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On this day in 1956, Diane premiered with Lana Turner making an epic try at historical romance. The production was a box-office bomb, but I’m all in for the stunning 16th-century (by way of the 1950s) costumes by Walter Plunkett!
The film’s plot plays fast and loose with the facts of Diane de Poitiers’ biography, boiling it down to a love triangle between Diane (played by Turner), Prince-later-King Henri (Roger Moore), and his wife Catherine de Medici (Marisa Pavan). The fiction isn’t terrible, if you don’t expect historical accuracy, and the acting by the female leads is rather good most of the time. But it’s the costumes that deliver — no, they aren’t historically accurate either, but what 1950s frock flicks get right that 2000s frock flicks tend not to is a certain opulence that really suits the 16th century.
When I look at films like Elizabeth (1998) and Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007), starring Cate Blanchett, one of the things that makes them look modern to me is the stripped-down aesthetic in the costumes. There’s a real lack of trimming, jewels, embroidery, and texture that are found in English / French / Italian court clothing of 1530s to 1600. Perhaps the only recent production that does show this depth of decoration accurately is the TV miniseries Elizabeth I (2005), starring Helen Mirren.
That level of ornamentation may be rare today, but it was a hallmark of historical movie productions in the old Hollywood studio system. There are numerous details in Diane‘s costumes that suggest Plunkett had done some historical research. Looking at the few portraits associated with Diane de Poitiers and of the French court in the 1530s-1550s, it’s easy to imagine he copied the general bodice shapes, hat styles, and added all those pearls and fur and gems. The color story is accurate too — Diane wears the black and white she was famous for, sometimes with her crescent moon icon. For contrast, Catherine de Medici wears envious green, plus Tuscan orange, red, and gold.
MGM spared no expense on Diane, and Walter Plunkett lavished every costume with pearls, gems, metallic braids, furs, and more to achieve a rich appearance. While he’s better known for Gone With the Wind, he considered this film his best work. I agree, but I’m biased because the 16th century is my happy place. His gowns for Diane are obviously fitted in an 1950s fashion with pointy boobs instead of a 1540s-50s flattened cone-shaped bodice. But the colors, trim patterns, and overall lines and silhouettes are strikingly evocative of the period and even the hats are quite well done (no headband-with-hair-hanging-out or sticking-up-visor French hoods).
I couldn’t get good catalog and screencaps for all of Lana Turner’s 20+ costumes in the film or Marisa Pavan’s additional half-dozen, but I got as many as I could. Here goes!
Diane de Poitier’s Red Gown and Her Husband’s Silver Suit
Diane’s Green Gown and King Francis’ Blue Suit
Diane’s White Gown
Diane as Prince Henri’s Tutor
Diane’s Black Dancing Gown With White Sleeves
Diane’s Black Silver-Trimmed Gown
Catherine de Medici’s Red Marriage Gown
Catherine’s Pink Reception Gown
Diane’s Sparkly Black Reception Gown
Diane’s Black Gown With Purple Sleeves
Catherine’s Green Velvet Gown With Fur Sleeves
Diane and Henri Flaunt It
Catherine’s Orange Velvet Gown
Catherine’s Green Satin and Velvet Gown
Diane’s Black Traveling Gown With White Fur
King Henri’s Feast Before the Final Tourney
It’s difficult to see any of the costumes in this scene, but it’s yet another example of tons of elaborate gowns shoved into throwaway scenes. OMG. Visual feast (see what I did there?). Also, note that the banner uses Diane de Poitier’s historical symbol of three entwined crescents since Henri has called her the “Queen of the Lists” for this tourney (which is a direct affront to his wife). Most of the heraldry in the film is fairly generic, using a lot of fleur-de-lys for French royalty, so it’s cool that they did use Diane’s actual symbol.
The Final Tourney
Catherine’s Gold Tourney Gown
Diane’s Black and Silver Tourney Gown
Diane’s Black Mourning Gown
There is just barely enough story to hang these stunning costumes on, but Walter Plunkett worked like hell on this one!