Madonna’s W.E., a sweeping romantic drama about the intersecting lives of Wally Winthrop (Abbie Cornish), a modern day New Yorker and the affair between Wallis Simpson (Andrea Riseborough) and King Edward VIII (James D’Arcy) is a feast for the eyes. Helping to create the spectacle is costume designer Arianne Phillips who has been working with Madonna for 14 years on concert tours, album covers, films and a Broadway play. Dressing historic figures isn’t something new for Philips, who has received an Oscar nomination in 2006 for her costume design in Walk the Line.
Philips’ collaboration with Madonna on W.E. began early on before the film had even been greenlit. This made a world of difference in the time to cover the thorough biographical research, which took Philips around the world. “My journey started in Los Angeles at the UCLA film archives, and took me to the costume archive from the Met, the Victoria Albert, Kensington Palace, and the Museo d’ Mode in the Louvre. It was a wonderful world to get lost in. It’s an independent film with a small budget and it was a huge task to recreate,” Philips says.
The melding of two story lines, the contemporary story with Wally Winthrop and the Duke and Duchess was especially exciting for Philips, but made it even more important to her to root the historical basis in authenticity. Wally, a Park Avenue women who is living a lavish, yet unhappy life is transformed through fantasies about the life of Wallis Simpson during the real life time of the Sotheby’s auction featuring a collection of the Duke and Duchess’ personal belongings.
Philips tied the character of Wallis Simpson and Wally Winthrop together by turning to designers the Duchess adored. Roger Vivier famously made shoes for her, and in the contemporary world, Wally wears Vivier. Christian Dior recreated outfits that the Duchess had worn in real life for the film, and Wally is dressed in the modern day Dior collections. Philips had fun creating a balance and link between the characters through their clothes. Wally wears Cartier, and the Duchess of course did too. The Duke commissioned many beautiful pieces of jewelry to give to the Duchess. Cartier recreated 10 pieces that they owned and Van Cleef and Arpels created one. “It really grounds the film in quality and shows the milieu of royals and society,” Philips says of the participation of both Cartier and Van Cleef and Arpels. “Costume was really another character.“
Philips’ work is highlighted in the dazzlingly beautiful clothes, jewels and accessories sprinkled all over the film that draw the audience into another world. “One of the things that is so satisfying is the way [the film] is photographed. We learn [the story of the Duke and Duchess] through Wally’s eyes which fetishes the details and focuses the audience on these details of costume.” The editing also contributed to the display of the captivating costumes. When Wallis Simpson first dances with the King, the editing cuts to a bird’s eye view, revealing Simpson’s enchantingly luscious gown in all its glory as she sways in the arms of the King.