I wanted to like The Bostonians (1984) better than I did, given that it’s an early Merchant-Ivory film with Oscar-nominated costumes by Jenny Beavan and John Bright. But my problems with the story are rooted in the Henry James novel itself more than this adaption, so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. Part feminist diatribe, part satire, part love triangle, the novel is as conflicted as James was about the topic. He created strong, complicated women characters and didn’t quite know what to do with them. However, that does give a cadre of actresses some unusual roles to sink their teeth into, so it’s not all bad. It’s just not satisfying in the end.
History is unclear on whether or not this novel did give rise to the phrase “Boston marriage,” but it does showcase what one might look like. The central cohabiting relationship between Olive (Vanessa Redgrave) and Verna (Madeleine Potter) is romantic and supportive, at least at first. Perhaps due to the movie’s less languid pacing than the novel, the entry of Basil (Christopher Reeve) into their feminist utopia seems harsh and forced.
I have no reservations about the costumes, however, because even this early work of Beavan and Bright is excellent. They’ve always known what they’re doing! And in light of several new shows set in a similar period, 1870s-80s, right now (like The Gilded Age season 2 and a new Buccaneers, both of which I’ll be reviewing later), I thought it’s particularly interesting to see how this movie did the costumes. Those shows are about upper-crust, extremely wealthy characters, while The Bostonians is about more middle-class people so these costumes aren’t the hight of fashion. But we can compare the silhouettes and other details.
Olive is a spinster and feminist activist, probably lesbian though the word wasn’t common at the time. She’s financially secure and dresses well, if conservatively for the period, mostly in dark colors except at the seaside.
Olive’s protege and love interest Verena is younger and her outfits are a little more fashionable. Bows, lace, ruffles, and smocking all add to the youthful effect. Her hair is pinned back but also worn down in the back, which doesn’t strike me as all that accurate — it’s more like the trope of youth = hair down.
In the scenes where Olive and Verena are emotionally closest, they dress the most similarly.
Per IMDB.com, Madeleine Potter found a name tag of “Nastassja Kinski” sewn into one of her costumes for this movie because it had been made for Kinski in Tess (1979). I bet it was this white dress:
There’s an interesting scene where Olive and Verena are getting dressed in the room they share, and we see their petticoats, bum pads, corsets, and corset covers. All the correct undergarments of the period!
When Verena begins seeing Basil, she dresses differently than when she’s with Olive. Here, she has a more formal dress.
All three attend the same evening event, but Olive wears a slightly old-fashioned brown gown, while Verena is the ingénue in a white ruched natural-form gown (that was recycled from an earlier production).
And in the final scenes, their differences are again emphasized, with Olive in formal daytime blue satin, and Verena in another sweet, innocent white gown.
Have you seen The Bostonians? What do you think of the ending?