Costume Party is a monthly column exploring fashion, personal style, and historical aesthetics in film.
The House of Mirth, Terence Davies’s 2000 adaptation of Edith Wharton’s novel, is an ultimately tragic film filled with sumptuous visuals. (The film plays twice at the Museum of the Moving Image this weekend as their Davies retrospective concludes.) Gillian Anderson plays Lily Bart, a socialite who finds herself entangled in social and financial pitfalls. The story takes place in the early 1900s, and while it offers the surface spectacle of seeing Anderson, well into her X-Files fame, in frilly dresses rather than her usual pantsuits, costume is an essential part of the narrative and how characters relate to their surroundings.
As an elegant society lady, Lily wears a variety of hats. In this world, accessories connote status and a veiled hat is particularly noteworthy for its simultaneous revealing and concealing of the wearer—an apt style metaphor for Lily, whose life is undone by social deceptions and the pettiness of class.
It seems that in this world outfits are rarely worn twice. The accessories always complement the outfits, and different outfits are designed for different settings. In the early 20th century world of leisure, a pale green jacket and skirt are specifically meant to be worn on a sunny day, in a verdant setting.
Accessories can convey romance. In an early sweet but doomed interlude between Lily and Lawrence Selden (Eric Stoltz), the unwealthy lawyer she loves, the two characters hold hands. Lily’s crocheted white suggests purity, and is more noticeable when touching Lawrence’s bare hand. The gloves are sweet and dainty, but later Lily will be clad in black.
The gilded chambers of wealthy New York life provide constant opportunities for costumes and sets to unite in draped elegance. In one particularly memorable image Lily, clad in a white silky dress that pools onto the ground, sits on a divan covered in jewel-toned fabrics.
The interplay of period costume and ornate settings can even sometimes take on a suffocating effect, as Lily begins to nearly blend into the frame.
In the film’s final scenes, Lily becomes a dreary (though still lovely) figure, wearing black and slinking into grayish, rainy surroundings.
It’s a long way from a memorable moment early in the film, wherein Lily poses as Summer in a tableau vivant at a social affair. The scene illustrates the preoccupations of the upper classes: beauty, composure, stillness. As Summer, Lily is a goddess in flowing fabrics, with everything light and airy.
“I think I like her best in that simple dress,” her cousin says. In this moment, Lily is indeed dressed comparatively simply, but being dressed simply in this setting, acting out a painting, is a function of class. As Lily loses her class standing her outfits become somewhat simpler, but far less likely to attract compliments. The best compliment, one that becomes deeply frustrating in the context of doomed love, comes from Selden: “You’re such a wonderful spectacle.”