Legendary costume designer Walter Plunkett once said that he enjoyed doing historical films because no one could critique him on his designs. The King’s Speech’s costume designer Jenny Beavan had the luxury of historical interpretation but also the challenge of portraying such public figures. Beavan approached the film with the intention of creating a feel of the royal family and not a perfect re-creation of their wardrobe. “I wanted the actors to look naturally like the real people … Sometimes, (wearing) absolutely what they wore doesn’t do it. (The actors) look like they’re wearing costumes or fancy dress.”
Like that other Oscar darling, The Black Swan, The King’s Speech was actually produced on a low budget. Beavan procured many of the film’s costumes from the famed British costume rental house Cosprop, which she used for her work on her other Oscar nominated films like Sense and Sensibility and Gosford Park. Beavan attempted to use as many authentic 30s vintage clothing in the film as possible. “A lot of them were vintage, they were incredibly moth-eaten, but we mended them.”
Astute viewers of the film will notice that many of the characters wear the same outfits more than once in the film. This is because of the films budget but also because it was historically accurate. “This whole thing now of having masses of clothing is completely modern, from the ’70s – people started to get lots of clothes and stuffing their wardrobes. In those days, you had a pretty regimented amount. You looked after them, you brushed them or your servant or your wife brushed them, and they lasted for years.”
For Queen Elizabeth (who would later become known as The Queen Mother) Bevan chose different hats to mix up her wardrobe. “We couldn’t afford huge amounts of different outfits, but changing the hat changed the look.” In the film the Queen serves as the support for the King and couldn’t be seen as outshining him as he came into his own, so The Queen’s outfits were also toned down from her favored bright colors in real life. “We found it much better to darken the colors on her clothes. You believed in her more.” Even the Queen’s preference for pearls is shown in the film, donning small necklaces to long strands.
For the King, Beavan had the difficult task of making actor Colin Firth look thin and lanky like his real-life counterpart. Artfully revealed in the film is the fact that as a child King George VI wasn’t properly fed by and thus grew to be rail thin. Bevan solved the problem by dressing the fitter Firth in double breasted suits, wider lapels and ties, and by forgoing a suit jacket under a top coat.
Beavan also played up King George’s underdog status by dressing him in dark conservative suits to contrast his elder brother, who was well a beloved glamorous playboy heir to the throne. King Edward VII was dressed in entirely vintage clothing for the film that would have been the height of fashion in the 30s. For Edward’s scandalous American mistress, whom he eventually abdicated the throne to marry, Wallis Simpson Beavan created an eye-catching dress for a party scene that even featured a replica of a necklace that Simpson designed in real life. “I wanted something fairly simple and dramatic. I found this beautiful necklace, which she actually designed for Van Cleef & Arpels. They had a copy of it, and they lent it to me. And so I wanted something where I could put it down the back, because I just thought it would be such a wonderful image.”
The film’s costumes reflect the understated nature of the film yet also rise to the occasion of greatness achieved in the film. Beavan managed to re-create a heralded family in their prime in a new light that makes the audience connect with them even more. Although Jenny Beavan has been nominated seven times in the past decade, she hasn’t won an Oscar for her detailed historical work since 1986. Here’s to hoping nomination eight is a lucky one!