“The Dresser” was not only intensely personal for Anthony Hopkins in returning to his bittersweet theatrical roots, but also for costume designer Fotini Dimou (“Ripley’s Game”) — the real dresser, so to speak.
The World War II-set backstage drama about the symbiotic relationship between an aging English actor, Sir (Hopkins), and his personal assistant, Norman (Ian McKellen), brilliantly explores the tension between approval and rejection.
“Dressers were like personal assistants and looked after the stars in every way,” explained Dimou. “And what I researched is how these companies used to work. They didn’t have designers as such but what they had was a wardrobe mistress or master or the chief dresser, the role that Norman plays, who provides the costumes for the actor/manager, who ran the company.”
“The Dresser,” by Ronald Harwood (who had personal experience as a dresser), first opened in London’s West End in 1980 and was adapted into a film in 1983 starring Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay.
Dimou researched the period of clothing worn during World War II in England, as well as the theaters at that time. And touring was a completely different world. It was about being thrifty and preserving costumes.
“There were found things, bought things, patched up things,” Dimou continued. “This goes back to the time of Shakespeare. It was what they felt would suit each character for each actor. And nobody had money during the War. Sir probably had things commissioned for himself.”
Dimou’s brief from director Richard Eyre (“The Hollow Crown” series) was simple: “Look at the period, look at how these people did it and try and do this for me, as if you are choosing stuff that you found in a market or a costume shop,” she recalled.
“The Dresser” centers around Sir’s touring performance of “King Lear,” the perfect metaphor for adoration and rejection. For that, Dimou researched medieval history and costumes.
“Then I tried to superimpose on that the way a theatrical person would imagine how they should dress,” explained the costume designer. “So we’re talking about layers and layers and layers of ideas. So you start out with the crown and velvet tunic and another piece over it and another.”
As far as dressing Sir in civilian clothes, Hopkins reminded Dimou that he’s also a business person. “So we wanted to show this in his first suit and the coat and the hat. There was the pride of that costume that used to be really beautiful at another time in his life,” she suggested.
Sir wears a three-piece suit with shirt and added collar. An important detail about the collar was that it was starched by Norman, which, of course, distinguished Sir from the rest of the touring company.
Not surprisingly, McKellen gave Dimou valuable advice about dressing Norman. “He said to me that he would have somebody knit for him and probably it would’ve been his mother,” she noted.
“And that’s how we got the idea of him wearing the two knitted vests. And we hand-knitted the vests. I even hand-knitted his socks. So his character is built around the idea of keeping everything practical.”
Norman’s got his apron on and he has his cup of tea and he’s ready to assist Sir, including giving him pep talks when he’s depressed because, after all, the dresser is indispensable.
“The Dresser” is available on DVD from Anchor Bay and Digital HD from Starz Digital.