In “Phantom Thread,” Daniel Day-Lewis plays an imperious and eccentric fashion designer named Reynolds Woodcock in 1950s London in the years after World War II. His character approaches fashion as a religion that requires silence and solitude. His various self-indulgences masquerade as near-sacraments. Day-Lewis’s character is not meant to represent any real designer, living or dead, but the ecclesiastical nature of his atelier takes inspiration from Cristobal Balenciaga and his personal quirks call to mind the fastidiousness of Karl Lagerfeld.
Woodcock’s designs, however, have a look all their own. They are gently beautiful guideposts. But they are not outre, distracting or referential. That is thanks to costume designer Mark Bridges.
Because this is a story that revolves around a designer’s creative and emotional impulses, one might presume the film would feature any number of extraordinary and memorable ensembles. But there are none
. Which doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of gorgeous clothes in this film.
In a particular moment of exasperation and frustration, Woodcock laments to his sister about a horrible little word: chic. Woodcock spits it out with incredible disdain. The fashion world has gone in search of “chic,” he says, and satisfying that obsession has become his burden. But Woodcock has no interest in chasing chic and delivering it to his clients, because chic implies that something has been shaped by a fleeting moment or an ephemeral mood. It suggests an aesthetic that has been culturally vetted and agreed upon. Woodcock is aiming for lasting beauty.
And so the clothes that he creates have a soothing elegance.
They are a lovely resting place for the eye as the narrative unfolds. The genesis of each dress is written into the script, Bridges says.
“Instead of a light bulb going off and you’re creating something,” he says, “things in the script dictated what would be made.”
But a good part of the script speaks to Woodcock’s inner turmoil, his blossoming love for Alma (Vicky Krieps), his fear and anger over her disruptive presence, and other notions that are felt but not necessarily seen. Woodcock invests incredible time and mental energy in creating a wedding gown for a long-time client. But in a moment of both physical and mental pain, he declares what looks to be a perfectly elegant gown, ugly.
How do you convey those complicated emotions in a dress? By making an especially beautiful gown but one that has subtle references to a garment that Alma has worn earlier in the film. It’s not the dress that he hates but the way in which Alma has become enmeshed with the most sacred part of his life — his professional world.
“We are our own worst critic. You see that in Reynolds. No one else is feeling the weight of Alma in his life,” Bridges says. The audience looks at that wedding dress, and “we’re like, ‘You’re crazy, man!’ “
During an exchange between Alma and Woodcock while he is fitting a dress on her, she notes her dislike of his chosen fabric. The designer doesn’t flinch. He simply tells her that she is wrong. That her taste is wrong and that she should change her taste. He is domineering. She is quietly determined to make her point.
“That dress is supposed to be part of the spring collection, and you think pastel, silk and cotton voiles, not black and purple and cobalt blue,” Bridges says. “She’s coming in as a young girl with a fresh eye in this May-December, May-November relationship.”
The heaviness of the dress reflects the way in which Woodcock relates to fashion and to life. There is no lightness and air in his atelier. It’s oppressively grave. Alma is right about the dress; she is also right about his life.
The relationship between Alma and Woodcock evolves into a torturous, strange love story. But it begins as an example of how a designer leans on a muse. As Bridges created clothes for the film, he inhabited the mind of Woodcock. And what he learned was that, as a technical matter, Alma would be “a dream to dress because of her physical attributes — the long neck, slim stature, fairly minimal bosom. She really has an ideal figure for the period, for those fashions.”
“She really took to them well,” Bridges adds, referring in a way to both the character and the actress who plays her. “Once the underpinnings are on, she really takes on this air.”
Which is to say that a muse is not simply a mannequin. An actress eerily becomes her character. And a dress, chic or not, can still tell a story.