In Wash Westmoreland’s “Colette,” the most famous female writer of the early 20th century –played by Keira Knightley– dressed the part in subversive fashion. Which provided the perfect opportunity for costume designer Andrea Flesch to express the forward-thinking, androgynous icon through her wardrobe.
“I tried to design her style by her writings, by her inner thoughts, by her strong behavior and not caring what others think,” said Flesch. “So I put the image of masculinity in her wardrobe, even when it was sexy or feminine. Ties and very simple cuts and this black-and-white, which is the most elegant thing but very different. And I always gave her a tie pin with a meaning: her pet bulldog.”
Colette’s journey consisted of ghost writing her autobiographical coming-of-age story in the popular “Claudine” novels for husband/publisher Willy (Dominic West). But then after Willy sells off all ownership rights to the character, Colette leaves him and pens her own popular novels, finding her voice professionally and sexually, and becoming a proto-rock star.
The costume designer’s journey began by studying period photographs and the paintings of Jean-Georges Béraud, Fernand Toussaint, and Édouard Vuillard. This allowed her to reproduce some of Colette’s actual wardrobe with authentic fabrics. “I made my designs and searched all over the world to find them in original clothing,” said Flesch. “I wanted the colors and fabrics [true] to the time.
“They can no longer make these kinds of fabrics. And nobody can sew in that way, so detailed. Obviously I had to make new clothes for her, but even when I bought new fabrics, I was never OK with it. You don’t get the same feeling from the paintings of the era. I wanted to recreate the portrait paintings.”
According to the costume designer, Colette, in real life, was beguiling, and it wasn’t surprising that she was one of the most photographed women in France. Flesch especially enjoyed dressing Knightley in a way completely different from the actress’ more opulent costume dramas (“Anna Karenina” and “Pride & Prejudice”), and definitely without a corset. Here she wore subdued-looking dresses and suits (gray and brown in addition to black-and-white).
One of the lone exceptions was the yellow dress she wears in the beginning. “That was one of the most difficult things,” said Flesch. “It had to be a dress that was fine in the countryside but out of place at a Paris party. It’s an original dress that I found in the States at an antique shop.”
Another challenge was the gold lame Egyptian costume that Colette wears when dancing on stage with her lover, French noblewoman and artist, Mathilde de Morny (Denise Gough). “I remade the Egyptian dress from a costume to present the authentic feeling,” Flesch said. “And the difficulty with it was she had to wear it, and sometimes when she was dancing it was a problem around her legs. But we solved it. I also made crown for her but it was too heavy for Keira to wear.”
Flesch’s takeaway of Colette as an early 20th century fashion icon was simple: “Not everything had to look beautiful and perfect because, in reality, there were imperfections. I wanted [her clothes] to look lived in.”