I can’t tell you how much I love a fashion film with a 66-year-old lead.
Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris is a period film, set in 1957, but it also feels like a throwback to a long-lost style of movie: heartwarming without being cloying, uplifting without apology. Utterly charming, the plot suspends disbelief just a touch, and after some fun twists—cover your eyes if you are afraid of violence against clothes; a Christian Dior gown meets a space heater in a nightclub!—the ending feels well-earned. Loosely based on a 1958 novel by Paul Gallico, Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris opens Friday in theatres across Canada.
Mrs. Harris is a cleaning lady and a war widow from Battersea, England, played with level-headed understatement by veteran British actress Lesley Manville (who is set to be Princess Margaret in The Crown season 5). One day, she spies a Dior couture gown in a client’s closet, and she determines then and there to get one for herself.
What follows is a fish-out-of-water story as Mrs. Harris travels to Paris and proceeds to transform herself and the Dior atelier on the Avenue Montaigne. Her ability to charm everyone around her with her matter-of-fact wisdom and refusal to acknowledge snobbery, even at the beating heart of Parisian couture, somehow bridges all cultural chasms. Yes, this is fashion as aspiration, but it’s also a nicely rounded exploration of how appearances are not always what they seem.
Fashion is the driver of the film’s plot, so the wardrobe department’s work was even more important than usual. Enter legendary costume designer Jenny Beavan. “It is so nice when the story actually involves what you are working on,” she tells me via video call from Australia, where she is working on her next project.
Now 71, Beavan has a heavy shelf-full of awards for her work, including three Academy Awards for Mad Max: Fury Road, Cruella and Room with a View. She is known for her eclectic personal style and self-deprecating sense of humour; when she accepted her Oscar for Mad Max, she wore a bedazzled vegan leather motorcycle jacket in homage to the film. Her choice not to wear a traditional gown raised some eyebrows. She was sanguine, telling the Hollywood Reporter: “I am British with a slightly rebellious character; I always have been…. I’m short. I’m fat. I would look ridiculous in a gown.”
Mad Max was a creative departure for Beavan; she is known primarily for her work on period films such as Sense and Sensibility and Gosford Park. She found herself back in her comfort zone with Mrs. Harris, although since it was made during the pandemic, many of the fittings had to happen remotely. “It was a wonderful story to work on. The only problem was we shot it during COVID in Budapest—nothing wrong with Budapest but I’m not familiar with it,” she explains. “There were no costume houses there and an extremely small budget, and we had to do fittings by Zoom.” She was helped by the fact that Isabelle Huppert, who plays Mme. Colbert—the head of the Dior atelier and chief obstacle to Mrs. Harris’s path to a gown—is such a fashion and film icon in her native Paris that costume houses would send seamstresses to Huppert’s apartment to do fittings while Beavan watched via Zoom.
Beavan also worked with her favourite costume house in London, Cosprop, run by British film legend John Bright, who has deep archives and workshops stocked with rare fabrics. This came in handy when Beavan began to build the couture collection shown in the film.
See, Mrs. Harris fortuitously arrives in Paris just as Dior’s seasonal couture presentation is set to take place. At the venue, a dashing marquis rescues her from the dragon guarding the door (Huppert) and whisks her to a primo seat. The mannequins of the Dior cabine parade by holding numbers, so clients can write down the styles they want to order, and Mrs. Harris falls for a stunning red dress named Temptation. Unfortunately, she is gazumped by the imperious wife of a French garbage magnate. (Rubbish is a running theme; Mrs. Harris’s visit to Paris coincides with a garbage collector’s strike, the trash-filled streets a counterpoint to the pristine haute couture atelier.)
Crucially, the film was made with the cooperation of the house of Dior. But Beavan didn’t re-create one particular collection to be presented. “Five pieces were loaned to us by Dior,” she says. “We went to the archives, in the fall of 2019, but they don’t have a lot of real pieces because no one knew the importance of keeping them back then.”
The five Diors sent to Beavan are from the house’s heritage collection; they are recreations. These looks were in black and white, which, Beavan thinks, “Mrs. Harris would have been impressed by. But she would like a bit of colour.”
