Behind the scenes Phantom Thread poster

Phantom Thread wins an Academy Award for Best Costume Design!

Learn the secrets behind the gorgeous costumes of new film Phantom Thread

We are thrilled that this fabulous film has been awarded an Academy Award – an oscar for Best Costume Design! Read all about the costumes in this fascinating behind the scenes look at the designs and costumes from the film.

The film is set in the glamour of 1950s post-war London and tells the story of fictional renowned dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) who are at the centre of British fashion, dressing royalty, movie stars, heiresses, socialites, debutants and dames with the distinct style of the House of Woodcock.

Through his creations, Reynolds can make the timid feel courageous and the unattractive feel beautiful. He’s immensely talented and at the very top of his game, but he’s also fussy, self-consumed and difficult. He meets a young, strong-willed woman, who soon becomes his muse and lover. Once controlled and planned, he finds his carefully tailored life disrupted by love.

Academy Award-nominated writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson had little interest in dressmaking or fashion history until he discovered couturier Cristóbal Balenciaga (1895-1972), whose collections were internationally renowned for their iconic lacework, innovative cutting and shapely elegance.

Immersing himself in Mary Blume’s biography, The Master of Us All: Balenciaga, His Workrooms, His World, the writer-director became fascinated with the designer’s monastic life and all-consuming approach to dressmaking, which dovetailed with the New Look in Paris and Christian Dior’s reinvention of the female silhouette.

phantom thread

With his handsome, angular features, Balenciaga reminded Anderson of his There Will Be Blood lead actor Daniel Day-Lewis. A major Hollywood star, who also happens to be trained shoemaker, Day-Lewis has an appreciation for making things by hand. Anderson and his star became devoted students of haute couture, learning everything they could about Balenciaga and his contemporaries, including Dior and British-born designer Charles James. They studied classic English tailoring from the period, in particular John Cavanagh and Hardy Amies, and the artistic temperament of contemporary figures like Alexander McQueen.

Day-Lewis relished the chance to focus on the British specialists;

“It felt right somehow that our work should reflect the history of England and the fabric that came from the British Isles, which is extraordinary. The tailors and dressmakers are still making these garments, and they are beautiful. Every season when the fabric arrives, they look at the fabric, feel it, smell it and make designs from it. There was something fascinating to us about the idea of England emerging from the war years, amid austerity.”

princess mona wedding dress phantom thread

Princess Mona’s wedding dress, from Phantom Thread, by costume designer Mark Bridges

The title Phantom Thread came from the predicament common among East London seamstresses in the Victorian era who were accustomed to working long hours in miserable conditions. After marathon periods of sewing magnificent dresses for royals and aristocrats, the exhausted workers found themselves, like automatons, sewing invisible thread outside the workroom — aka, a phantom thread. Daniel Day-Lewis learnt to drape, cut and sew for the role

Day-Lewis mastered the finer points of dressmaking during this period, studying dozens of volumes on the subject, examining archived dresses by world-class couturiers and learning how to cut, drape and sew under the instruction of Marc Happel, Director of Costumes of the New York City Ballet. “Marc taught him everything from basic sewing and cutting to the more elaborate process of draping and measuring,” says Anderson. “At the end of his training period he proved himself by making a fantastic copy of a Balenciaga suit.”

For costume designer Mark Bridges (of 2012’s The Artist), creating costumes from scratch was the only solution for a story in which dressmaking is central. Authenticity and sophistication were of the highest importance and true couture vintage was in short supply. The result was 50 unique garments for the movie, including nine original pieces showcased in a spring fashion show sequence.

“We discovered early on that we would be making a lot more garments than we initially thought,” Bridges says. “Silk only lasts for so long even if the garments have been well preserved. Time marches on, and moths are busy. Most of the clothes we sourced we wound up using for inspiration or understanding construction techniques. If we were duplicating a garment, we tried whenever possible to reproduce the fabric as closely as possible to the original garment.”

The veteran costume designer resisted focusing on a single couturier as inspiration for his creations. Instead, he researched designs from the era, combed through vintage editions of Vogue and watched segments from the British Pathé archive on YouTube. “Having the [Victoria and Albert Museum] archive at our disposal was very helpful because we could see how lines were cut and patterns constructed,” says Bridges. “It’s amazing how simply conceived a lot of the garments are, including Balenciaga’s embroidery, with its meticulous details.”

Joan Emily Brown and Sue Clarke were working as volunteers at the V&A when Anderson discovered that the women had extensive backgrounds in fashion. He hired both as creative consultants, based on their ability to verify in an instant whether a bobbin or pin was appropriate to the era. But he also gave them roles as actors, playing the crucial backroom roles of head seamstresses Nana and Biddy.

Clarke had taught fashion for most of her adult life before retiring and Brown spent decades in couture ateliers across London sewing, cutting and beading. They helped cast and crew understand workroom hierarchy, including the intricate power structure between cutters and fitters and assistants and hands. They shared minute workroom details like the mandatory white gloves worn by handlers during House fittings, and recounted stories of rigidly enforced etiquette that was the hallmark of the top Houses. “It’s a very organised world to work in with an emphasis on following the rules,” says Brown. “If you were the head of a workroom, you were addressed as Mr. or Mrs. along with your first name. It was all part of the etiquette of the time and you learned things quickly as you worked. There was a very disciplined way of doing things.”

In her essay The New Bloom of Couture, Cassie Davies-Strodder explains London couturiers produced two collections per year, for autumn/winter and spring/ summer. The garments were made with the finest fabric and trimmings, the majority made by hand by highly skilled seamstresses before the garments were fitted bespoke to each customer. Up to three fittings were required, and it took up to four weeks to produce the finished piece.

Curator of 20th and 21st century fashion collections at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Davies-Strodder reports how clients would enter the tall, terraced Mayfair couture houses on the ground floor where the grand rooms were used as a reception space. A twisting staircase, often at the center of the house, led the way to the first-floor showrooms and fitting rooms.

Mark Tildesley, production designer sought to achieve this in the film: “The House of Woodcock is a place of work but it’s also a theatrical space, where clients are beguiled and made to feel glorious and wonderful as if they were on stage.” Balenciaga was a great inspiration for the protagonist and his signature style © Victoria and Albert Museum © Images Courtesy of Focus Features and UPI Media.

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Categories: Dressmaking, Interviews