We look under the brim to get inside the head of Stanley Kubrick's period masterpiece
When WORN held its redesign Indiegogo fundraiser last fall, the top perk for support was a style supercut of the bidder’s choosing. One of the supercuts was snapped up by Robert Everett-Green, writer at The Globe and Mail. His choice was a supercut of every hat from Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. Here, he explains why.
I was a bit disappointed with Barry Lyndon the first time I saw it. I couldn’t understand why Stanley Kubrick would busy himself with such a slow and stately period drama. But when I saw it again a few years later, I was amazed by its depth and beauty. Somehow I had overlooked every important thing about it the first time around.
Looking at the film on DVD, I kept playing and replaying scenes, trying to figure out what made them feel so saturated with life, sentiment, and meaning. Certain lines became magically evocative, haunting me later at odd moments. I would hear a voice in my mind saying, “Chevalier, though I cannot say how, I believe you have cheated me,” and the yellow light in the Chevalier’s sparse drawing room would come back to me, along with the sardonic tone of his royal victim, and the cheater’s puffed-up indignation. Or I would hear, “Mr. Lyndon, are you ready to receive Lord Bullingdon’s fire?”, and the brutal formality of the final dueling scene would return, and with it, the questioner’s flat civility, and the fluttering of birds under the roof of the out-building where the shooting took place.
I was also fascinated by long scenes in which faces engaged in silent dialogue at a gaming table, or troops waited in mute rows for the enemy to approach at walking pace. So much is said in this film without words, so much speaks that has no voice—which brings me to the costuming.
“Clothes called to clothes, cutting out words and greetings.” This wonderful line, from a memoir by the English historian Richard Cobb, could be an epigraph for Barry Lyndon. “Costume drama” is often a put-down, but in this film, the costumes do tell the story, and in an important sense are the drama. Barry Lyndon spends the entire film trying to push his way up through a society in which clothes transmitted everyone’s status at a glance. His story is that of a man struggling to assemble and maintain the right appearances. The aristocratic widow he manages to marry is so perfectly projected by her clothing that she hardly needs to do or say anything. What Lyndon doesn’t realize is that her inertia is proof she belongs, while his pushing creates an appearance that dooms all his efforts.
Daniel Reis’s supercut of the hats of Barry Lyndon charts the hero’s career through a single article of clothing, and for the most part, a single type: the tricorne, which was the dominant headgear for men for much of the eighteenth century. Lyndon’s rough country tricorne is succeeded by dashing military models (first English, then Prussian), then more aristocratic types with rich brocade. But the apex of his pretension is a baby’s bonnet, wide and flat and heaped with ribbons and plumes, worn by an infant son who is more aristocratic than he is. Barry’s round straw hat, worn at the boy’s lavish birthday party years later, shows that he has “made it” sufficiently to be able to play at dressing in rustic style. The women’s hats range from Mrs. Barry’s kerchief-like nightcap, to the almost crownless straws worn by the country women, to the plumed Gainsborough hats of Lady Lyndon, steeply perched on masses of curled hair.
Kubrick’s costume designers for Barry Lyndon were Milena Canonero and Ulla-Britt Söderlund, who won an Oscar for their work. (Amusingly, Canonero reused one of Lady Lyndon’s hats for Marie Antoinette (2006), for which she also won an Oscar.) But Kubrick told the French film critic Michel Ciment: “The costumes were all copied from paintings. None of the costumes were ‘designed.’” For him, apparently, churlishness in the defence of documentary realism was no vice. But the hats and costumes of Barry Lyndon are powerful not because they can be found in a museum, but because they’re in this film.
text // Robert Everett-Green
video // Daniel Reis