For the new Focus Features film Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris, based on Paul Gallico’s 1958 novel, costume designer Jenny Beavan takes on re-creating the looks of the legendary Christian Dior, who revolutionized fashion in 1947 with the introduction of his sumptuous wasp-waisted, full-skirted and rounded-shoulder “New Look” silhouette.
“Oh gosh, it was a really tough one,” says Beavan, about balancing the depiction of a captivating story and Dior’s enduringly influential design, which serves as a central plot device in the Anthony Fabian-directed fashion fable.
In 1957 London, brokenhearted housekeeper Ada Harris (Lesley Manville) is mesmerized by her aristocratic employer’s floral-appliquéd Dior gown, christened “Ravissante.” The glimmering confection serves as a sartorial catalyst for Mrs. Harris, still mourning her husband’s WWII disappearance, to feel love again as she embarks on a Parisian adventure to secure her own Dior.
The dress needed to enchant the flower-loving Mrs. Harris, reflect the hauteur of its upper-crust-y owner Lady Dant (Anna Chancellor) and, importantly, “it obviously had to look like a Dior,” says Beavan, who won her third Oscar for her fantastical costumes in Cruella. So Beavan interpreted a Spring-Summer 1949 Haute Couture cocktail dress that evoked the bouquet of the Miss Dior fragrance through a profusion of hand-sewn lily of the valley, rose, lilac and forget-me-not petals.
For the film (out July 15), Beavan had insider access. After Fabian and producers contacted Dior, the now-LVMH-owned house jumped on board and welcomed Beavan into its storied Héritage archives. “I had the most fantastic afternoon in Paris with Madame Soizic Pfaff, who is the chief archivist,” says Beavan. During her visit to the temperature-controlled treasure trove of fashion history, she studied Monsieur Dior’s sketches, fabric samples, runway show notes and precious garments.
“To see the real thing is absolutely amazing and to look inside to see exactly how Dior did his little inner corsets and boning,” says Beavan.
Much to her surprise, she wasn’t able to rely on the expertise of the in-house couturiers at Dior, instead taking on the actual, and daunting, haute couture production process herself. “They take months to make the clothes, and we had weeks or days, if that,” says Beavan, also citing pandemic challenges in sourcing near-excessive amounts of luxurious fabric needed for opulent, postwar Dior. So she assembled her Avengers of costume design (and Dior construction experts) to build the Dior re-creations from scratch: costume maker Jane Law and Cosprop founder/costume maker John Bright, who shares an Oscar with Beavan for 1985’s A Room With a View.
Upon arriving in Paris, Mrs. Harris essentially crashes Dior’s 10th Anniversary runway show in her charming, guileless manner. Entranced, she marvels at the groundbreaking fashion, starting with the “Bar” suit, which was borrowed for the film from the Dior Héritage collection along with four mostly black-and-white pieces. The navy-and-white polka-dotted “Porto Rico,” worn by the film’s Dior muse, Natasha (Alba Baptista), is pristine vintage from Bright’s archives.
Beavan estimates the team precisely replicated 16 original looks, from a bridal finale gown — a couture requisite — to chic day dresses and stunning evening gowns in exquisite hues like the film’s graceful aquamarine “Irlande” dress. “[Dior] was a master of color,” says Beavan.
Beavan also embraced jewel tones for two additional plot-driving Dior reimaginings, which make Mrs. Harris audibly gasp, including the scarlet “Temptation” gown, which is based on a sequin and velvet-embroidered “Diablotine” dress from the Fall-Winter 1957 Haute Couture collection.
“I wanted to honor Dior,” says Beavan. “I wanted to make sure it did not look like a Jenny Beavan attempt at Dior. I really, really wanted people to just believe and not worry about it.”
This story first appeared in the July 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.