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Oscar Retrospective: The Danish Girl

The complexities of gender-fluidity are nothing new to humanity (even though the vocabulary for it is still being coined). So it's only logical that cinema would, throughout its history, touch upon it at some point.


And so, The Danish Girl is hardly the first movie to deal with a man feeling like a woman or wanting to be one. But it's one of the most visible. Why? Perhaps because it bases itself on a true story or perhaps because it's also the most recent one dealing with the subject.


It's a competent movie coined by a competent director, but it's main problem is that it's not very memorable. It's a movie that we've seen a million times over: the inspirational biopic (which, by now, it's a genre in and on itself). You know what's going to happen, and how everything is going to transpire from the get-go. So it's hard to be truly interested.


This is terribly unfortunate, because it IS a subject matter that deserves more visibility. Still, the fact that it is so through and through an Oscar Bait movie does not help the product.

But, in regards to what matters here (this is called "The costume vault" after all), the costume design for this movie is... jarring to say the least. Not because it's badly designed, but because it's profoundly inaccurate, historically speaking.

GENDER-BENDING THE 1920's

The costume design for the movie was created by Paco Delgado, a Spanish Costume Designer with a long trajectory in Spanish cinema with works such as Crimen Ferpecto (Álex de la Iglesia, The Perfect Crime, 2004), Los crímenes de Oxford (Álex de la Iglesia, The Oxford Murders, 2008), Biutiful (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2010), La piel que habito (Pedro Almodóvar, The Skin I Live In, 2011) and Blancanieves (Pablo Berger, 2012). It wasn't until 2012 that he jumped to the international scene with Tom Hooper's Les miserables, and The Danish Girl (also by Tom Hooper, 2015). He was nominated for both works, but won none.

Before we tackle the more narrative aspects of the designs, let me get something out of the way: the historical aspect.

WHY THE HELL? WHEN THE HELL? HOW THE HELL?

Yes; that does not sound very articulate, but that's my inner monologue throughout the whole first half of this movie. So, let me clarify. I usually give way more weight to the narrative instead of the more historical aspects. I believe that narrative is more important than accuracy in most cases. But when the inaccuracies cause me to spend more than half the run time being completely jarred by the decisions made by the costume department, then something's truly wrong.

Right off the bat, we are explicitly told that the story begins in 1926, and yet, throughout all the first half of the movie, the characters are systematically dressed in 1915-1919's costumes. Not 1920's, much less, 1926. And it's so transparent... because the 20's fashion is so iconic and easy to identify, that anyone can tell that it's historically wrong.

This is what 1926 looked like, fashion-wise:



And this definetely does not look like this:


Those gowns are, unmistakably, balls-to-the-wall late Edwardian Fashion (excuse my language, this is really upsetting). These are, hands down, 1915's gowns.


It's true that there are a few 1920-ish gowns thrown in that first half, but they don't represent the vast majority. So, I've you are going to ignore the period for the sake of character, then don't specify the period!! And people will just assume that the story begins during the 1910's and ends around the 1930's.

Which, to add insult to injury, is exactly what happened. The movie compresses the "transformation" of Einar Wegener into Lili in 4 years (from 1926 to 1930), but in real life, he started dressing as a woman around 1912 throughout the whole next two decades until she managed to access the gender reassignment operations in 1930.

This completely baffles me in a way that actually detracted enormously from my enjoyment of the film. It's a mistake that could have been easily avoided if only they had never specified a date. And that angers me.

With that out of the way, I'm going to try to focus on the narrative, even though I will dutifully point out the historical inaccuracies as we go on.

FROM EINAR TO LILY

Einar Wegener was a Danish transgender woman and one of the first recipients of the sex reassignment surgery. He was also a very successful painter. Since he was a little boy, he felt he had something wrong with him. It wasn't until he tried on a dress to pose for his wife that he realize that he felt he was truly a woman. At least that's the quick version of it. So how did Delgado translate this into costume?

The main idea behind the designs for Einar before the transition is a very simple one: create a restrictive and uncomfortable wardrobe to underline the idea that he exists in a body in which he doesn't belong.


Hence the tightly fitted and structured, high-collared suits made of rigid and heavy fabrics. They serve to accentuate the feeling that he is physically restrained. It's a prison for his body, as well as an armor (with which he protects himself from the outer world).


