Cecil Beaton was many things, and in some ways, the least of them was “costume designer,” especially historical movie costume designer. His artistic life began with photography as a child, and the vast majority of his career was consumed by fashion, royalty, and society photography, with some war photography thrown in for World War II. He took the official wedding photographs of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor on rather short notice, and he took portraits of Queen Elizabeth II on her coronation day, among other things.
In the 1930s, Beaton started designing costumes and sets for theater and film, and his most successful work tends to have been in historical settings. He won Tony awards for Best Costume Design for the 1870s-set Quadrille (1955) and the 1912-set My Fair Lady (1957). The later, of course, lead to Beaton working on the film version, which he won both an Academy award for Best Costume Design and for Best Art Direction.
Having studied history, art, and architecture at Cambridge, Cecil Beaton did bring an understanding of historical shapes and styles to his costume work. He also brought his photographer’s eye for drama, and he knew how to make a particular actress look insanely good in clothes on film, regardless of what the historical style might have dictated. His work has a fashion designer’s stamp more than a historian’s — he creates clothing art to tell a historical story, but he does not recreate historical clothing. Sometimes this works beautifully, sometimes not. Like any art, it’s up for interpretation!
The Remarkable Mr. Kipps (1941)
The Young Mr. Pitt (1942)
On Approval (1944)
Beware of Pity (1946)
An Ideal Husband (1947)
Anna Karenina (1948)
The Doctor’s Dilemma (1958)
My Fair Lady (1964)
What’s your favorite historical costume movie designed by Cecil Beaton?