Long-standing relationships are hard to come by in Hollywood but Oscar-winning costume designer Arianne Phillips and living legend Madonna’s work partnership has stood the test of time, lasting over 15 years. We caught up with Arianne to talk 1930s fashion, Andrea Riseborough’s Wallis Simpson transformation and how Madonna makes it work…
The costumes for the film span more than half a century and include everything from pyjamas to evening gowns. How did you first approach such a huge project?
This film posed some unique challenges because it’s two stories that live in tandem next to each other. You have the period story of real people in real places about the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, so there’s plenty of biographical research to do. Then you have the other story with Abbie Cornish’s character, which is the contemporary story and a fictional narrative; because one story informs the other I based it in real research. I dived into the world of who the Duke of Duchess of Windsor were through periodicals, books, film clips, interviews - whatever I could get my hands on.
Did you work from any particular references for Wallis’ wardrobe?
Loads! You can’t rely on one source; you really haveto be confluent in that world. There was a really fantastic book: “The Style of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor” by Suzy Menkes. It’s a definitive book about the style so that was a go-to book quite often, but it’s really important to have a well-rounded take on the story.
And what was Madonna’s brief on the modern day Wally’s style?
Well the Duke and Duchess of Windsor were part of a very rarefied English society and in the same way Abbie Cornish’s character, Wally Montague, was as well in that she formerly worked at Sotheby’s, lived on Park Avenue in New York City and is quite well off – her husband’s a psychiatrist. So I think what was important to Madonna was that Abbie Cornish’s character really mirrored her fascination and obsession with the Duchess and that she goes through a transformation and a journey of really figuring out who she is in the search for true romantic love.
Did you prefer working on Wallis or Wally’s wardrobe?
Oh no preference! I think they complement each other. Of course, the world of 1930s fashion is juicy and delicious and beautiful and there’s nothing not to love but it’s especially poignant and interesting when you have a contemporary backdrop of the Abbie Cornish character to contrast and enhance it. I like them for different reasons. For me, I couldn’t have one without the other.
And do you have a favourite outfit from the film?
There’s a couple of that I worked really hard on, that I really loved. There’s an outfit that Abbie Cornish wears when she comes back from the auction and she’s bought the gloves. She’s wearing this beautiful sweater with the white collar and a pencil skirt, I love that outfit. I love a lot of her lingerie, too. For Andrea Riseborough, the Duchess, there’s a dress she wears in the South of France that’s a baby blue and white striped silk day dress that I absolutely love and really enjoyed making and designing.
Andrea Riseborough gives a stunning portrayal of Wallis Simpson. Did you work closely with her during the production?
Of course, she had over 60 costume changes. Every costume had to be fit on her and we had probably 10-12 fittings, which is massive for a film. We spent a lot of time together and we got to know eachother quite well. She’s fantastic. I couldn’t have had a better actor to collaborate with.
In the film, there’s a tense moment where Wallis tries to break the silence by mentioning that her dress is Schiaparelli. How important do you think clothes were to Wallis Simpson?
Well I think they were extremely important. They were absolutely part of her identity and who she was and how she presented herself to the world. She was an American ex-pat and moved to England; she wasn’t born into aristocracy or American society - that was a world that she came to. Ithink she was very aware, and she talked a lot about how clothes make the woman. She was also very frank and straightforward about how she knew she wasn’t a great beauty but she knew how to make the most of what she had.
You received an Oscar nomination for Walk the Line, do you enjoy working on biographical wardrobes?
Yes I do, it’s been very successful. I’ve got a lot of recognition for it. It just happens to be a genre that I love and adore. As a kid I was always drawn to biographical films so it is something I really love.
And you’ve styled Madonna’s last four tours. How did it compare working with her for a tour and working with her for a film?
I’ve worked with Madonna for 15 years; dressing her for everything from tours to videos, to album cover shoots. I dressed her as an actress for a film, we did a play in the West End. We’ve done many many many things together. It was completely natural and organic in that she’s been inspiring me and directing me for 15 years. It was a fantastic experience to work with someone that Iknow so well creatively and who trusts me and allowed me to really do the best job I could.
It’s been reported that some of Madonna’s own jewellery was used in the film, was that true?
It is true! The thing is that we had a need for so much jewellery in the film. We worked with Van Cleef & Arpels as well as Cartier, a fantastic Taiwanese jeweller called Anna Hu and an amazing Hollywood jeweller named Neil Lane and we hadjewels coming from New York, LA, Paris, Switzerland. Everything had to be travelled and when you travel fine jewellery, you have a lot of paperwork and customs and special handlers. We had to schedule when needed jewellery in advance, but there were times when we ended up moving a scene that was previously scheduled for a different time and we were stuck without jewellery. Luckily for me, we had a director who not only has amazing jewellery but as you can imagine understands jewellery and how important it is. She made everything available to us.
W.E. is out nationwide now