For fashion insiders, the star of Phantom Thread isn’t newcomer Vicky Krieps or Oscar contender Lesley Manville. Instead, it’s two people – Sue Clark and Joan Brown. Playing the women who run Reynolds Woodcock’s atelier in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1950s fashion tale, Clark and Brown are not budding actors but real-life seamstresses whose hands have touched countless couture gowns. Clark, 67, spent her working life as a fashion teacher, while Brown, 71, learned her trade at Savile Row tailor Hardy Amies and fashion house Worth. They are now volunteers at the V&A’s Clothworkers Centre archive, where they bring their expertise to the museum’s fashion collection. That’s where Anderson, on a visit to study the work of mid-century designers, found them, and cast them in his film.
It is details such as these that make Phantom Thread something of an exception for fashion, a world more accustomed to seeing itself on screen in an exaggerated form, in films from Funny Face to Zoolander.
Anderson’s film is a study of Daniel Day-Lewis’s Woodcock – a mix of mid-century couturiers such as Amies, Charles James and Cristóbal Balenciaga, and the technique and craft that became the objects of their obsession.
Rather than take place in the more familiar environs of Paris, it is set in the postwar world of London couture. Woodcock is a control freak who lives among a coterie of women catering to his every creative whim. These include his sister, Cyril, played by Manville, and Krieps’s Alma, a waitress whom he turns into a muse for his creations.
While the rarified world of a Fitzrovia townhouse in inner London, Belgian princesses and white-coated seamstresses might date Phantom Thread, this scenario of a designer atelier, or versions of it, have arguably played out in fashion since the industry began, and remain familiar today. To discuss how much Phantom Thread chimes with fashion then and now, four insider names give their verdict:
Alistair O’Neill, professor of fashion history and theory, Central Saint Martins, London
Phantom Thread paints a largely authentic picture of London couture in the 50s. Day-Lewis handles a needle beautifully, his fingertips dry and splitting, punctured with pin-pricked blood spots. The house of Woodcock is set in a handsome townhouse on Fitzroy Square and its layout and many of the scenes played out in it are reminiscent of the house that Hardy Amies restored after the war at 14 Savile Row. It too has two sets of stairs, a larger one at the front for clients, and a smaller and concealed set at the back for staff. Its first-floor salon was also used for fashion shows and client fittings. There are fashion editorials published in British Vogue in the late 40s where Amies poses next to his model in a tuxedo like a handsome escort, and there is a fashion shoot scene in the film that is similar. The scene of Woodcock greeting a princess on the street as she arrives by chauffeur for her fitting makes me think of the 1952 photo of Amies and his seamstresses carrying Princess Elizabeth’s wardrobe down the steps of the house into a black cab set for Clarence House.
Like Woodcock, the French couturiers of the time were very superstitious. Coco Chanel was interested in numerology and Christian Dior used to pin lily of the valley into the linings of skirts prior to the fashion show, for luck.
The jewel tones of silk taffeta – amethyst, emerald and aquamarine – that much of Woodcock’s couture is made from are indebted to Cecil Beaton’s photograph of designs by Charles James taken in 1948. They are combined with lace detailing, which is a typical couture fabric, but the results are uneven. In the film, it works beautifully in the dress that makes use of an antique piece of Flemish (Brussels) lace, but less so in the dress Alma models with a lace apron at the skirt for the fashion show. This scene features Alma smiling as she walks, a detail that wouldn’t have been tolerated in a couture house at the time. The only emotion models were paid to show in the 50s was indifference, expressed with condescension and hauteur. In a recent obituary for Lady Astor, who worked as a fashion model in the period and was the muse of Pierre Balmain, journalist Katharine Whitehorn described her walk as “dirt-beneath-my-feet style of modelling”. The only other detail that feels off is the luminous quality of the film. Postwar London has never looked so bright.
Katie Grand, editor-in-chief of Love magazine
I thought it was really accurate, and there are so many parallels between how designers behave then and now. Within five minutes of watching the film, I thought: “It’s like being at work.” Creative people have unusual behaviours – they don’t want to talk to anyone before 12pm or they don’t talk to anyone after 6pm. Obsessive-compulsive is too harsh, but there are peculiarities. You get used to it and watching it in a film just made it more heightened.
