effort put into these Designs.


The costume design for the movie was created by Consolata Boyle, a long time Stephen Frears collaborator. She's the mind behind the designs of Mary Reilly (1996), Moll Flanders (1996), The Queen (2006) - which earned her her first Costume Design Academy Nomination-, Chéri (2009), The iron lady (2011), Byzantium (2012), Philomena (2013) and Testament of Youth (2014).

The main idea behind the look of Florence Foster Jenkins is to faithfully recreate the style of this very particular woman and capture her spirit in a respectful way. And that directly translates into the costume design department, which puts all its effort into correctly reflecting her sense of style and her own unique world-view.

This meant that Boyle had to pour over thousands of pictures of the real-life Jenkins and her performances in order to achieve that level of recreation without directly having to copy any specific outfit.


Florence, played by the amazing Meryl Streep, is the undisputed protagonist of this movie. It's her love of music and her inability to realize how bad of a singer she is that moves the story forward and, likewise, it's her personality that defines the tone and feel of the movie.

She is a woman that chooses to live in her own manufactured little world and the movie captures that very clearly. She lives in a bubble of her own thanks to her fortune and the people around her.

The task that the costume department had to fulfill was, basically, to visually reflect both that and her personality. That was its main goal and most essential function.
You’re creating a world, and that world is a very particular one, a very heightened one. She created this world, along with Bayfield, and everybody who came into this world had to live by the rules of this world, in a way.                                                                   -Consolata Boyle, Costume Design
So, what better way to introduce her than hanging above a stage in a rather eccentric, ridiculous and over the top angel get up.

It's definitely an appropriate way to introduce such a character; because it establishes everything you need to know about her. It also happens to be one of the few designs in the movie to recreate an actual real Florence costume, which adds a patina of realism to such an out-there character introduction.

Both the extravagance of this gargantuan pair of wings and the weird-charm of the costume as a whole help lay the foundation to the character's quirkiness and lovable antics.

Also, Jenkins' real life costume creations were all of her own design and manufacture, so the movie costumes needed to have that same self-made look, which further advances that empathy towards the character. She puts the same love and dedication to her performance costumes as she puts to her singing, even though the result, in both cases, is rather poor. It certainly establishes the fact that this is a character that tries too hard, and that makes her failures the more sad.

That home-made quality is even more noticeable on her "Valkyrie" get-up that she wears immediately after.

It's not that easy to make something look cheap and poorly done on purpose. But this movie certainly manages it. Note the bad fit of the wig and the cheap looking platinum armor... it's all there to further set, in a visual manner, her corky disposition and enthusiasm for what she's doing.

Both these introductory costumes successfully serve a very specific function: to perfectly sets her stage persona and the tone and feel of all her later performance costumes'. They set Florence's peculiar aesthetics when performing, its home-made feel and sets the bar for what we can expect to see coming from her.

The performance costumes had a very specific aesthetic. They were overblown and a lot of her clothes she would’ve made herself or her friends made, so there was an amateurish feeling about them.                       -Consolata Boyle, Costume Design
Her performance wardrobe includes particularly eccentric approximations of a Mexican señorita, a "queen of the night" get-up, and the aforementioned "angel of inspiration" amongst others; but what binds them together is the excessive and borderline ridiculous style that's accentuated by enthusiastic accessorizing and violent gesticulation. And all of this would look out of a comedic farce were it not from the fact that the movie is only recreating a real-life story.
Pumps, furs, flowers, ruffles, elaborate hats, a plethora of costume jewelry and angel wings were all apart of Jenkins’ persona. If we can say one thing for sure, it’s that Florence Foster Jenkins’ wardrobe demanded to be looked at.                                -Consolata Boyle, Costume Design
But, if the performance costumes show her own unique personality in the most obvious and out there way, her private outfits manage to continue doing that in a much more subdued and "realistic" way.

Boyle uses the fashion of the time and decorates it to bring Florence to life. Most noticeable, it's her use of color as a nod to her strangely childish demeanor. All her clothes are in a pastel palette of soft, childlike colors: creams, pinks, lavenders, baby blues... otherwise referred to as naive pastels. And it's a great way to contextualize her whole behaviour: she's stuck in a childlike mentality.

