Authenticity Sparks ‘Out of Africa’ Costume Designs
Early in the film “Out of Africa,” a young woman tells Baroness Karen Blixen (Meryl Streep) that she doesn’t think much of her wedding hat because it will neither keep out mosquitoes nor prevent sunstroke.
“Well,” Blixen replies, “it’s meant to be stunning.”
Stunning it is. Made of white silk with antique embroidery, it is one of many hats Streep wears through the film, in which she plays an elegantly attired Danish settler who arrives in colonial Kenya--with her Limoges and crystal--destined for marriage and adventure.
Together, Streep and Robert Redford, who plays dashing Denys Finch Hatton, also manage to glamorize pith helmets, jodhpurs and safari shirts in a way that the Banana Republic never could.
It was the task of costume designer Milena Canonero, who won Oscars for “Barry Lyndon” and “Chariots of Fire,” to research the 10-year span, starting in 1914, and create the hundreds of costumes worn by the movie’s African peoples, white hunters and European aristocrats.
From the day she was hired until the day shooting began in Nairobi, Canonero had three months to design and produce the costumes. She says the project took her from the New York Public Library to the museums and costume houses of England and Italy, to Blixen’s home in Denmark and, of course, to Africa--where she consulted with anthropologist Richard Leakey--in order to come up with costumes true to the people and the period.
“It’s not easy to find references in books showing what the Somalis wore in those days,” Canonero says. Costumes for the lead characters and other non-Africans were made in London, while those of the local people were made in a workshop she set up in Nairobi.
The Italian-born designer, who has home bases in London, Rome and now Los Angeles, says 30% of the wardrobe and most of Streep’s hats were original period pieces that she either rented, borrowed or lent from her personal collection.
With the arrival of the rains, which plagued the entire production, Canonero says she was often sent scrambling to save the rented hats and shoes--”those are very precious. Oh, it was dreadful. We had to jump.”
In spite of logistical problems, Canonero still prefers using original clothes whenever possible.
“First, they’re better. Second, they’re cheaper.” However, she says, period safari clothes “do not exist anymore. They have not survived.”
Although she did find an original safari shirt at Morris Angel, a London costume house, she primarily relied on photographs for details such as the size of pockets on men’s safari shirts.
Wherever she went, Canonero took along her Nikon--outfitted with a close-up lens for capturing small details--to photograph any visual references she could find. Then she compiled her own reference library.
“I have the best library on African tribes--Kikuyu, Somali, Masai,” she boasted in a recent interview. “I’m now quite an expert on them.”
The designer also immersed herself in literary works by and about Baroness Blixen, whose pen name was Isak Dinesen. This included all of Dinesen’s fiction and personal letters as well as several biographies. She also read a biography of Finch Hatton.
Dinesen’s own writings “helped tremendously” in providing Canonero with clues about the kinds of clothes she wore.
“She makes reference to clothes she had shipped from Paris,” Canonero says. “She said in one letter she wore a white suit to her wedding. I’m sure she had a very simple suit, but I wanted to make a little more of it. I decided to make it very French, a la mode. “
Canonero also says Blixen very often referred to a love of hats.
“There are lots of photographs of her with lots and lots of different hats. In one letter, she wrote that one thing that lifted her up was to get a new hat.”
Consequently, Canonero says she “made a point” of putting hats on Streep, although she adds: “I love hats. Whenever you see my movies, if the characters allow it, I use them . . . if it doesn’t go against the grain of the character.”
In Denmark, Canonero met with Blixen Dinesen’s nieces and nephews, who remember her quite well and who supplied more photographs for her to study. Yet Canonero says the only item from Blixen’s own wardrobe she could find was a gold pin she wore with her riding habit, which was lent by the author’s biographer, Judith Thurman.
Dressed in corduroy trousers, an oversize white blazer rolled up at the sleeves, a white T-shirt and lace-up ankle-length boots (“my Donald Duck boots”), Canonero’s own appearance gives no clue to her profession. Her “mentor,” she says, is Italian costume designer Piero Tosi (“The Damned,” “Death in Venice”). Of the American film designers, she says she “adores” Adrian, Jean Louis and “some of Edith Head.”
Canonero says she particularly enjoyed working in the period of the early 1900s, because unlike the Edwardian and Victorian periods or earlier, the clothes aren’t “costumey”--they could be adapted and worn today.
“I’m not trying to do anything that affects fashion,” Canonero cautions. “If the clothes influence fashion, it is because fashion is already there.”
Although her costumes for “Chariots of Fire” covered a similar period, from 1918 to 1924, Canonero says the clothes for the two movies didn’t overlap.
“ ‘Chariots of Fire’ was England, mainly in the winter. Of course, a man’s white summer suit in England in 1918 is not much different from a man’s white suit in Kenya in 1918, but overall there was no crossover.”
The designer says she was pleased with the final product of the film.
“I liked the way (director producer) Sydney Pollack told the story,” she says, adding that Pollack “got involved in everything,” including her work. “He didn’t like things to look new, and now and then he’d shout at me to add a little more color, so I’d throw in a scarf.”
Canonero says she tried to keep the clothes of lead characters in neutral colors--khakis, whites, ivories, and some black and navy for Streep--and leave the brighter colors for the Africans.
“Can you imagine Karen Blixen walking out in a lilac dress? What I found of original clothes seemed to be all muted colors, and also, for me, they blend better with the story, the setting and I hope with what Pollack had in mind.”
Canonero mentions that the movie’s stars--Streep and Redford--both have their “own styles of wearing their clothes. Meryl is fantastic. She gets into the character she is playing very, very thoroughly.”
As for Redford: “He’s got a very good figure. Everything you put on him, whether he likes it or not, looks good.”
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