Tuesday, August 30, 2022

Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris; Mr. Gernreich Did Not

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately researching a Sixties fashion guru, Rudi Gernreich, for a writing project. The experience has made me realize how much fashion shapes our everyday lives, especially if we happen to be female. Gernreich, notorious circa 1964 for daring to create a topless bathing suit, was in many ways a fashion radical. Though he was an award-winning designer with a celebrity clientele, he eventually came around to asserting that “fashion will go out of fashion,” and that individual freedom and comfort are far more important than high style.

 Gernreich, who would have turned 100 this month (he died in 1985), gradually became a champion of low-key, easy-care, and often unisex garments. Not for him the glamour and expensive individualism of the great Paris couturiers, whose business model was to create sumptuous styles intimately tailored to fit each client’s body. So he makes an interesting contrast to the story of Mrs. Ada Harris (based on a popular 1958 novel by Paul Gallico), a London charwoman who has a hard time making ends meet. It’s 1957, and she still doesn’t know for sure that her beloved husband died in World War II. A romantic at heart, she unexpectedly falls in love with a fabulous Dior gown all-too-casually worn by one of her wealthy clients. When a small windfall comes her way, she makes up her mind to cross the channel and purchase an extravagant gown of her very own.

 When she enters the House of Dior, she’s immediately hit by the snobbery inherent in the world of couture. Dior’s clients are expected to be the wealthy, the titled, and the celebrated: snooty folks who treat Dior underlings with disdain and often don’t bother to pay their bills. Through a series of happy accidents and just plain chutzpah, Mrs. Harris wins acceptance among the models and dressmakers. As played by the very talented Lesley Manville, she possesses spirit and good sense, both of which  endear her to the working-class peons who make the extravagant garments. Soon she’s finding common-sense ways to help the House of Dior with its fiscal problems, and we just know that she and her new gown will (after a few challenges are overcome) live happily ever after.

 I first became truly aware of Lesley Manville in 2017, when she copped an Oscar nomination for playing the steely sister of Daniel Day-Lewis in Phantom Thread. That film too was set in the haute-couture fashion world, with Day-Lewis starring as an imperious designer named Reynolds Woodcock. Clearly, in Phantom Thread, both Woodcocks are far more dedicated to clothing than they are to people. (A highlight is the moment when the two siblings conspire to strip an elegant green dress off of the drunken body of a wealthy patroness who in their eyes just doesn’t deserve the masterpiece she’s wearing.) In Phantom Thread, Manville was essentially frigid, so it’s a pleasure to see her turn on the charm. Like so many British actors, she seems able to do just about anything.

 While watching Manville in Phantom Thread, I suddenly recognized her as the loyal but deeply frustrated wife of Sir Arthur Gilbert (Jim Broadbent), in Mike Leigh’s wonderful Gilbert & Sullivan film, Topsy-Turvy, I also was lucky enough to see her on-stage opposite Jeremy Irons, doing remarkable things with the role of the drug-addled Mary Tyrone in Eugene O’Neill’s classic Long Day’s Journey into Night. And it’s no surprise that she’ll soon pop up in the latest season of The Crown, playing the ageing (and deeply troubled) Princess Margaret. Personally, I can’t wait.



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