Back at Cosprop, Beavan found an original Dior Puerto Rico dress that the house verified was authentic. “Apparently a lot of them were made in 1956 and ’57,” she says. “But it had lost its little corset and underpinnings.” To these she added three pieces she created herself, based on Dior designs from that period, including the red dress that catches Mrs. Harris’s eye. Temptation was inspired by an archival red dress with hand-sewn sequins and an overcovering of tulle. “I just thought that was very Mrs. Harris, because it was red and it was strong, but it wasn’t too bright,” says Beavan. “She was a woman of a certain age, and I was trying to find the thing that suits her.”
Mrs. Harris arrives in Paris in the simple outfits she wears in working-class London, but even these are designed to show how much she cares about clothing. “I think you can even tell from her floral prints at the beginning that she liked clothes and kept them well,” says Beavan.
When Mrs. Harris goes to Dior with her 500 pounds sterling, the cost of a dress of her dreams, she suddenly realizes she has to spend a week in Paris for fittings. She makes friends with Dior’s accountant, who invites her to stay while his sister is away—and borrow said sister’s wardrobe.
This is where Beavan’s approach to costuming really shows through. “We invented a whole character for this. She was called Sandrine. We couldn’t figure out why she’d left so many clothes behind!” says Beavan, explaining that the wardrobe had to be chic but appropriate to the sister’s life in that flat.
“If we put those clothes on Mrs. Harris, she just looked like Leslie Manville dressed as a French woman,” says Beavan. So she came up with a strategy to keep some of Mrs. Harris in the picture. “We decided that the shoes didn’t fit. So she is still wearing her own shoes and thick stockings, even if you don’t see much of them. That kept her grounded.”
As the days go by, Mrs. Harris is, as so many of us have been, affected by the city, by the borrowed Parisian wardrobe. She begins to see herself in a different light. In one scene with the marquis, she’s wearing a great outfit complete with beret and gloves. But it ends badly. “He’s so rude about her being a cleaner that she goes back to being—and dressing like—Mrs. Harris,” says Beavan. (As for those gloves, Beavan offers a styling tip. “When gloves get tight, they start to look cheap. But left loose, look how they finish an outfit!” Beavan confides that the gloves were swiped from the set. “Leslie Manville is a notorious glove nicker!”)
Another great character is the glamorous house model, Natasha, played by Alba Baptista. A bookish existentialist at heart (she carts Being and Nothingness around in her red convertible), Natasha is promenaded by investors at nightclubs and actors at premieres. But really, she just wants to stay home and read. For that: “I found pictures of Audrey Hepburn wearing pedal pushers and a stripey T-shirt,” says Beavan. “It’s the other side of Alba, helping to clean the flat.”
As the film shows, the Dior clients of the time were, on the whole, not so young: Some were beautiful, some ugly, some fat and some thin. By contrast, Alba, and the young accountant, represent youth culture and another side of Paris in the ’50s.
Because it’s 1957, all the wardrobes had to be tightly edited. “People just didn’t have as many items of clothing at that time, and you needed to keep them better,” Beavan says. “I’m from that period, and we had three pairs of shoes: indoor shoes, outdoor shoes and either wellington boots or a pair of gym shoes. I remember maybe two skirts and two jumpers.” That was it, she says. “We had very little. What we threw away each week, it was nothing. We were smoothing the paper bags from the greengrocer. And we didn’t just throw away a kettle or a radio; you’d try to have it mended.”
This retro sustainability feels especially relevant right now. So does the dissolution of class lines, such as in Beavan’s favourite scene, when Mrs. Harris goes to the home of haughty Mme. Colbert. She lives in a small flat, nursing a husband returned ill from the war, and is wearing a housedress instead of the perfectly fitted black suits of her Avenue Montaigne office. When dressed in similar clothing, the two women “were able to empathize with each other,” says Beavan.
All of this detail is necessary when you’re creating wardrobe for film characters. “Otherwise, you waft around doing things that look—whatever,” says Beavan. “It has got to be based on a real story,” or at least, one that she and her team comes up with, “because that way people believe it, and they don’t worry about it.” A thoroughly thought-out wardrobe builds trust with the viewer, creating a logical through line.
The central through line of this film is Mrs. Harris’s transformation—and how much she remains “herself” despite her head-turning new clothes. It goes to show that while Paris is a fashion dream, a working-class legion hall in South London can be a catwalk, too.
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