Liz Smith: Fashion Rules Madonna’s Lush “W.E.”

And more from our Gossip Girl on the Material Girl’s crackling new biopic

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.

8 comments so far.

  1. avatar Barbara says:

    I am anxious to see W.E., if only to see the costumes. I’ve always found the Duchess of Windsor’s fashion sense intriguing. Madonna is a wonderfully creative and talented woman. Very interesting to watch.

  2. avatar Bonnie O says:

    Sixty costume changes is a bit over-the-top, isn’t it?  Sounds like an old episode from the television series Dallas.  Or, remember the fashion dominated scenes from The Great Gatsby?

    The story of the Duke and Duchess is neverending.  Was she a schemer?  Did she trap the Prince or did he trap her?  Was the Duke of Windsor a wuss?  Were they exploited by Hitler or did they sympathize with the Nazi dictator?  The story of the Duke & Duchess can be told from so many different perspectives that I hope the one chosen by Weinstein gives us a flavor of the times in which the “royals” then lived and how Wallis wanted to be part of their world …. or did she?

    I will be interested in the fashion aspect of the film … it cannot be overlooked that Wallis, it has been said, personally saved the Haute Courture fashion houses in France following World War II.

    And I also agree that Madonna could do very well in the role.  I just hope she nor the story concentrates on those 60 costume changes to the extent that the movie resembles a fashion parade rather than the drama it should be.

  3. avatar Daniel Sugar says:

    I’ll see the movie ’cause I like historical dramas (even though most of them are just textile porn).

  4. avatar rick gould says:

    Who knew Madonna had such a fabulous film career? ;) That’s a very heavy wink…

    When it comes to movies, Madonna’s like the little girl with the curl…
    When she’s good, she’s breezy fun, like “Susan” and “League,”
    but when Madonna’s bad she is horrid… like the dozen or other mega-bombs she’s detonated.

    “Shanghai Surprise,” “Who’s That Girl,” “Body of Evidence,” “Swept Away,” and “The Next Best Thing” are the worst, off the top of my head. Now if I could only erase them FROM my head!

    Madonna’s many things…an actress is not one of them.

  5. avatar Mr. Wow says:

    Dear Rick..

    Actually, “Swept Away” is rather pleasant–a Lifetime TV movie with a tad of nudity.  It is simply not the horror of myth.   She is charming here and there—especially once she she’s stranded on the island. 

    “The  Next Best Thing”—okay, that’s a piece of shit. 

    Her best perf?  “Dangerous Game” which nobody saw at all.   She’s compelling  in that one. 

  6. avatar rick gould says:

    Mr. WoW–I hope your coming along from your previous wobbling! Get better ;)

    Ummm…I’ve seen “Swept Away.” I was delirious with the flu. Wasn’t sure if it was me or the movie!

    I do remember clips of Madonna’s Broadway debut on TV…was it a Mamet play?
    So very, very, very, flat. I remember the reading of the line, “I’ve been bad…I’ve been very bad…” That’s all my friends and I said for about 2 weeks , bursting out laughing…

    I’m more inclined to agree with Liz Smith about another of favorite singer-actresses, Doris Day ;)

    • avatar Mr. Wow says:

      Dear Rick…

      Actually, the line was:  “I know how to be bad.”  Yes, we all had fun with that one. 

      It’s just my opinion that if critics and audiences are determined to find fault, they will.  This doesn’t mean I think M is a great actress.  She is just isn’t always as bad as her detractors insist.

      But the woman has gobs of money, several lifetimes of fame and hardly needs my defense–or a movie career.  She’s done pretty well.  

      We all adore Doris!

      • avatar Deeliteful says:

        Off track a bit, but one of my favorite lines is from Mae West: “When I’m good, I’m very good. When I’m bad, I’m even better.” I hope I got that right!