A version of this story about Jenny Beavan and “Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris” first appeared in the Below-the-Line issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.
Mrs. Harris (Lesley Manville) is a cleaning woman in London in 1957. One day, while tidying her employer’s room she sees, draped over a chair, the pettiest soft-pink floral “Ravissante” dress by Christian Dior. In that transcendental moment, Mrs. Harris vows to someday own a Dior dress of her own. And the first step on that quest is right in the film’s title: “Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris.”
For three-time Oscar-winning costume designer Jenny Beavan (“Mad Max: Fury Road,” “Cruella”), the film was a journey as well. Beavan visited Dior’s archives in the hopes of borrowing several haute couture gowns for the movie.
“The people at Dior were extremely lovely,” Beavan said. “But they were limited in what they had from the 1950s. They did lend us four outfits from a 1990s heritage collection, which was their tribute to the ’50s. But in the actual ’50s, they made the collection and moved on, without keeping anything.”
So Beavan and her team (including fabricators Jane Law and John Bright) turned to photographs of Dior’s 1957 Paris fashion show, which is re-created in the film, to build Dior classics from scratch.
“There were 128 or so outfits in that collection and we re-created 20,” Beavan said. “There are some black-and-white gowns, of course, because it’s Dior. But I did want strong colors for the three dresses that tell our story — pink, bright green and deep red — because that’s what Mrs. Harris would have loved. So those are our creations, but designed in the spirit of Dior.”
Apart from high fashion, Beavan also thought carefully about what Mrs. Harris would wear in her ordinary life. Much of her wardrobe was vintage from the 1950s. “I always love using stock clothing, because it’s got life in it already,” she said. “Especially of that ’50s period, where there’s a real thickness to the cloth, to keep warm. And one of the tricks I’ve found is that nice thick stockings and big comfortable shoes really brings one’s look down to earth. If Lesley puts on a French outfit, she becomes Lesley Manville in a French outfit. But with stockings and shoes, she is Mrs. Harris in a French outfit.”
Beavan had worked with Manville 15 years ago on the TV series “Cranford,” for which the costume designer won an Emmy. “Lesley is an absolute joy to dress,” she said. “She’s such a brilliant shape, for starters. And I was getting to dress her from the range of housekeeper-lady clothing to Christian Dior. In every outfit, she was wonderful and so enthusiastic about it.”
Costuming actor Jason Isaacs, who appears in the film as a bookie pal of Mrs. Harris, posed its own unique challenge. “Because almost any clothes that you put Jason in, he immediately looks so smart. And that wasn’t quite the point of this character. So the cap he wears, that brings him down to earth a bit. My father had a cap like that in the 1950s, along with just one dark suit, which lasted for years and years. I think we got away with it.
“With Jason, the cap helped. I think we got away with it. You see him. My father in the 50s had one suit. One dark suit, that’s it. For years and years. I always love using stock clothing because it’s got life already. You can never make something with that much life in it. Especially of that period, where you get a real thickness to the cloth. Because in those days, you had to have warm things on.”
As for Beavan, 72, she is the rare craftsperson that casual movie audiences might recognize. After the Oscars in 2016, she acquired something of a badass status when she donned a (fake) leather jacket to accept her Oscar for “Mad Max: Fury Road.” It was a tribute to the punk vibe of the film, and a few online naysayers were quickly drowned out by Beavan’s newfound fans.
“I was actually recognized by people in the street for about three weeks,” she said. “People would come up and say, ‘Are you Jenny Beavan, the costume designer?’ And for three weeks, I was like, oh my gosh, this is what film actors go through every day. And then the public interest died off, which to me was absolutely fine.”
Beaven doesn’t know if or when she’ll slow down. When we speak in December over Zoom, she had recently finished production on “Furiosa,” the Mad Max prequel, and was preparing to enjoy the holidays with her family in England. “Oh, you’ve come to say hello,” she said to her cat, which was meowing at her feet. “You’ve had your tea, now lay down.”
Placing her hand to her heart, she mentioned costume designers Ann Roth and Albert Wolsky, both still active in their 90s, as inspirations to her.
“Sometimes I wonder how long I want to keep doing it,” she said. “But I still thoroughly enjoy the challenge, and I love a film that means something in this crazy world. As long as I can keep moving, I think I’ll stay at it until I’m carried away, feet first, off the set.”