Our point of departure was always to think that Lili was trapped in a body that didn't belong to her. Therefore we had to create almost a prison-like idea, where she was in prison in the masculine body and that's the reason we created this sort of very restricted [costume] in the beginning of the movie. Also showing the society that was surrounding the couple with blues and grays and blacks and Edwardian ideas in fashion.                                                                      --- Paco Delgado, costume designer --- 

And here is what I meant when I said that his amazing work with character only serves in detriment to the period. He actually admits to using Edwardian fashion, that would have been at least 10 years out of use by the time the movie starts to accentuate the repression of the character. As said before; either you start your movie 10 years earlier or you find another way to reflect that. At least that's our point of view here.

With that out of the way, let's examine the character's transition and how it's portrayed through dress, which becomes very important because Einar's exploration seem to start with a fascination towards feminine clothing more than anything else (at least in the movie).

The first time that she appears completely dressed as a woman is at a party, mostly played as a game between Gerda and himself.


This is a very dramatic dress, very layered and very Edwardian (just pointing it out). The color palette is very muted and discreet, which mirrors the shyness he has about coming out dressed like that.

This dress is actually gorgeous, no doubt about that, but it's completely out of period and I don't get it, especially because in that same scene, some of the other characters are dressed in time appropriate clothing.


It just looks really weird to me. The designer claims to have been inspired by the designs of Jeanne Lanvin (very important designer of the 20's) who used a lot of high waists on his designs even when these weren't fashionable.

And then Lili I thought a lot about Lanvin, we took a lot of inspiration from a style of clothes that Lanvin used to callrobe de style: much more theatrical, with a lot of emphasis on the waist that created an ideal of a woman.                                                                  --- Paco Delgado, costume designer --- 

And he is right, Lanvin's work is much more feminine that your standard 20's dress, but it's nothing like the dresses they ended up using for Lili.

But despite all my complaining, most of her dresses are not so glaringly out of period. Most of her costumes, during her first outings as a woman, are early 1920's at least.


And they stick to the same idea of using cold, muted and discreet colors. She's not trying to call attention to herself and she's actually sort of terrified about what she's doing. So it makes sense that she would dress as simple as possible.


It's not until she moves to Paris that Lili becomes freer to be herself and, because of this, she starts wearing more cutting edge fashion (meaning actually late 20's fashion for the first time in the movie) and bolder and warmer colors.

Then when they moved to Paris and Lili is freer to be herself, we tried to use much more avant garde fashion of the period and we used a warmer palette and different fabrics like silks and chiffons just to show movement and a much freer spirit.                     --- Paco Delgado, costume designer --- 

The first of these dresses is this gorgeous silk ochre dress that Lili wears when an old childhood friend comes to visit her.


This dress is amazing, and it serves to portray her liberation. She has fully accepted herself and the designs show it: she looks more relaxed (here is where the fluid fabrics and loose, dropped waist line really help).


As you will have noticed by now, scarves are a key element for Lili, basically because it's a good way to cover the actor's Adam's apple.

It's a very important subject, because Eddie has Adam's apple, and that's obviously very masculine. From the very beginning, when were in the first stages, when were deciding which colors were good for Lili, we put ourselves in the situation and thought, what would you do if you were Lili and you had an Adam's apple and you wanted to hide it? You do a really high neckline or you try to disguise it with something. And then the scarf became, in a way, a metaphor of who Lili was and the relationship between Lili and Gerda, how intricate and how close they were together and that's passing between them constantly. And finally, when it flies to the air in freedom, we wanted to show that freedom. We wanted to epitomize this freedom and her soul, coming into history, into something fuller.                                               --- Paco Delgado, costume designer --- 

During this period she is also portrayed wearing gender-neutral suits that create a very androgynous, 1920's appropriate look.


As she arrives in Germany we see her in this perfect green velvet dress that helps accentuate her full acceptance of Lili; she wants to be Lili, and she has no doubt or fear about it. She is not hiding anymore.


Once she goes back to Denmark, we go back to the darker colors, but the costumes are clearly late 1920's and the shapes are modern and daring. She is a woman, and she does not call attention to herself (hence the darker colors), because she doesn't need to do it to reassert her femininity.


