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Characters in literature are deepened by the details of what they wear. The value of fashion in literature conveys the mise en scène of a particular country, era, class, time of day, and personal circumstance. Description of fashion sheds light on personality, gender roles, class, aspirations, and sexual preference. That’s all well and good, but who makes the cut for best dressed characters in British literature as imagined by Hollywood’s most talented costume designers?
The following ten fictional characters live not only on the page of some of Britain’s most beloved literature, they’ve made their way to the silver screen. This fashion editor can’t help but wonder, was it their sartorial distinction that helped these British characters go Hollywood?
American novelist Patricia Highsmith creates the ultimate international playboy in Dickie Greenleaf, played divinely by Jude Law in Anthony Minghella’s cinematic adaptation that came out in 1999. Here’s how Highsmith describes him in her novel:
“Dickie was handsome. He looked unusual with his long, finely cut face, his quick, intelligent eyes, the proud way he carried himself regardless of what he was wearing. He was wearing broken-down sandals and rather soiled white pants now, but he sat there as if he owned the Galleria, chatting in Italian with the waiter when he brought their espressos.”
Well. Hello. Dickie Greenleaf might not be British, but Law is, and it’s Law’s penache that elevates Dickie’s style.
Mina Murray. Schoolmistress. Chaste fiancé. Vampire’s bride. Stoker’s treatment of Mina is quite feminist; her intelligence makes her the heroine of the book. Indeed, it’s Mina whose cunning research lead Van Helsing’s men to Castle Dracula. Stoker writes of Mina, “One of God’s women, fashioned by His own hand to show us men and other women that there is heaven where we can enter, and that its light can be here on earth. So true, so sweet, so noble.”
Japanese art director Eiko Ishioka won the Academy Award for Best Costume design for her work in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 film Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Note Mina’s top hat fascinator, worn by Winona Ryder, who in 1992 was fashion’s “it girl”. The green fascinator symbolizes Mina’s intelligence as being on par with a man’s—as Ishioka illustrates by putting Dracula, played by a smoldering Gary Oldman, in a top hat as well.
Sartorially speaking, it’s hard to argue that Dracula and Mina don’t make a smashing couple.
Way before people understood the notion of gender fluidity, Virginia Woolf imagined Orlando, an elusive, centuries-old figure who changes sexes midway through the novel. Orlando, played by Tilda Swinton in the 1992 film by the same name, is the original androgynous fashion icon. “Orlando had now washed, and dressed herself in those Turkish coats and trousers which can be worn indifferently by either sex,” writes Woolf.
Simultaneously the most powerful man in Venice yet tragically doomed to remain an outsider, Othello’s character speaks to, among other things, the casual cruelties of exclusion fashion can sometimes inflict. This editor can see Othello, if he were alive today, wearing Alexander McQueen or Rick Owens. Shakespeare, however, sees Othello as a man who elevates style, so much so that what he wears is of little consequence to how he is perceived. In the words of Desdemona, “I saw Othello’s visage in his mind.”
Still, it’s worth noting is how Othello, played by Laurence Fishburne in the 1995 film, keeps his eyebrows on fleek. Additionally, the goatee, earrings, and robes bring to mind Junya Watanabe for Comme Des Garçons, and convey a fashion bad boy if ever there was one.
In 2007, Keira Knightley portrayed Ceclia Tallis, in Atonement, based on Ian McEwan’s novel of the same name. Robbie Turner remembers Cecelia the free-spirited eldest Tallis sister, his childhood friend who becomes the object of his affection, especially after she tears off her clothes and jumps into a fountain. “An embroidered flower, a simple daisy, sewn between the cups of her bra. Her breasts wide apart and small. On her back a mole half covered by a strap. When she climbed out of the pond, a glimpse of the triangular darkness her knickers were supposed to conceal.”
Perhaps Cecilia makes the cut for being one of the best undressed characters in British literature. Then again, the above passage shows how lingerie can leave a lingering impression. Especially when wet.
William Makepeace Thackeray’s Regency period London comes alive with the enrapturing character of Becky Sharp. Reese Witherspoon, who plays Becky in Mira Nair’s 2004 film adaptation of Vanity Fair is resplendent, fashion-wise. The social climber uses everything from her green eyes to a guise of virtue to seduce and beguile the upper gentry in this pre-Victorian era. Thackeray writes of Becky (Rebecca), “Rebecca very modest and holding her green eyes downwards. She was dressed in white, with bare shoulders as white as—the picture of gentle unprotected innocence, and humble virgin simplicity.” Ah, cunning Becky knows how to use clothing to inhabit a role. Also worth noting: this is a woman who can blush on cue, creating a natural flush that just might have inspired this Spring/Summer 17’s obsession with natural highlighters.
Jack Hawkins, aka the Artful Dodger, might just be the original London hipster—streetwise and cheeky, and totally anti-establishment. To this end, the boy dressed in men’s clothing. Charles Dickens writes of Artful, “His hat was stuck on the top of his head so lightly, that it threatened to fall off every moment—and would have done so, very often if the wearer had not a knack of every now and then giving his head a sudden twitch, which brought it back to its old place again. He wore a man’s coat, which reached nearly to his heels.”
Harry Eden in the 2005 adaptation of Oliver Twist presents the audience with an Artful Dodger, whose look can be summed up in one word—swag.
One of Edith Wharton’s most memorable fashionistas, Lily Bart personifies the aging American socialite who will do anything to keep up appearances, even if it means going into debt for dresses. Played by Gillian Anderson in the 2000 film adaptation of The House of Mirth, Lily understands the transformational power of a gown. Wharton describes Lily laying her gowns on her bed in the most sensual manner: “As she spread them out on the bed the scenes in which they had been worn rose vividly before her. An association lurked in every fold: each fall of lace and gleam of embroidery was like a letter in the record of her past.”
One of the more stylish sociopaths in British literature, A Clockwork Orange‘s Alex places great value on clothing as a tool to distinguish himself from the “important suits” and “white-coats”. What makes his get-up so spectacular? The bowler hat. The black lace-up boots. The Twiggy-style eyelashes adorning only the right eyes. And of course the codpiece that denotes Alex’s “ultra-violent” sexuality. “‘I’d like to have her right down there on the floor with the old in-out, real savage,'” he says to his “droogs”.
Malcom McDowell immortalizes Alex in Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ novel. Three-time Academy Award winning costume designer Milena Canonero can be credited with bringing Alex’s look to the silver screen. She created a vision so hot, Rihanna paid homage to the look in her “You Da One” video more than three decades later.
Before GOOP, Gwyneth Paltrow was an Academy Award-winning actress, and her portrayal of Emma in the 1996 film by the same name helped launch her career. It’s arguable that any actress would shine given the role of Emma Woodhouse, one of Jane Austen’s most memorable heroines. Austen opens her novel with a description of Emma as “handsome, clever, and rich,” and Mrs. Weston admires her elegance. “Emma always give me the idea of being the complete picture of grown-up health. She is loveliness itself.”
Costume designer Ruth Myers dressed Paltrow in capped-sleeved gowns paired with the most fetching accessories. And the rest was sartorial movie magic, capturing the joie de vivre look many modern women, Paltrow included, emulate today.
Emma Woodhouse, reimagined as Cher Horowitz and played by Alicia Silverstone in Amy Heckerling’s 1990s cult classic film Clueless is a style icon in her own right. Who else could make yellow plaid look so on point?