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Period films are almost too easy—it’s hard not to be impressed by the gowns of The Young Victoria or Michelle Pfeiffer’s lace-infused finery in Chéri. But in Coco Before Chanel, that paradigm is upended when Audrey Tautou as the famous designer turns heads at a dance with a slim, simple black gown of her own conception. To modern eyes, used to pared-down elegance, it doesn’t register viscerally as ground-breaking, but it’s meant to be a startling departure from the fussy frilliness of the waning days of the Edwardian era. It's kind of like how we can’t really understand how thrilling photography or recorded music must have been initially because both are so embedded in our daily experience.
More visually startling are the bright ensembles of Abbie Cornish’s Fanny Brawne in Bright Star, which the character is supposed to have designed and sewn herself—especially after the drab country duds featured in a slew of Jane Austen adaptations recently.
In Julie & Julia , Amy Adams's frumpy outfits were meant to communicate Julie Powell's dead-end job and creative frustration—nothing to see there. But even though Julia Child has never held up as a fashion icon or a paragon of style (“Pretty good!” Meryl-as-Julia says as she and her sister gaze in a mirror before a party in Julie & Julia, “But not great”), the trim and proper blouses and twin-set cardigans Streep wore (usually with a circle of pearls) were just as charming as mid-century Paris in the background.
Speaking of charming, after watching the re-imagining of Grey Gardens (I'm cheating a little—it was a TV movie) I was ready to race out to the nearest Village Discount Outlet to try and emulate Drew Barrymore as the young Little Edie who pranced around 1930s Manhattan. While the older Little Edie’s scarf-as-turban and upside-down skirts have achieved cult status, I found myself enchanted by the earlier era and craving a hat with a glove pasted it to it ( a whimsical touch that is occasionally revived).
The early 60s is another era filmmakers love to mine for sartorial flair, although the aesthetic is looking mighty familiar these days thanks to the popularity of Mad Men. This year we had An Education, in which Carey Mulligan's transformation from naive schoolgirl to prematurely weary woman of the world is signaled by a shift from modest blouse-and-skirt combos to upswept hair and narrow shifts.
In A Single Man, both Colin Firth and Julianne Moore look heart-stoppingly glamorous—but what else would you expect from a movie directed by a man so dedicated to appearances that he had the tractors at his New Mexico farm painted black?
Finally, there's the brand-new Nine, which appears to feature some spectacular showgirl ensembles, but I think I like Marianne Cotillard as the classic French gamine a la Audrey Hepburn best, all small face, big eyes, and perfectly fitting robe noire.