BFI Southbank was abuzz on 10 April for the BEV festival screening of Why Change Your Wife?, featuring a superb live score created and performed on stage by the Niki King Jazz Quintet. The film, shown in sparkling digital transfer, is a witty marital comedy starring Gloria Swanson as newly married Beth, who is determined to improve her husband Robert’s mind. He (Thomas Meighan) would rather pursue other pleasures with her — such as dancing the foxtrot.

Gloria Swanson as Beth
Gloria Swanson as Beth

Beth doesn’t care about style. She dresses down and wears reading glasses. She introduces Robert to serious music — a performance by virtuoso Russian violinist Radinioff (Russian ballet dancer Theodore Kosloff), who turns out to be something of a Lothario.

Why Change Your Wife - Cecil B. DeMille - 1920

To spice up their love life, Robert goes shopping to buy clothes he hopes will change his wife into the vamp he would prefer her to be. In the Maison Chic he is surrounded by women draped in exotic orientalised gowns and shoes and accessories that leave him bewildered and excited.

Thomas Meighan as Robert
Thomas Meighan as Robert

At the gown emporium he meets model Sally Clark (Bebe Daniels), who sets her sights on him even though she finds out that he’s married. Sally is aware of her charms and has no compunctions about using them to snare her quarry.



Sally wears her heart on her shoulder
Sally wears her heart on her shoulder

Robert resists her advances and ends up buying a revealing negligee for Beth, but she is horrified and refuses to wear it without underclothes. Sally visits Robert at his office on the pretext of returning something he left at the shop. Just at this moment, Beth turns down her husband’s invitation to a show because she wants to attend a more highbrow event, and Sally and Robert go to the show together. At her apartment later, as Beth waits for Robert at home, Sally tries to seduce him and they dance the foxtrot. Beth is upset when Robert gets home late and they quarrel. The rift gets worse and Robert decides to divorce Beth and marry Sally. Stung by gossip that her lack of clothes sense drove her husband away, Beth decides to acquire a new wardrobe.

Beth fascinates Robert with her new bathing suit
Beth fascinates Robert with her new bathing suit

Her makeover is dramatic. On holiday at a luxury spa with her Aunt Kate (Sylvia Ashton) she shows off her new bathing attire, complete with  bejewelled sandals and daring leg bracelet worn below the knee. Her revamp is a magnet for the male guests, including ex-husband Robert, who is at the spa with new wife Sally. When Robert is clearly attracted to Beth, Sally flirts with Radinioff, who is also at the spa (wearing a revealing bathing suit himself) and has pursued Beth. Beth and Robert independently decide to leave, ending up on the same train. Back in the city, when Robert slips on a banana skin and is knocked out, Beth arranges for him to be taken to her place to recover. He cannot be moved for 24 hours, so Beth telephones Sally to let her know. A jealous Sally insists on taking him back home, at which point the film appears to tip over into revenge melodrama. Beth threatens Sally with a vial of acid, whereupon Sally attacks Beth, breaking a mirror, and throws the acid in her face.

Beth is attacked by Sally
Beth is attacked by Sally

In a brilliant comic reversal, the acid turns out to be eye wash (Beth was bluffing). But the brief foray into violence and melodrama is telling: there’s a moral there somewhere about the consequences of investing too much in appearance. Sally leaves and Robert is reconciled with Beth. They remarry and in their new home Beth wears her glamorous bohemian wardrobe and dances the foxtrot with Robert. Why change your wife when she can change so you don’t have to?

Why Change Your Wife?  is a delight. A Gloria Swanson vehicle, it plays with the star’s reputation as leader of style and fashion. Clearly aimed at the female audiences who were so significant in the 1920s, it not only puts costume design on display but also at the heart of the narrative. The numerous close-ups of fashionable items of clothing eroticise shoes and accessories to create fetish objects that capture the eye and the heart and awaken libidinous desire.



beth shoes

This highlights the tie-ins that operated between film and fashion in the teens and twenties — department stores were often involved in promoting movies, frequently hosting fashion shows. The costumes are a tour de force, designed by Clare West and Natacha Rambova, who was probably responsible for the exotic extravagance of the fashionable gowns. Rambova, a protégée of Theodore Kosloff, was known for her bohemian elegance. She worked on other Cecil B. DeMille productions and went on to become a leading costume and set designer, working with Alla Nazimova and Rudolph Valentino on prestigious art productions. Costume adds so much to the film — sometimes the designs are so over the top they are comic in themselves, satirising women’s attachment to fashion and cinema’s exploitation of it. 

Screen shot 2010-05-26 at 9.28.07 PM

The costumes also send up the vogue for orientalism and the female types in circulation at the time. In spite of her transformation into a vamp, Beth is unable to behave like one and remains a good wife — albeit one who is capable of using deceit to get her way. At the end, a compromise is reached and Beth emerges as a domesticated version of the vamp. The somewhat unstable resolution reminds all wives they should remember to be sweethearts sometimes — but not before a lot of fun at the expense of marriage is had on the way. 

A very enjoyable experience — thank you BEV 2014 and the Niki King Jazz Quintet!



