The film adaptation of the stage musical My Fair Lady in 1964 won the Academy Award for Best Production Design. And anyone who has seen the film can understand why. From the Covent Garden scene to the Embassy Ball, from the ragged clothes of the bit players to the jaw-dropping gowns and hats at the Ascot race, every detail is superb. Costume designer Cecil Beaten left behind a sense of style that is still being copied fifty years later.
But just how era-appropriate are the costumes and jewelry in My Fair Lady?
My Fair Lady is based on George Bernard Shaw’s 1913 play Pygmalion. The story itself is set in Edwardian England. In assessing the era-appropriateness of the costumes and jewelry used in the film, one has to look back at what the English wore during the Edwardian era, the period that coincides with the reign of King Edward VII from 1901 to 1910 although, in fashion and jewelry, “Edwardian Era” often extends to the beginning of World War I in 1914.
Yes, they were. Edward VII married Princess Alexandra of Denmark who, even before her marriage, had already popularized “dog collar” chokers made of diamonds or pearls, and she brought her style to the English court. The English upper class followed suit.
What about the Ascot scene in the film? Do the ladies’ dresses and fabulous hats truly represent the fashion at the time?
Oh, yes. The costumes might appear theatrical but that effect has more to do with the black and white motif than the design. From 1908 to 1913, women’s clothes were high waisted with a slim silhouette, an influence of designer Paul Poiret.
The hats with extra wide brim were known as “Merry Widow” hats. They were decorated with ribbons, artificial flowers, feathers and, for those who could afford them, stuffed hummingbirds.
Eliza Doolittle’s hat at the Ascot opening day did not have stuffed hummingbird but it had everything else. Simply unforgettable.