Costumes of the Rich and French


The Movie: “Jefferson in Paris.”

The Setup: Romantic escapades of Thomas Jefferson (Nick Nolte, pictured) when he was America’s minister to France from 1784 to 1789.

The Costume Designers: Jenny Beavan and John Bright, who shared an Academy Award for “A Room With a View.” The pair also designed costumes for “The Remains of the Day,” “Maurice,” “The Bostonians” and “Howards End.” Bright, who owns the London costume house Cosprop, also did “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” and “Tess.”

The Look: Another costume epic from the Ismail Merchant/James Ivory school, involving more than 400 costumes. In this go-round, the filmmakers depart their familiar English Victorian/Edwardian territory to take on the court of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.


The extravagant dress of the French aristocrats is mind-boggling. Men in embroidered silks, women in padded dresses decorated with lace, ribbons, gauze and fringe. Completing the look are utterly bizarre hats made of poufy organza on light wire frames.

While Jefferson looks the part of the good, straightforward American, soberly attired in dark wool cutaway coats and waistcoats, he dons a powdered wig and silks at court, according to custom.

Good Hair Day: “Big hair” doesn’t begin to describe the towering masses of curls--the more enormous the better--worn by wealthy Frenchwomen. Hair designer Carol Hemming notes that a decade earlier in the period, wigs had reached heights of 2 to 3 feet; vases tucked inside the hair held fresh flowers. Later, such decorations as stuffed birds, jewels and yards of ribbon and lace were seen.

Marie Antoinette (Charlotte de Turckheim) lusts for a miniature ship at full sail in her tresses. Maria Cosway (Greta Scacchi, pictured) wears three or four hairpieces at once, all oiled and powdered. The actress washed her hair no more than once every 10 days to avoid a sheen.

“There was such a cry for false hair(pieces), there was a healthy trade of corpses. Wigs were incredibly expensive,” Hemming says of the period.

Trivia: During his first meeting with the designers, Nolte requested a corset to wear under his costumes. He hoped that it, along with a two-inch heel and a lift inside his shoes (to help him match Jefferson’s height), would counteract his inclination to slump.


On another level, “Jefferson must look absolutely almost impossible to get near because he’s so upright,” Bright explains.

Inspiration: Court paintings by Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun, the catalogue of costumes from the Kyoto Museum in Japan, the Witt Library at the Courtauld Institute in London.

Sources: Principals’ costumes were made at Cosprop.