Vintage 1920s fashions for Ken Russell’s Women in Love

These original costume designs by Shirley Russell for her husband Ken’s erotic adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love represent an early example of the trend for vintage roaring 20s style.

Claire Smith
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Women in Love (1969)

Women in Love (1969)

Ken Russell’s contemplation on love, death and identity in early 20th-century Britain is often hailed as one of the high points of his career. Based on the D.H. Lawrence novel, it follows two sisters, Gudrun Brangwen (Glenda Jackson) and Ursula Brangwen (Jennie Linden), as they embark on passionate and tumultuous love affairs. In celebration of the BFI’s newly remastered version, screening as part of the 59th BFI London Film Festival, let’s look at a selection of glorious costume designs for the film from the BFI’s Special Collections, which presents the costumes in all their vibrancy and verve.

At the time of filming Women in Love, costume design in Britain was shifting. The desire for immediacy and authenticity in filmmaking brought with it the demand for realistic period costumes. Prior to this, the past had been a place of escape; an exotic and foreign land with gloriously opulent confections in satin and tulle. But an emerging generation of designers understood the need to make history relevant and real.

Among these was Shirley Russell, a designer who immersed herself in historic dress and textiles, and even spent time assisting Doris Langley Moore, founder of the Bath Costume Museum. She trained in fashion at Walthamstow College of Art, where she met her future collaborator and husband, Ken Russell. She wardrobed his early filmettes and television work (and even appeared in a few) before being credited as costume designer for Women in Love. She went on to work in the industry for over 40 years. She was imaginative and inventive, and was responsible for adding what she termed the “roughness of texture” to Russell’s films.

Women in Love was the perfect vehicle for Russell’s talents. Opening in 1920, the film deals with a generation looking to define what love means in the aftermath of the First World War. Russell understood the power of cloth to convey a changing world; a world where raised hemlines and boyish cuts were challenging perceived notions of femininity, and softer tailoring conveyed a masculinity emaciated by the destructive forces of the war. It was rich territory for a designer.

Costume design for Women in Love (1969) by Shirley Russell

Costume design for Women in Love (1969) by Shirley Russell
Credit: BFI Special Collections

The costumes of the central characters look forward from the war to the youth, vigour and energy of the 1920s style. Scouring London markets and regional auctions for examples of period dress, Russell made the moment relevant; seeking links between the present and the vivacious, wild but often troubled bright young things of the decade.

The pages of Lawrence’s novel offered descriptions of the characters and their clothes, but Russell gave them an edge. Everyday details combine with the use of real, historical clothing and textiles – carefully structured to serve the needs of the script and the character – to present a vision of bohemia with urgency and grit. Like every designer’s work, there are touches of the moment in which Russell was operating; a point of connection that had meaning for both her and the audience. And the look was influential – an early example of the trend for ‘vintage’ fashions, immersing the audience in the romanticism of 20s clothing.

Costume design for Women in Love (1969) by Shirley Russell

Costume design for Women in Love (1969) by Shirley Russell
Credit: BFI Special Collections

Russell’s choice to reuse historic textiles meant that they came with layers of life attached; worn and used, they were embedded with their own, personal history. Russell extended the life and meaning of these on screen, and developed her ideas through beautiful sketches. Nearly always in fine black ink, they are full of life and spontaneity. The permanence of the medium betrays a confident and quietly authoritative hand.

Costume design for Women in Love (1969) by Shirley Russell

Costume design for Women in Love (1969) by Shirley Russell
Credit: BFI Special Collections

Although striking, the drawings were Russell’s hard-working tools, replete with fabric swatches and annotations. The realised costumes had a lot asked of them too. They play an essential part in the narrative, conveying a generation caught between the dictates of social convention (a generation expected to dress and play the part) and the pursuit of individual and sexual freedom. Moments of rebellion are frequently portrayed through cloth, while the raw and sensuous relationship to nature that permeates the film is conveyed through the absence of it. Russell was apparently key to making the case for the nude wrestling scene to her husband; a controversial decision at the time, but vital in portraying another complex permutation of love.

Women in Love (1969)

Women in Love (1969)

The resulting designs are wide ranging. In the opening scenes, the two sisters are conspicuous in their fashionable attire. They are set against the lived in clothes of the miners, who dress according to necessity rather than want, with as many layers of dirt as the greystone houses of Beldover (filmed in Matlock, Derbyshire).

Costume design for Women in Love (1969) by Shirley Russell

Costume design for Women in Love (1969) by Shirley Russell
Credit: BFI Special Collections

Rubbing shoulders on the tram, the two modes of dress are the perfect embodiment of modernity and industrialisation, side by side.

For the water party, Russell chose the simplicity of white for both sisters. Societally appropriate for a garden party, the colour also has muted symbolism.

Costume design for Women in Love (1969) by Shirley Russell

Costume design for Women in Love (1969) by Shirley Russell
Credit: BFI Special Collections

The traditional colour of both innocence and mourning, white is key to a scene where love and death hover in close proximity.

And for Hermione’s (Eleanor Bron) performance, inspired by the Russian ballet, Russell used a bold, black crepe to add drama, with the design noting the crossover between balletic and high fashion trends at the time.

Costume design for Women in Love (1969) by Shirley Russell

Costume design for Women in Love (1969) by Shirley Russell
Credit: BFI Special Collections


Women in Love (1969)

Women in Love (1969)

Against the pale and willowy colours of the two sisters, Hermione’s costuming is severe and definitively non-romantic; a gesture to her strident and uncompromising sexuality.

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