Custom Search



 Depictions of Costume & Fashion History

in Period Film & Movies 5

Costume Related Films on View in UK 2005

Vanity Fair with Reese Witherspoon

By Pauline Weston Thomas for


Fashion and Costume History of the Film Vanity Fair


Short Review of the Film Vanity Fair 2004/5

The film Vanity Fair, starring Reese Witherspoon is likely to enthral costume lovers everywhere, but perhaps annoy purists who find this condensed, adapted and tinkered with version of William Makepeace Thackeray's novel of the same name, not as authentic as they would like it to be in relation to the original text. 

But I loved it for the colourful extravaganza it was. 

If you love costume you will drool not only at the costume in this film, but the attention to detail in many areas  including the execution of the hairstyles for both men and women. It is true Reese Witherspoon didnít sound like any English person Iíve ever met, but it didnít matter, neither did Kevin Costner when he played Robin Hood and that was a huge success!

Set in Regency England, Waterloo, Baden Baden and India at various stages through to the Romantic era, it is a romp through peace, war and bankruptcy and deceit.  All this took in about 40 years of the early 19th century.  Others have suggested that the second hour of the film drags - not for me.  I could have happily enjoyed another hour had the director chosen to make a longer film concentrating more on the development of the characters.  But in general terms the film timing at 140 minutes was good and I left the cinema feeling I enjoyed the film far more than either Phantom or Aviator, and I enjoyed both of those very much too.

I'd been really put off by the reviews of the film Vanity Fair as so many of the reviewers slated it and we almost didn't go to see it.  But go we did, and I found that after 20 minutes I put my notebook in my handbag and thought I just want to enjoy looking at this. 

It's a colourful extravaganza and I loved it and far preferred it to the Aviator.  But we all seek different things in films and of course it is difficult to compare two such very different topics.  I was enraptured by the costume, the fabrics and the colours.  Seeing gorgeous raw silk pelisse coats,  captivating variations on Spencers and marvellous colourful exotic Kashmir shawls artfully draped all alongside accurate hairstyling was for me a sensory treat.

Some reviewers have described it as Bollywood, and they may well have a point.  There are no half measures on presenting an embellished setting and the scenes at Vauxhall are unreal and almost dream like so much is going on in the background.  But I enjoyed the spectacular, colourful, rich scenes flooded with stimulating hues juxtaposed against each other.  I would happily go and see it again because I just adored the costume and the fantastic fascinating hairstyle depictions.  So many of the hairstyles were carefully crafted to be just like many I have seen on the Regency and Romantic costume plates Iíve owned for years.

The men were not neglected either and are as exquisitely adorned as much as the women are.  They had silk outfits or military uniform that easily competed with the colourful flamboyant silks worn by the women.  The result is an intoxicating splash of colour that it's hard to catch everything that's going on even when you understand costume, there is just so much visually to see. 


Hair and Jewellery in the Vanity Fair Film

I chuckled with amusement at the unexpected matter of fact wig scene with Matilde Crawley played by Eileen Atkins when she suddenly removed it as so many people of the era must have done.  Geraldine McEwenís red wig was always a work of art.  It had the finest of fine little dainty ringlets at the forehead, each one finer than your little finger and the look was strangely unusual enough to become a contemporary fashion fad.  Geraldine McEwan was always amusing just looking at her in her eccentric outfits.  Look out for her marvellous turbans and the fantastical Apollo knots worn in later years.

The jewellery was a modern Hollywood style interpretation of the extravagant parures and pieces made popular after Napoleon's expeditions and which suggested Eastern influence so fashionable at the time of the book. The jewellery which comes from the House of Chanel Jewellers is superlative and I do hope we see some of it in contemporary costume jewellery ranges. 

The costume may well have had a modern day make over to increase its vibrant effect on screen.  It was sometimes like seeing decorations on a Christmas tree.  If you love colour and pretty things as I do, you'll enjoy this.  But if you prefer dull, drab scenes shot in half light as in misty foggy miserable dramas, Dickens style with a Miss Haversham covered in greyed cobwebs, you won't like this film.  I know which I prefer.  Maybe for me it was extra pleasurable because my husband and I sometimes go to Bath for the day and we recognised immediately the Georgian street scenes set there.

The Purist View

Purists who want it to follow the book precisely should realise it is an adaptation and that an adaptation is just that - adapted.  It is after all, a long book with fine detail by Thackeray.  Reese Witherspoon as Becky Sharpe managed to convey an artful personality.  Perhaps it was not quite as obvious as her scheming version in the book, but I found it satisfying enough that she seemed to always manage to manoeuvre herself into a situation that she worked to her advantage.  She climbed her way up the social ladder, wrangling invitations to mix with aristocrats all in an effort to gain complete social acceptance as poor girl made good.

The film does fairly race through the book and before you know it they are at the Battle of Waterloo which suddenly jumps at you far sooner than it ought.  The night of the ball before the Battle of Waterloo of 1815 reminded me of a scene in Gone With The Wind where news of renewed battle changes the atmosphere at the social gathering too.  Then the Vanity Fair battle field reminded me of the GWTW battle scene too.  In the Prince Regent soiree scene I felt elements of Moulin Rouge emerge as the exotic dancers did their piece, but it didn't spoil it for me that there was a sense of familiarity about it even though it is true it does rip off scenes from other well known films.  After all film is fantasyland and this film is much more to my taste than any Rambo type film would ever be.

 If it's the story and the fine nuances of character you are after, the lengthy book would be a better choice, but if you just like great costuming, the look of fabrics and costume ideas and glorious sets, just go see it or get the DVD.  I really enjoyed this film and would give it 9 out of 10.

The film was directed by Mira Nair and starred Reese Witherspoon.  2hrs 10mins UK PG

If you enjoyed this film or films like it you may be interested in the page here about the new film  - THE YOUNG VICTORIA. In costume terms The Young Victoria film immediately follows the timing of Vanity Fair.

If you like this page then please share it with your friends


For more information about Film Resources click on the titles below:-



Custom Search

About looks at women's costume and fashion history and analyses the mood of an era.  Changes in technology, leisure, work, cultural and moral values. Homelife and politics also contribute to lifestyle trends, which in turn influence the clothes we wear.  These are the changes that make any era of society special in relation to the study of the costume of a period.Fashion History can take no responsibility for any information on the site which may cause you error, loss or costs incurred from use of the information and links either directly or indirectly.  This site is owned, designed, written and developed by author: Pauline Thomas and Guy Thomas. This site is designed to be viewed in 1024 X 768 or higher.

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. reserves the right to add or delete information, graphics and links.  Copyright © 2001-2014 on all content, text and images in  Images and text in this website may not be used on other websites.

Before you write to me for costume/fashion help or information please, please consult the extensive sitemap which lists all our pages.   If you still cannot find the answer after searching the site, then before you email me, please consider if you are prepared to make a donation to the website.

Reader's donations help this site flourish, in particular donations encourage me to write more articles on fashion history as well as current trends.  PayPal allows anyone with a credit card to donate easily and securely. You may donate any sum you feel appropriate.

For superb Victorian or Edwardian
re-enactment costumes in USA, try the reproduction costume range at:
Recollections for Victorian and Edwardian costumes


 30 June 2005