There’s an innocence about her, as well as that rather tragic backstory of her marriage and state of health. [...] She dressed the same as she had as a girl, before the various tragedies and darknesses affected her life. Her costumes were like her childhood dressing-up outfits, so everything was in very childish colors.                                                -Consolata Boyle, Costume Design
To further accentuate that innocence and childlike manner, all her costumes are accessorized heavily with furs, tons of ruffles, cute hats, flowers, feathers... and massive amounts of jewelry. The combination of all these cements the character's combination of delusion, naiveté and wealth in a really interesting way.

Also, note that all her clothes are rather out of fashion for 1944, being much more reminiscent of the fashion that she would have worn in her youth that what was currently fashionable at the time, which is a great and subtle way of reflecting the idea that she's stuck in the her youth.

This serves a very clear purpose; to visualize her isolation from the outer world. She's a woman who has sealed herself into her own world of wealth and extravagance, and has tuned out the "real" New York of the 1944's out of her own reality.
Jenkins’ extraordinary eccentricities and her coterie were a very particular thing; she lived and thrived in a very sealed off world. She was a supreme performer, so her clothes were gorgeously outrageous. They were high camp but with a softness so she drew people in. And she had no embarrassment about how she looked.           -Consolata Boyle, Costume Design
Another element that was essential to the creation of these designs was Florence's wide frame in real life, which certainly doesn't match up with Streep's more slender silhouette.

Because of this, to accurately capture the character's look, they created a padded suit to widen her frame and build all her costumes around it, giving her figure this very round, column-like silhouette; thus creating this particularly matronly look that is so endearing.


Despite the merits of these designs in visually creating this character, there is an insurmountable script problem that directly affects the design's ability of being truly memorable and brilliant: Florence, as a character, has no evolution throughout the movie. She begins being one way, and ends being exactly the same. There's no real change inflicted on our protagonist.

And that means that the costumes can't have an evolution either, which, honestly, makes for a boring analysis. The color palette remains the same throughout the movie, and the style remains the same as well... She even begins and ends the movie in practically the same outfit.

This is clearly meant to highlight the idea of Florence as an innocent and pure character and the "innocence bubble" in which she lives. If I have any peeve about this is that the angel motif might be a little too much on the nose even for a movie like this.

But, despite how obvious of a symbolism it is, all that it does is highlight the fact that she doesn't change throughout the movie. If she starts being innocent and ends up the same... there isn't much to say there, is it? Which makes for a rather boring viewing, both at a narrative and visual level.

I don't care that the characters around her do have an arc, she's the main character and she should be the one to have an arc... that for me, it's one of the worst mistakes of this movie.


Florence Foster Jenkins is a predictable, formulaic and bland biopic that has the undeserved privilege of having really good actors that turn in pretty good performances despite the mediocre script. I do not doubt that there is a good movie to be made out Florence Foster Jenkins' life, but this isn't the one. Sure, it can be entertaining if you're just looking to unwind, but it leaves much to be desired.

Despite this, the efforts of the Costume Department are noteworthy. There is an enormous effort put in visually defining the character through color, texture and style in order to respectfully bring to life this one-of-a-kind woman.

In the end, the lack of a narrative arc for the character crippled the ability of the costume department to take their wonderful creations to a higher level by forcing them to stay the same during the whole movie. 

It's not a completely undeserved nomination, but, from our standpoint, it isn't the best either.


This is the third of our Oscar Retrospective 2017! Join us next time when we'll be looking at Allied. Meanwhile, check out last year Retrospective covering: The RevenantCinderellaThe Danish GirlCarol and Mad Max: Fury Road.


If you enjoyed this article, subscribe! or follow us on Facebook or Tumblr or Twitter or Instagram and help us grow!


