Inside Wallis Simpson's wardrobe
'W.E.' costume designer Arianne Phillips reveals how she recreated Mrs Simpson's famously lavish taste in fashion for Madonna.
Wallis Simpson was "That Woman": a strikingly glamorous and impeccably dressed American adventuress whose attempts to infiltrate English society sparked suspicion, snobbery, ridicule and - ultimately - ostracism.
So even a cod psychologist could venture a guess as to what first attracted Madonna to the idea of directing a film about her. For while Madonna might not have prompted a king to abdicate, and the Duchess of Windsor never donned a conical bra and simulated intimate acts on stage with a backing dancer, the two women have a fair bit in common.
Next week, at the London Film Festival, Madonna will walk the red carpet for the British premiere of W.E., her labour-of-love film about Wallis. An earlier airing in Venice has already prompted some fairly coruscating reviews, although The Daily Telegraph's David Gritten stayed his knee from the Madonna-bashing jerk and gave it this positively poster-worthy summation: "It's bold, confident and not without amusing moments." And one of the film's most striking aspects is just how beautiful the clothes worn by Andrea Riseborough, who plays Simpson, are.
The exquisiteness of Wallis's wardrobe in W.E. is completely in keeping with historical truth. Dress was an integral ingredient in this Pennsylvania-born woman's formula for personal reinvention. In a comment reproduced in the film, Wallis once said: "I'm not a beautiful woman. I'm nothing to look at, so the only thing I can do is dress better than anyone else." Simpson may have been a minor genius at coining aphorisms. She came up with, "You can never be too rich or too thin" and, "Never explain, never complain" - but the "dress better" line was, as Arianne Phillips discovered, a mantra by which she lived.
Phillips is an Oscar-nominated costume designer for her work on films, including the Johnny Cash biopic, Walk the Line, and A Single Man, and has been Madonna's stylist for years.
Although by far the juiciest scandal of its day, this December will mark the 75th anniversary of Edward VIII's abdication in the face of opprobrium about his relationship with Mrs Simpson (whom he married in 1937). Phillips confesses that, at first, her knowledge of "That Woman" was hazy at best: "In my mind she was in the Grace Kelly category, as an American expat who had married extremely well." Initial research, however, soon revealed how "universally loathed she was in Britain".
Phillips's business was to discover the precise detail of Simpson's fashion aesthetic. She started at New York's Metropolitan Museum, Paris's Musée de la Mode et du Textile and London's Victora & Albert Museum - the three great repositories of Simpson's attire. In the film, Riseborough has around 60 costume changes, including three wedding dresses. Most famous was the pale, "Wallis"-blue Mainbocher dress, in which she wed the Duke of Windsor in 1937. The original is in the Met but, said Phillips, has not lasted well: "We were lucky enough to see it, but, unfortunately, the colour has faded into a dingy bluey-green." So the dress Riseborough wears is a replica hired from Cosprop, a London-based costumery. The other 59 outfits, however, were not so simple: "She was a client of haute couture in Paris in its heyday, the Thirties" said Phillips: "so I had to figure out how I was going to recreate it. The problem was my whole budget could have gone on making one dress."
So Phillips hustled, using her fashion-world contacts. The Duchess was a client of Madeleine Vionnet - "who has been cited as the mother of couture" - and a rifle through the company's archives, held in the Louvre, revealed precise details of what Simpson had bought and when. Phillips took her findings to Vionnet's owners, and - hey presto - they agreed to make four new couture dresses for the film. Perhaps the most beautiful is the sparkly silver dress used in a scene where Edward and Wallace host a benzedrine-enlivened cocktail party. "I wanted something twinkly for that scene, for all the intoxication and jazz. I'd seen the original in the Louvre and fallen in love with it."
Wallis Simpson was also one of the first clients of Christian Dior, and the house remade three dresses for Andrea Riseborough based on Simpson's originals. And in the very last scene - set in the Seventies - Riseborough wears Dior from a recent collection designed by John Galliano. Other companies persuaded by Phillips to pitch in include Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels, Roger Vivier and Dunhill. The hats were by Stephen Jones and recreations of outfits by another designer beloved of the Duchess, Schiaperelli, were made by Phillips and her team. Incorporating so many fashion collaborations into the costumes for a single film is, admits Phillips, unusual. Yet, it was by far the best way to recreate the world of a woman whose appetite for luxury was so very voracious.
Wallis Simpson died in 1986 yet still influences fashion. The Stella McCartney dress in which Nancy Shevell (above) married Sir Paul McCartney this month, said Phillips: "looks like it was inspired by Wallis Simpson's Mainbocher wedding dress, but in a different colour." Roland Mouret's winter 2011 collection includes a dress named after Simpson, and he explained his fascination with her thus: "She was sexy in a painful way; a painful sexiness. The clothes she wore were austere, but sensual. It was the movement of her body that made her attractive - she was like a perfume, or the way a veil moves - like a ghost almost. "We use clothes to erase our mistakes and to highlight what we like; Wallis is one of the best students of fashion school in that way." Other collections exploring Simpson-esque shapes include Miu Miu, Preen and Jonathan Saunders.
'W.E.' premieres at the London Film Festival on October 23 and is released nationwide on January 20.