Costume designer Andrea Flesch assembled more than 50 outfits to define the title character in “Colette,” a film in which period costumes strongly support the story of avant-garde French novelist Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, who lived from 1873 to 1954 and became identified with such issues as creative copyright ownership and women’s emancipation.
The film, directed by Wash Westmoreland (“Still Alice”), stars Keira Knightley as “Colette,” a girl from rural France who marries Willy, a sophisticated Parisian writer played by Dominic West. Bleecker Street will release the picture Sept. 21.
Flesch aimed to define Colette as she embarks on her journey from country to city and from suppressed ghostwriter to literary fame, perhaps most notably for the 1944 novella “Gigi,” on which the 1958 best picture Oscar winner is based. “From the beginning, Wash and I discussed our vision of the film,” she says. “What’s special in her character is that she always finds her way to be unique and modern. I feel her wardrobe reflects her independent, sensitive, pure personality, which breaks through the strict rules of fashion at the turn of the century.”
Authenticity was informed by photographs, period fashions and the paintings of Fernand Toussaint, Édouard Vuillard and Jean-Georges Béraud. Many of the dresses worn in the film were several decades old and had to be painstakingly restored at the Museum of Applied Arts in Hungary. Flesch says she prefers using original clothing and textiles, since “the construction and sewing techniques as well as the coloring technique used during that time are inimitable.”
Details became an obsession. From the beginning, it was decided that Knightley would not wear a corset, in order to develop a unique body language for the character, reflecting Colette’s attitude toward flexible gender roles and social expectations. Some costumes were even re-creations of the writer’s actual outfits, like the Egyptian costume she wears during a stage performance alongside her new love interest, Missy (Denise Gough). Some of Flesch’s favorite creations include a rooster brooch and a tie pin with a little bulldog on it — inspired by Colette’s black French bulldog.
For Colette’s color palette, the aim was to create a clean, simple yet modern look. Bright yellows and grays gave way to browns, blacks and whites, which complemented the look created by production designer Michael Carlin and the lighting of cinematographer Giles Nuttgens.
“It’s important for me that the set and the costumes are in harmony,” says Flesch. “So, for example, in the big ball scene with the great gold-colored walls, I added more gold in the costumes. It was fun to play with small details such as the woman’s hat matching the color of the wall in the café scene.”
Flesch didn’t concentrate solely on Colette; she was scrupulous with everyone on-screen. “Wash wanted me to create individual, developed characters, including the extras,” she says. More than 100 original pieces were purchased from around the globe. Willy, for example, needed 38 costumes to express his developing personality and changing body. “Wash gave me the opportunity to create freely on a large scale with so many exciting characters in the script,” Flesch says. “It gave me the chance to bring life to a whole era.”