© Pam Cook

Miuccia Prada Unveils Great Gatsby Costumes

  • 21 JANUARY 2013

MIUCCIA PRADA has unveiled four sketches of her costumes for the highly-anticipated Baz Luhrmann film adaptation of The Great Gatsby, which is due to hit cinemas this summer. Prada worked with costume designer Catherine Martin to create over 40 looks for the movie, each inspired by styles from thePrada and Miu Miu archive.

“Baz and Miuccia have always connected on their shared fascination with finding modern ways of releasing classic and historical references from the shackles of the past,” said Martin. “This connection is central to our relationship with Miuccia Prada on The Great Gatsby, and has connected our vision with hers. In the same way Nick Carraway reflects on a world that he is within and without, we have tried to create an environment that the audience will be subconsciously familiar with, yet separated from.”

The designs take the form of shimmering dresses, covered with crystals, fringing and sequins, in shades of emerald, jade, topaz and gold. Fabrics come in luxurious velvets and furs, with the story’s Twenties setting at the heart of each style. The creations will be worn by the film’s star cast, which includesCarey Mulligan as the flighty Daisy Buchanan and Leonardo DiCaprio as the enigmatic Jay Gatsby.

“Our collaboration with Prada recalls the European flair that was emerging amongst the aristocratic East Coast crowds in the Twenties,” added Martin. “The fashions of the time saw the development of a dichotomy between those who aspired to the privileged, Ivy League look of wealthy Long Island and those who were aspiring to European glamour, sophistication and decadence. Our collaborations with Prada reflect the collision of these two aesthetics.”

Prada and Luhrmann have worked together before, creating Leonardo DiCaprio’s suit in the director’s 1996 film version of Romeo + Juliet.

Prada Great Gatsby Costumes Revealed – Baz Luhrmann Film ( UK)

The influence of fashion on the work of Baz Luhrmann and designer Catherine Martin is huge. By its very nature, fashion flouts conventional notions of time and place, plundering history for themes and styles that are then cross-bred to create a hybrid concoction. Haute couture played out on the catwalk is flamboyantly theatrical, staging clothing as high drama through spectacular display. Fashion also requires total attention to detail, with each fold of fabric, stitch, hem and seam of utmost importance to the final result — a concern that Luhrmann and Martin share. Their involvement in fashion is extensive. Luhrmann, Martin and Bill Marron were responsible for designing the signature issue of Australian Vogue in January 1994.

Martin stage-managed fashion shows to help fund her studies at NIDA, and in 1998 she directed leading Australian fashion designer Collette Dinnigan’s Autumn/Winter collection at the Louvre in Paris for Bazmark. In 2004 Luhrmann directed a three-minute Chanel No. 5 mini-film starring Nicole Kidman and Brazilian actor Rodrigo Santoro, featuring costumes designed by Karl Lagerfeld.      

Fashion is fundamental to their working methods. During preparatory research for their films, once the broad outline of the scenario is unveiled, Martin and the art department begin by raiding fashion magazines and online picture resources for visual material that resonates with or crystallises the story ideas and archive images that Luhrmann has presented to the team. Some of this visual material is interpretive, from a different period than the film’s setting, chosen because it evokes the spirit of that time. All the images are then discussed at meetings and selections are made.    

The visual material is collected into folders that are regularly updated and provide Luhrmann with a supply of artwork. From this collection they work out with him which pictures are suitable and which are not, the order that they will follow and how the story will be told in images. Concept books, elaborate storyboards that are works of art in themselves, emerge from this process. These include sketches, photoshop material and images from widely varied times and places put into sequence, with the actors pasted in. This material then feeds back into the script, helping to refine and support the story structure.

The initial historical research, carried out with fastidious care and attention to documented facts about the relevant period, provides the basis for a reinterpretation and dramatisation of the past that collapses time and place, creating a consciously artificial world through a collage of different styles. Luhrmann and Martin’s work is grounded in pastiche, from research stage to the final product. Pastiche, an aesthetic device that mixes styles from various sources through quotation, is associated with postmodernism, and it has been taken to task for its lack of originality and authenticity. However, it can also be interpreted as a method that produces complex, multilayered works whose power lies in their challenge to the very notion of origin viewed as a single source of creative activity or meaning.

Adapted from Baz Luhrmann  by Pam Cook (BFI/Palgrave 2010 © Pam Cook)


New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art is putting on a Spring exhibition featuring my three favourite innovators – film-maker Baz Luhrmann and legendary fashion designers Elsa Schiaparelli and Miuccia Prada. The idea behind the exhibition is inspired: an imaginary dialogue across time between the two women that reveals new interpretations of their work. This play with anachronism is supported by a film of fictional conversations between them directed by Luhrmann, whose interest in fashion informs his own work and style. Hope this exhibition travels in the future!

