That '30s Look and Now? It's Like Night and Day
By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 25, 2004; Page C01
Back in the days when it was socially important to keep up appearances -- of a happy marriage, a happy home, being happy-go-lucky -- everyone, it seemed, looked smashing. Before the now common public confessional, one's peccadilloes were swept under the rug and unorthodox behavior was engaged in discreetly. People worked hard to present a perfect veneer. Fashion was complicit in constructing that facade.
In the new movie "De-Lovely," about the life of composer Cole Porter and his wife, Linda, clothes serve as an apt metaphor for impossibly perfect glamour hiding complicated, troubled souls. In the film, which opens July 2, the Porters cut dashing figures on the social circuit. Yet their smooth, glib surface camouflages a private life that is painful and rocky. Cole Porter is gay, but he nevertheless marries Linda and creates -- for a time -- a happy home that holds the promise of children. Linda understands that Cole is gay, but the marriage satisfies them both in ways that are not sexual. Marriage offers them companionship, support, love and purpose.
Any cinematic tale needs drama, however, and the Porters oblige. He becomes increasingly indiscreet in his affairs. She becomes frustrated that the delicate balance of their lives is being destroyed. She has a miscarriage. He becomes a drunk. But all the while, they look splendid.
Costume designer Janty Yates crafted the look of the Porters as played by Kevin Kline and Ashley Judd. She turned to the designer Giorgio Armani for help. Although the film focuses on the years from the 1920s to the 1960s, the fashions are rooted in the '30s and '40s, decades when everyone looked particularly swell. This is a film that gives elegance as much importance as historical accuracy. And although Armani has contributed to a host of recent films such as "Shaft" and "Hannibal," not since "The Untouchables" in 1987 has a film benefited so profoundly from his aesthetic.
" 'The Untouchables' was the first period film I worked on and it taught me that I am really not a costume designer. I can only work on projects which lend themselves to my aesthetic. . . . Though the film was set during Prohibition, the look was my interpretation of what the style of the time was," Armani says in an e-mail. "The same can be said of 'De-Lovely,' a film where the action spans the '20s, '30s and '40s. I love this period of fashion -- it was a time when people really dressed up in an elegant manner. However, I am not a fashion historian, nor am I interested in re-creating the past. Instead, I have done outfits which have the spirit of elegance of the time, but are updated with modern touches."
Yates, who worked with Armani on "Hannibal," was responsible for striking a balance between what was appropriate for the time and what is pleasing to modern eyes. For example, many of Linda Porter's evening clothes were pulled directly from the Armani archives and used with only subtle changes.
"Mr. Armani nearly always makes his evening wear in a slipper satin silk, so because of that we were halfway there. He cuts on the bias, so we were three-quarters there," Yates says in a telephone interview. "In a couple of dresses, he took out the zipper and put in buttons and took out elastic and put in ribbon."
Both of the Porters had a distinctive style, and for once, the gentleman's fashion sense is not overshadowed by the woman's. He was a theatrical dresser, almost always wearing a suit and never dressing down. "Cole Porter always had a flower in his lapel. He would always, always go for a fresh flower and would go after an unusual flower. We were always looking for purple flowers and dark green flowers," Yates says.
Armani tailored all of Kline's clothing. This was a period when even the most dissolute man would button himself up in an extravagant suit. And even when Porter's shadowy dalliances were becoming more reckless, he sartorially presented himself as composed, controlled and confident. There is a scene in which Porter wears a white suit as he prepares to depart from Venice. He looks supremely elegant. Yet is there a man alive today who can wear a white suit and not look as though he should be an airport lounge singer? During a rehearsal for one of his musicals, Porter sits cross-legged on the floor in a beautifully cut gray suit with a red flower in his lapel. Are there still men who can simultaneously be so relaxed while dressed up?
The '30s, says Armani, was "an era of great tailoring." The clothes were in service to the wearer.
Tailoring "did everything to give men as much of a shape as the women," Yates says. "You had these broad shoulders and slinky hips. Even the rattiest man could cut a dash."
Linda Porter preferred clothes with clean lines and simple tailoring. Her palette was often monochromatic gray, navy and cream. Her jewelry was bold and glamorous. She was one of the day's notably stylish women and used her influence and connections to launch the career of her jeweler, Fulco di Verdura, by introducing him to Coco Chanel. There is a cool sophistication to all of Linda Porter's clothes that belies the complexity of her emotional life. When she tells Cole about her miscarriage, she is wearing a spare white satin, vintage-inspired gown that slithers down her frame, accented by a provocative piece of jewelry. Her wedding gown, designed by Armani, is a sensual swath of ivory satin. It shows no skin but hints provocatively at what is hidden.
In working on the film, Armani found himself absorbing the sensibility of the period. He looked back at his own work, he says, and was reminded "of some of my core values, like simplicity of cut and detail." And although the costumes will not translate directly into ready-to-wear, the designer says he was inspired to create a more refined silhouette for spring 2005. In menswear, for instance, he has experimented with higher armholes and a more defined shoulder line.
In telling the story of the Porters, "De-Lovely" addresses the ways in which appearances, stylishness and elegance were valuable currency and worth safeguarding. And in the film, the complicated beauty of Cole Porter's music is enhanced by the stunning facade of satin, furs and fine woolens that he and Linda so carefully built.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Kevin Kline, right, in a suit tailored by Giorgio Armani for his role as Cole Porter in the movie "De-Lovely."
_____From Robin Givhan_____
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