“From here, she looks beautiful”: The Costumes of Dr. Zhivago

I can name more than a few reasons to watch and revisit the 1965 film Doctor Zhivago: the cinematography, the passionate love story, the incredible acting and, of course, the costumes that won the film the 1965 Oscar for Best Costume Design. With its lush costumes creating a stunning depiction of the time period’s trends, the gripping tale takes the protagonists from a lavish life of leisure to the poverty of war. Set against the Russian Revolution and subsequent civil war, the film takes place mostly between 1912 and 1921, creating a vastly different view of pre and post-revolutionary Russia.

Geraldine Chaplin plays sweet and supportive Tonya, Yuri Zhivago’s step-sister turned wife. Her introductory scene shows Tonya hopping off a busy train from Paris at the Moscow train station in a fitted, pale pink dress and overcoat with matching fur hat and grey muff. The costume garnered much attention from Director David Lean, a stickler for details in the film, who insisted on a few revisions to the design before it hit the set. In Doctor Zhivago: The Making of a Russian Epic, Costume Designer Phyllis Dalton explains, “That was a sad argument I had with the Director at the time because I designed that same costume in pale grey with a black fur hat because I thought she would be so sophisticated she would want to go with the utterly grown up thing, and a rather tight skirt that she could hardly run in, which was very in in Paris in those days.” Geraldine Chaplin recalls the conflict, saying that Dalton then had a white version of the outfit made, which Lean rejected since it made Chaplin’s teeth look “too yellow.” Dalton goes on to say, “David didn’t say he didn’t like it but he was quite adamant that he wanted a pale colour. He said ‘try pink’ …and it’s the most beautiful outfit in the whole film.” The look is elegant early 20th Century Parisian, a chic yet glamorous show stealer. Among the details Lean is known for implementing in his films, he is said to have made all his actors wear period undergarments beneath their costumes for added authenticity, though they were never visible in any of the film’s scenes.

Julie Christie stars as Lara, Zhivago’s mistress, muse and true love. Though Lara is an innocent young woman at the start of the film, her entanglement with a political fixture and notable womanizer named Viktor Komarovsy finds her in a flashy red number that Christie wore rather reluctantly. Claiming that she hated red and the way the dress made her feel, Christie initially refused to wear the revealing, vixen-esque gown, with its black tassel trimming and long satin gloves. “’It’s not a dress you would have worn, or Lara would have worn,’” Lean says he explained to Christie. Lara’s lover Viktor forced her to wear the dress, demonstrating his complete power over her actions, securing Lean’s belief that the costume was fitting for the particular scene. Whether it’s a crisp white puff sleeve shirt and floor-length skirt or a lavender evening dress with a matching bow tied in her hair, Lara’s costumes are some of the most enchanting in the film.

The rich, opulence of Russian culture at the beginning of Doctor Zhivago works in stark contrast to the latter part of the film, where communism takes power. The characters somehow look simple and even stylish in their tattered clothes and fancy furs, which are functional for the bleak cold. Through it all, the film’s title character, played by Omar Sharif, dons a classic fur hat and long belted coat with large lapels, as he braces himself against the cruel Russian winter and dominant Soviet rule.

-Anna Cippollone

4 thoughts on ““From here, she looks beautiful”: The Costumes of Dr. Zhivago

  1. It’s true, the costumes in that film were beyond divine… but I remember watching it and marvelling at the overwhelming 60s flavour of the hair and makeup. It dates the film more than the period it’s meant to reflect. I find the same thing with a lot of films (things like Liz Taylor in Cleopatra or anything “futuristic”, like HG Wells’ Time Machine and Logan’s Run) – it’s that struggle to maintain the aesthetic of one age while reflecting that of the past. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t – but it’s ALWAYS interesting.

  2. Secretariat, I know what you mean. I was watching a film adaptation of Wuthering Heights – the one with Ralph Fiennes – and I was loving how even though it was a period piece, it still looked so 90s. Then I started watching clips from other adaptations from different decades (I swear, they re-adapt that book every ten years) and despite the fact that they were all telling the same story in the same setting, you could tell which year each adaptation came out because of the way the actors were styled.

    I like these costumes! I like that pink hat! I need to rewatch this movie – last time I saw it was in 7th grade when my english teacher thought it would be a good introduction to teach us all about communist russia because he would routinely forget that we were all a bunch of 12 year olds. All I remember is that beautiful score.

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