All in all, character wise, the designs for Lili are good. But the obsession to create a waist for her works against the period more often than not. Apparently this was the actor's obsession: he needed a waist in order to feel feminine... and I'm just going to refrain from commenting on the stupidity...

He [Eddie Redmayne] wanted to have a waist, like a waisted figure for Lili. But the ’20s fashion was a waist-less sort of style. So, we had to make a compromise between the ’20s style and what we thought was good for Lili. That was part of the challenge.                                                                    --- Paco Delgado, costume designer --- 

GERDA'S SACRIFICE

Gerda Wegener, wife to Einar, is, in my opinion, the best character in the movie. And somehow, quite inexplicably, will end up demoted from being a liberated woman to being a devoted and meek wife by the end of the movie. This is probably the thing that enrages me the most about the movie. And that transition is also shown through costume.

During the first half of the movie, her costumes follow a very clear pattern: a restricted palette of blues, blacks and grays, and very tightly tailored dresses with stiff high-collars which are, basically, following 1919's fashion.


But, when she's in the comfort of her painting studio, she is dressed in a very freeing (and modern) light blue suit that she only uses when working. It's in those scenes, as well, when we see her strong will and defiance towards what the world tells her (which, basically, is that she will never be as good as her husband).


Also, her clothes are generally very practical, highlighting that she is a working woman. She is not like Einar, who is a dreamer. She knows what it takes to get what you want and she knows that doing that is hard and requires work: hence the practicality.


Her party dress is a gorgeous baby blue, fitted-waist dress that helps highlight how pretty she is (and gives Einar a reason to think that nobody will think that Lily is pretty if she's standing next to Gerda). But it's also very out of period.


It's not until they get to Paris that Gerda finally starts to dress as a 1920's woman; finally starting wearing low-cut waists and finally sporting a bob (which was THE hairstyle in the 20's).


But, whilst Einar's character gets liberated by the change, Gerda's seems chained by it. As she becomes desperate to help Einar (in whatever capacity or manner), she progressively starts more and more to wear a wardrobe that reminds us of the abnegate wife imaginary created by early cinema.


The hat, the coat... everything throws us back to the devoted wife stereotype portrayed in early cinema. It especially reminds me of the virtuous, devoted wife of Sunrise, the F.W.Murnau's classic of the late 1920's.


There are a couple of times during the second act where she strays away from that; basically when she is considering starting an affair with Einar's best friend (which she never does, because she is devoted.... as the movie goes out of its way to underline).


This second dress (the blue and silver one), is probably my favorite outfit of the whole movie. But it's fleeting and only appears in this very brief scene. Then she's back to the devoted wife role.


It's so enraging that during the third act she's basically reduced to just holding his hand when he is in pain.


After his death she gets a quite nice early 1930's outfit, but you barely have time to see it on screen, and the image it presents is a far cry from the strong woman the movie introduced us to. It's such a shame.


But, what makes it even more shameful is the fact that most of what this movie tells us about her is false: she was never a devoted wife, she was an artist on her own right and actually a lesbian (and lived as such), hence the erotic paintings she did of Lili. She cared for Lili, but did not put a hold on her life in order to go hold her hand. She had her own life aside from Lili. So, it seems that, in order to tell Lili's story faithfully, they completely twisted Gerda's, because she's less important... or at least that's what this movie tells us.

CONCLUSION

The Danish Girl is a movie that it's too standard and safe for it's own good. It's pure Oscar Bait. It takes the safest route every time and takes zero risks; both in style and in theme and story. This is a movie that needed to be thought-provoking to truly succeed. How else was it going to challenge preconceived ideas about gender and everything that strays out of the norm otherwise?

Instead, we get a movie that is afraid to take big risks and that, deep down, is profoundly retrograde (involuntarily so, but still). Why change Gerda's sexuality? Why shy away from Lili's bohemian life in Paris? Why not use a real transgender actor?

And as for costume; the fact that it blatantly ignores period so often ruins it for me almost completely. It's a good character design, but this is still a period piece. For me, this was the most undeserved Best Costume Design nomination this year, undoubtedly. Crimson Peak should have been nominated instead of this one.

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