In the touching new comedy Mrs. Harris Goes To Paris, starring Leslie Manville, a sweet and unassuming British housekeeper falls madly, inexplicably in love with a Dior dress. So much so, she saves up all the money she can, and goes to Paris to get a couture confection for herself. It’s been adapted for the screen before, from the original 1958 novel by Paul Gallico, but writer and director Anthony Fabian, along with costume designer Jenny Beavan, production designer Luciana Arrighi, and set decorator Nora Talmaier, went to great lengths to create a breathtaking fashion show in which Manville’s Mrs. Harris falls madly in love with a gown called Temptation.
“I have a confession,” said Fabian in an interview earlier this week. “I have never in my life had a hankering for a Dior dress.”
Nonetheless, Fabian’s film encapsulates the irrational, magical pull that fashion has on the imagination, and the way we might behave ridiculously in pursuit of a great dress. Most charmingly, this is not a tale of consumerist shaming but of sweetness and longing, which is what drew Fabian to the source material to begin with: “There’s a kind of wonderful karmic message at the center of the film which really appealed to me,” he said, “which is that if you’re kind, that kindness will come back to you in some way.” It’s not a message that we hear much in fashion, which makes it all the more pleasurable.
The fashion show scene, which shows a 10th anniversary collection from which Mrs. Harris selects her dream gown, is the film’s most breathtaking creation. While much of fashion is about fantasy, of course, Fabian’s team was obsessive about historic accuracy, down to the flowers that appear throughout the film, all of which, Talmaier said, “were popular and available period- and season-wise”. In large part, the film owes its sense of midcentury authenticity to production designer Luciana Arrighi, who in fact modelled for Yves Saint Laurent and visited the Dior atelier. “As I had been to Dior in past times, it was good to recall,” Arrighi wrote in a handwritten note, her script neatly looping and glorious. She even showed the actors serving as models how to walk: “We moved smoothly on the floor and in the centre showing the dresses. But also making contact with the audience. All this meant that we showed a love for the creation and devotion that made our beautiful dresses.”
The current team at Dior was a great help, as well, helping Arrighi develop plans for the salon and providing some props, plus granting Fabian and Beavans access to their archives and lending a few garments, like the famous Bar Jacket and Corolle skirt, famously deemed “The New Look” by then-Harper’s Bazaar editor-in-chief Carmel Snow, which opens the show. “We wanted to show a range of dresses from across [Christian Dior’s] output as well as to create the natural dramatic arc of a fashion show as they did then,” explained Fabian. “So starting with the day wear and the cocktail dresses and the ball gowns, there's a kind of natural build of drama through that.”
Some of these looks were remakes done by the house in the 1980s or 1990s, Beavan explained, while costume designer John Bright was able to unearth a true original, the black and white spotted dress called The Costa Rica, in the back of his archives. “I asked Dior and they said, well, actually it was a very popular dress. A lot were made. So if one is going to turn up in the back of a costume house, it was likely to be that one.” That dress didn’t have its “insides,” as Beaven put it, or the undergarment that gave the dress its shape and made the fabric move, though she and her team were able to recreate one.
In fact, several of the other looks were dreamed up by Beavan to look Dior-esque and executed by Bright and Jane Lauren. “One needed fabric with a sense of sculpture and something with a bit of strength,” she explained, but the pair also understood how Dior cut and how those “insides” were made. When asked what she learned from examining the original Dior dresses up close, Beavan said, “I think it was how ordinary they were,” she said. They were “beautifully done,” of course, but what was clear from examining the dresses was how much about the client, about the woman, Dior was thinking. The dress became something extraordinary when the person for whom it was created put it on.
But it isn’t simply the clothes that seduce Mrs. Harris and the moviegoing audience. Fabian wanted to rebuild “the whole of the interior of Dior in a studio, so that everything is in the correct relationship with everything else. The public comes up the grand staircase, they come to an anteroom, then there's the salon where the show takes place. Through a corridor, you have the dressing room where the models put on their makeup and get dressed and across that corridor, they go into the salon or they do a loop through the salon, past the staircase, and back into the dressing room.” They ran the fashion show as an actual fashion show, calling the numbers in sequence and changing into new looks in the dressing room.
As Talmaier put it, the purpose of the couture salon was “to show how exclusive Dior was,” a reality Mrs. Harris confronts when the house’s sales director, played by Isabelle Huppert, attempts to have her removed from the salon before a kindly patron invites the fashion hopeful into the show as his guest. “We had tons of real exclusive rolls of fabrics [and] accessories, from feathers, lace, thread, [and] pearls to mannequins you can see,” Talmaier continues. The mannequins were provided by Dior, as were some of the furnishings. From the largest pieces of furniture to the smallest decoration pieces, everything was either custom-made or an original from an antiques shop.
From the mannequins to the lighting fixtures, there is a sense of worshipful elegance. Each lighting fixture, from the round globe lights in the dressing room to the crystal chandelier in the client-facing salon, was chosen with a historical reference, and a sense of how the house’s then-clients would have felt therein, in mind. “It was important to show that every beautiful dress was made by hand,” Talmaier said, and that, “every customer was treated like a queen during the whole process of a dress or gown coming to life.
That doesn’t only come from the objects, of course, but the coloyrs and tones, too. The team developed “a dreamy white,” as Arrighi put it, that the team deemed “Dior grey”. The curtains are Dior grey, as are the walls. Arrighi did a number of tests on the set walls to see which particular whitish grey would scan best on film and, as Talmaier said, “for the Dior world at the same time”.
The casting, too, was true to Dior’s history: Christian Dior used models from all over the world, including a Black woman from America, Dorothea Towles Church, and Alla Ilchun, from Kazakhstan, which Fabian reflected in his own staging of the show.
“The elegant, rich surrounding with 100 per cent Lesley Manville adorableness is the key for the balance,” says Talmaier. “Even if Mrs. Harris isn’t wealthy, she is a great, lovely, neat lady. Her pure kindness glows.”
But of course, the very purpose of a fashion show helped the team, too. “The function of a real salon is, I think, the theatrical staging and hence the performance of the models to achieve the dreamlike wishes of the customers,” Arrighi wrote.
The lighting of the film was essential to the mood, especially “the sense of dreaming and fantasy,” Arrighi explained. When Mrs. Harris sees Temptation, a burst of sunlight hits her face and she bursts forward, practically floating with joy. “Whenever I've fallen in love,” Fabian mused, “I have this feeling of falling into a vortex, of the whole world pulling away and disappearing around me and just literally falling into this vortex. That was the feeling that I wanted to create.”
That is a feeling that Dior likely shared. “You must understand,” Arrighi wrote, “that Dior and even later YSL loved their creations and their devoted workers.”
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