Popular posts from this blog

A look into Star Wars: Padme's Dresses. Annex A

As I'm sure I've mentioned before, the size of Padme's wardrobe is leaning towards big. One might even say gigantic. Because of this, we are forced to choose which ones we review and which ones we don't. Otherwise, we would still be reviewing the costumes from Episode I. Thanks to this selection process, right now, in our Padme series' we are reviewing costumes already from Revenge of the Sith. But lately, we've been thinking a lot about those designs that got "lost in the selection", as we call them.
WHY WEREN'T THESE SELECTED? Generally, those that we did not select for our series were considered "not interesting enough". But what does that mean? Well, it means two things; either they pulled from the exact same influences as any of the dresses we had already addressed (which would make for a very repetitive article) or were considered too simple and basic to talk about them at length.
And then, of course, were those that we simply did …

A look into Star Wars: Padme's Dresses. Part II

Let’s continue with our thorough examination of the designs of Padme Amidala’s dresses. This second post in the series will be dedicated to the also terribly famous “senate” gown from “The Phantom Menace”. She wears this dress during her plea at the senate in Coruscant, and it has grown to become a terribly well known gown.

This gown has several layers to it. The base layer is a bright orange silk dress, with a high collar decorated with ornate gold stitchwork and beads. Over this, she wears a dark red overdress with orange hems decorated with gold brocade. This overdress has big sleeves and its embroider with rosettes. Above this, she wears a dark and thick faux fur cloak with shoulder pads that make her look twice her size.

Although what really made this dress iconic, is the headdress that accompanied it. Amidala's hair was dressed in a wide arc centered by a golden headpiece with golden hairbands to keep her hair's shape. This arc was decorated with dangling orichalc suspens…

Creating the Seven Kingdoms. Part I: The North

As we promised a few weeks backs, we are going to cover more tv shows from now on, mainly because there is just too much awesomeness in our TV's these days to ignore it. And for the last 5 years, the crowning jewel of TV costume design has been, without a doubt, HBO's Game of Thrones. So it was only logical to start there.
The downside is that there is so much to talk about that it becomes really difficult to decide where to start exactly. G.R.R. Martin's sprawling epic covers many characters and many places, and therefore there's really a lot to pick up from. In the end, we decided that we would take a page out of the author's tactics and split it in several different series of articles to be published gradually. And so, this is going to be the first of many. And we probably should warn you, there will be spoilers ahead. CREATING THE SEVEN KINGDOMSGame of Thrones, from an adaptation standpoint, faced many of the same problems that Peter Jackson had to face when b…

A look into Star Wars: Padme's Dresses. Part I

I’ve decided to start this blog by dedicating the first posts to the designs of Padme Amidala’s dresses in the first three episodes of Star Wars. Although  I’m not particularly fond of these movies, I have to give some credit to their wardrobe design and the thought and creativity that went into it. 
We will look into the most iconic dresses of Padme Amidala and do a breakdown of the influences behind them. Each post will be dedicated to one of these dresses.
The first one of these series is the one I like to call the “Red Invasion” gown. It’s featured the first time we see Natalie Portman’s character in The Phantom Menace, and it’s probably one of the most iconic gowns she has.

This gown is made of embroidered silk and faux fur that lines the double collar, tabards, double sleeves and hem. The alien-like touch is given to the dress by the electric lights placed on the skirt, that are made to resemble ladybugs.
The head piece that accompanies this dress is also pretty iconic in and on it…

A look into Star Wars: Padme's dresses. Part X

The last design from Episode II which we are going to be covering is the wedding gown, which happens to be the literal last outfit worn by the character in the movie.

She wears this dress in the final scene of Episode II, during her wedding with Anakin. It's a brief scene, but somehow people really remember this gown.
The design consists of an intricate gown made of lace and beads that goes with a lace veil. The gown is long and flowing, and has a small tail. The white fabric is decorated with an off-white delicate embroidery. The sleeves reach her elbows and are hemmed with scalloped lace. The entire gown is studded with pearls.

This gown takes from various historical sources, most of them pertaining to the early 20th century. The basic one with which it work are Edwardian fashion (1901-1911) and the 1920's.
The basic structure, with the gown and the laced overdress, is clearly taken from late Edwardian fashion.

These dresses (dated 1912) are quite similar to Padme's gow…