Elsa Schiaparelli (left) and Miuccia Prada

It’s well known that fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli designed film costume, but her work for British cinema in the 1930s is not widely recognised. She worked on 29 British, French and American productions between 1931 and 1952; below I list the British titles on which she acted as costume designer, which make up a substantial part of her film work. During the 1920s and 1930s there was considerable transnational collaboration between the film industries of Britain and continental Europe, with many European émigrés coming to work in Britain and vice versa. This context may account for Schiaparelli’s involvement in British cinema – the productions to which she contributed were international in flavour. She consistently worked with film studio Gaumont British, based at Shepherd’s Bush, London.

A Gentleman of Paris (1931)

A crime melodrama and courtroom drama set in Paris, this early sound film was directed by Sinclair Hill and produced by Michael Balcon for Gaumont British. It features Sybil Thorndike as a murderess. Arthur Wontner, best known for his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes, plays the lead role of a morally compromised judge. This seems to have been Schiaparelli’s first credit for costume design. There’s little information available about the film, so the details of how she became involved remain obscure. Following this, she worked on four French titles.

Hugh Williams and Vanda Gréville in A Gentleman of Paris

Little Friend (1934)

Also made for Gaumont British, this film deals with the harrowing psychological effects on a young girl of her parents’ divorce. British child actress Nova Pilbeam plays Felicity, the girl from a wealthy family whose unhappiness leads her to harm herself. Scripted by Christopher Isherwood and Margaret Kennedy, directed by Austrian émigré Berthold Viertel with production design by Alfred Junge, another European émigré, the film opens with a surreal nightmare sequence that visualises Felicity’s disturbed state of mind. The glittering line-up of international creative talent suggests a stylish and upmarket production.

Poster for Little Friend

Brewster’s Millions (1935)

Directed by Thornton Freeland for Herbert Wilcox Productions, this musical comedy, a remake of the 1921 US silent film, stars dapper Jack Buchanan as a penniless young man Jack Brewster, who inherits a fortune but in order to receive it must spend a huge sum within 60 days. He is helped in this task by glamorous European import Lili Damita as chorus girl Rosalie La Rue.

Cigarette card featuring Lili Damita and Jack Buchanan

The Tunnel (1935)

Another Gaumont British production, this ambitious futuristic film deals with plans to build a transatlantic tunnel between Britain and the US. Adapted by Kurt Siodmak from a 1913 German novel, directed by Maurice Elvey and produced by Michael Balcon, the film reflected current political and cultural concerns and represented an attempt by Gaumont British to break into the American market. As part of this project it starred US actors Richard Dix and Walter Huston, but it also featured an impressive roster of European talent, including Siodmak, cinematographer Günther Krampf and art director Ernö Metzner – and, of course, Schiaparelli.

The Tunnel

King of the Damned (1935)

Directed by Walter Forde, co-scripted by Sidney Gilliat and produced by Michael Balcon for Gaumont British, this film starred German actor Conrad Veidt as Convict 83, who leads a prison revolt to set up a more humane regime at an island penal colony.

Conrad Veidt (left) in King of the Damned

Love in Exile (1936)

Directed by US-born Alfred L. Werker, produced by Hungarian émigré Max Schach for Capitol Film, this film stars Clive Brook as abdicated King Regis VI, who outwits two oil magnates and stages a return to his throne. After this, Schiaparelli worked on two US titles.

Clive Brook and Mary Carlisle in Love in Exile

The Beloved Vagabond (1936)

Directed and co-scripted by German émigré Curtis Bernhardt, produced by Italian Ludovico Toeplitz for Toeplitz Productions and starring Maurice Chevalier, this period musical drama is set in England and France. Chevalier plays the itinerant Paragot opposite a young Margaret Lockwood as the singer Blanquette, who offers to help him sort out his financial problems. Schiaparelli contributed to the costume design. A French-language version was also made: Le Vagabond bien-aimé (1937).

Poster for The Beloved Vagabond

Jump for Glory (1937)

You might be forgiven for thinking this is an American film. It was directed by Raoul Walsh and co-produced by its star Douglas Fairbanks Jr. for British company Criterion Productions. A crime caper set in New Orleans and England, scripted by the British Harold French and American John Meehan Jr., it had an Anglo-American cast that included Valerie Hobson in a starring role as socialite Glory Fane, who helps thief Fairbanks to redeem himself after they fall in love. The costume design is credited to Schiaparelli and Norman Hartnell.

Poster for Jump for Glory, aka When Thief Meets Thief

Pygmalion (1938) (uncredited)

This stylish adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s play about a dialect expert who bets that he can teach a working-class flower girl to pass as a lady starred Leslie Howard as Professor Henry Higgins and Wendy Hiller as Eliza Doolittle. It was directed by Anthony Asquith and produced by Gabriel Pascal for Gabriel Pascal Productions. Costume design is by Ladislaw Czettel; Schiaparelli is reputed to have designed the hats, though she is not credited.

Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller in Pygmalion

Ten Days in Paris (1940)

Schiaparelli’s last British production was a comedy mystery drama in which the urbane Rex Harrison plays a tourist in Paris who turns out to be the double of a German spy operating in the French capital. It was directed by Tim Whelan and produced by Irving Asher for Irving Asher Productions, with art direction by Frederick Pusey. Schiaparelli is credited with costume design.

Poster for Ten Days in Paris, aka Missing Ten Days


© Pam Cook