I didn’t recognise Cyril as anyone specific, but it wouldn’t be unusual to have someone in a house who provides a lot of emotional support. You get accustomed to quirks – such as when Woodcock makes too much of the noise Alma makes eating her toast. I have seen Marc Jacobs eat chicken for lunch for more than 15 years. Mrs Prada always drinks tea and still water. But then, you learn the tastes in food and drink of anyone you spend a lot of time with. As for the muse relationship that Woodcock has with Alma, I have seen Jacobs work like that with the model Jamie Bouchet. He has collaborated with her for maybe 10 years, and he doesn’t like to see work in the raw form on anyone other than her.
All of the scenes that involve the fittings on Alma are very accurate – the standing around for hours, the fittings at 4am. Jamie is very patient. When something goes wrong, the atelier does have to work all through the night, as they do in the film when the wedding dress is torn. That’s the same as any creative arena though – I imagine it’s the same when you’re making an album.
The appointments with private clients, as seen in the film, felt real. I don’t think that process has changed all that much. I don’t know about London, but the couture houses in Paris now are similar to the atelier depicted in the film. When you work in a couture studio – such as Chanel or Dior – there are people with white coats. The atmosphere is super-respectful, everyone in those structures is very reverent to the designer, and there is an etiquette. I didn’t pay much attention to the clothes, but I was pleased to see that the structures underneath the clothes were correct. I was focused on that, rather than the silhouettes or fabrics.
Roksanda Ilincic, London fashion week designer
The mid-century is probably my favourite era. The volume, shape and line is so much what I am drawn to. It was also very interesting to watch a film about a designer. I am not so obsessive that I cannot have breakfast without silence, as Woodcock does, but I understand that to be creative you have to keep your thread of thought. When I’m designing, I’m usually in a room by myself. You see Woodcock collapse after the show, and it is true that you are emotionally and physically exhausted because this thing has been all you have thought about for such a long time. Even when you’re at home or with friends, you’re still thinking about it. When you first start working, it’s like work is the only thing that matters, as it is with Woodcock. It takes a long time for that obsession to go; for me it went after the birth of my daughter. I worked literally until I gave birth. Afterwards, I realised life needed to be a bit more balanced.
I identified with his attitude to his dresses; it’s as if they are alive. They are something so precious and dear to him, he can’t bear the idea of harm coming to them. I would never take a dress from a client, as he does, but you get so attached to your work. I have had dresses come back from photoshoots totally ruined and it’s heartbreaking.
I don’t have a particular muse, for me its more like a sisterhood of women. I can understand why one muse or woman, such as Alma, can epitomise everything, though. She’s not a drawing, she’s alive.
Woodcock has to appear at events and so do I. I wish being a designer was a bit less about being a public figure but spending time with my clients is important to me. They fall a little bit in love with the world you present as well as the dress. That time also really helps me understand their lifestyle and what they need.
My team don’t wear white coats in the studio, but they do have the same commitment to what they’re doing and they are almost proud to work hard, as they do in the film. Before every show you have some kind of disaster and we all work together to solve it. They are like a family. They have to be. I like the film’s idea of this beautiful house that is his whole world, there’s no need to leave the bubble. But, for me personally, I think it’s probably healthier to have a separate space.
Alexandra Shulman, ex-editor-in-chief, British Vogue
Fashion and fiction rarely make successful partners. There is something about the intangibility of what fashion is, alongside a widely held assumption that there is something inherently trivial, even fake about it, that means any fictional portrayal of the world veers to caricature. And this includes Phantom Thread. Daniel Day-Lewis’ character is a mashup of any number of designers.
Certainly the beautiful salon of his townhouse looked almost identical to the Amies’ Mayfair HQ I knew. And the intensity, dedication and near silent skills of the white-coated ladies – the petit mains – as they stitch and fit was identical to the scene in any famous couture house, whether London, Rome or Paris. The crisp character of Woodstock’s sister, Cyril, who runs his business and, in large part, his private life, was utterly convincing. It was a pitch-perfect depiction by Lesley Manville of the many people employed by some designers to enforce a protective ring that keeps away anybody or any information that might disturb their creativity.
But the general silliness of the plot, and the clunky cartoon-like behaviour that inhabits many episodes undermines so much of the real passion and industry that the film and Day-Lewis work hard to demonstrate. The combative relationship between Woodstock and his lover, Alma, struck me as unconvincing, while a scene where they snatch back a dress from a bulky, comatose Barbara Hutton-type is ridiculous and would have finished off his business. Luckily Day-Lewis’s physical beauty and his wonderful period wardrobe was some compensation for a tale I found simply unbelievable and peopled by characters that I had no sympathy for.
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