WALLIS SIMPSON was ‘that woman’ — a strikingly glamourous and impeccably dressed American adventuress whose attempts to infiltrate English society sparked suspicion, snobbery, ridicule and — ultimately — ostracism,” writes Luke Leitch in London’s Daily Telegraph.
Naturally, such history as it happened in England in the late Thirties has drawn the attention of singer/actress/movie director Madonna, a woman much interested in fame and its infinite varieties. Her film about the love affair between the then Prince of Wales, about to become King Edward VIII, and the divorced Wallis has an opening date in February, 2012, released by Harvey Weinstein. But a few people have already seen the movie “W.E.” and it is having a large impact even before release.
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MADONNA herself is ever controversial, being constantly described as someone whose career is indubitably “over” and with carping critiques about her age, her looks, her clothes and her choices of younger men.
But Madonna is a big favorite for this columnist. I consider her one of the hardest-working, most inventive, strongest and most impressive women in show business. She has sold a gazillion records. Her concert tours are legendary. Her movie career has done better than legend would have it, despite atmospheric jealousy and a determination to deem her film ventures failures before they are even in production. (I cite her hits “Desperately Seeking Susan” … “Evita” … “A League of Their Own” … “Dick Tracy”… her brilliant documentary “Truth or Dare.”)
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BUT LET’S put favoritism aside. Let’s discuss the fun “fashion” aspect of “W.E.” with costume designer Arianne Phillips, possibly up for an Oscar for her exquisite recreation of Wallis Simpson’s lavish taste.
Mrs. Simpson’s letters to her husband, Ernest, at the time when she was more or less trapped into a controversial impending marriage with the King of England, have convinced many of us that what started out for Wallis as a chance to climb “socially” in Great Britain had turned instead into a runaway event.
Wallis couldn’t calm down the King’s infatuation and she reaped the world-wind. The positive in all this? She became a renowned fashion inspiration.
Later, trapped in her infamy, Wallis described herself, saying: “I’m not a beautiful woman. I’m nothing to look at, so the only thing I can do is dress better than anyone else.” And so she did. And so “she” does in the coming movie.
Costumer Phillips began her research at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, went on to the Musee de la Mode et du Textile in Paris and ended in London’s Victoria and Albert. Leading actress Andrea Riseborough has about sixty costume changes in “W.E.”– and that includes three wedding dresses.
The most famous of these is the blue Mainbocher dress Wallis wore when in 1937 she married the former King in the South of France. He had been made into the Duke of Windsor. She became The Duchess. The dress itself is in the Met, but Phillips says, “It has not lasted well. We were lucky enough to see it, but the color has faded … she was a client of haute couture in Paris in its heyday, so I had to figure out how I was going to recreate that … the problem was my whole budget could have gone into making one dress!”
Phillipps looked through the Louvre’s archives at the work of Vionnet who has been called “the mother of couture.” This revealed precise details of what Simpson bought and when. Vionnet’s current owners agreed to make four new dresses for the film. The costumer also considered the work of Dior, as well as help from Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels, Roger Vivier, Dunhill, Stephen Jones, and Schiaperelli, etc.
Wallis, the Duchess, dressed very well all through the Forties, Fifties, Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties, until she died in France in 1986. You will see versions of this fashionable glamour and its effect on today in the coming film. Phillips maintains that the Duchess influenced the Stella McCartney dress in which Nancy Shevell recently wed Paul McCartney.
And reporter Leitch adds this footnote: “Roland Mouret’s winter 2011collection includes a dress named after Simpson, and he explained his fascination with her thus: ‘She was sexy in a painful way; a painful sexiness. The clothes she wore were austere, but sensual. It was the movement of her body that made her attractive. She was like a perfume, or the way a veil moves, like a ghost almost. We use clothes to erase our mistakes and to highlight what we like. Wallis one of the best students of fashion school in that way.’”
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P.S. Madonna, determined to keep the “mood” of her latest project, which she also wrote as well as directed, has been looking especially glamorous in her public appearances in recent months. She has been favoring gowns with a vintage 1930’s/40’s feel. This is not only appropriate to push “W.E.,” but also for Madonna herself. I’ve always liked her best when she’s glamorous in an “old-fashioned” way.
The star herself prefers more cutting-edge couture.