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Jenna Thiam as Nina on The Collection.
Jenna Thiam as Nina on The Collection.
Photo: Amazon

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How ‘The Collection’ Mixes Fictional Fashion With Historical Fact

The show’s costume designer talks creating a couture wardrobe on a tight budget.

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Do you want to look at pretty clothes to take a break from tracking the collapse of civilization? Pretty couture clothes? In Paris? Set within a big, soapy drama? Yes, of course you do.

Enter The Collection, a BBC and Amazon co-production that peeks into the world of Parisian fashion after World War II — specifically at Paul Sabine, a fictional fashion house with the potential to change how the world sees Paris, but that isn't so clean under the hem.

For starters, business-minded Paul (played by Richard Coyle, whom fans of early 2000s PBS might recognize as Jeff from Coupling) serves as the public face of the fashion house, but it's really his brother Claude (Tom Riley) — who’s kept behind the scenes thanks to his explosive temper and homosexuality — behind the brand’s genius designs.

Mamie Gummer as Helen Sabine, Tom Riley as Claude Sabine, and Richard Coyle as Paul Sabine on The Collection.
Mamie Gummer as Helen Sabine, Tom Riley as Claude Sabine, and Richard Coyle as Paul Sabine on The Collection.
Photo: Amazon

There’s also a scheming mother (played in glorious, glittering grand dame fashion by Frances de la Tour) who’s constantly pitting the two brothers against each other, plus Paul's American wife (Mamie Gummer), whom he may or may not have married for her money. Add in a nosy American journalist, an illegitimate child, an affair, a murder, and some possible Nazi business dealings, and you have one dishy, visually stunning show that's waiting to be devoured (I did so in less than a week from the comfort of my sweatpants).

The Collection is fiction, but it's based in a lot of fashion fact. Paul Sabine is trying to design clothes that will put Paris back on the fashion map after a bloody war and grim occupation; that’s precisely what Dior did with his landmark 1947 New Look collection. The Nazi plot nods to real-life events, too: Consider Coco Chanel's connections to the Reich, and how she struggled to regain her footing in France despite those associations and whispers of “traitor.”

But since The Collection is fiction, the clothes just couldn't be replicas of what Dior and other designers were doing at the time. That task fell to French costume designer Chattoune, who has worked on dozens of films and TV shows and was nominated for a César Award (the French equivalent of an Oscar) for her work on Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky. Chattoune’s challenge with The Collection, she tells me, was creating haute couture clothes that matched the times without copying real-life designs — and without a haute couture budget.

Chattoune says that Dior's 1947 collection, so dubbed the “New Look" by the American press, presented a hurdle instead of a lane simply because it was so iconic. (It was even referenced on Outlander — yes, the Scottish time-traveling show.) The collection’s main shape, the “Carolle” or “figure eight,” gave women an hourglass silhouette and quickly became the look of the decade. Many designers in Paris were doing similar figure-eight shapes after the war, Chattoune notes, but the look is most often attributed to Dior “because he was the one showing it first.”

Frances de la Tour as Yvette Sabine on The Collection.
Frances de la Tour as Yvette Sabine on The Collection.
Photo: Amazon

Instead of trying to block out Dior’s designs completely, Chattoune immersed herself in the era at the fashion history museum Palais Galliera, where she studied “all of the documents and all of the drawings and all those magazines for the time,” she says. From there, “we tried to have our mind in 1947, but make it modern — make it like people nowadays would like to see it,” she explains.

In total, Chattoune designed and created about 40 pieces for the show’s wardrobe — including plenty of Paul Sabine showpieces that proved particularly challenging. “We wanted to do it like haute couture but we could not afford that, and we wanted to do it the best possible [way so that] everything could be filmed,” she recalls. Because of the volume of the fabric, certain seams could take a whole day to create. A lot of the clothes were cut on the bias, “so you have to wait for it to fall for two days on the mannequin,” she notes. “Then after that, you cut it again to have the proper length, and then you start the process of doing the hem.”

And while most of the show’s extras wear rented costumes, Chattoune made the seamstresses’ uniforms, as well as the costumes for both Sabine brothers. She designed for Paul 1940s power suits, since he serves as the studio’s money man (and face). She gave Claude a more casual look, with costumes that would set his character apart from the rest of the cast — and that he could wear while riding his motorcycle. As a result, Claude’s style hints at the James Dean/rockabilly look to come in the 1950s — a perfect fit for a rebellious, creative type who’s on the bleeding edge of fashion. “[Riley was] happy with his look and tried to keep the motorcycle trousers most of the time,” she jokes.

Jenna Thiam as Nina on The Collection.
Jenna Thiam as Nina on The Collection.
Photo: Amazon

Asked to pick her favorite look from the show, Chattoune singles out the red dress featured on the title card for the show. “It's so simple and so efficient in the simplicity of it,” she says. It also plays a key role in revealing the tension between the people striving to repair Paris’s fashionable reputation and those still recovering from the war — but to say much more would spoil the story, so you’ll have to watch for yourself.

Chattoune is currently working on another project set in modern times (“With modern you have a lot of options, because there's so many things — but less time, because they don't consider that you need to have things made,” she explains) as well as a show set during WWII (“war, submarines, German, very deep, very interesting, very different”). She hasn’t heard whether The Collection will be getting a second season yet, but she’s hopeful. “I want to know what happens!”

The Collection is co-produced by BBC Worldwide and Amazon Studios. It premiered in the UK in September 2016 and in the United States on Amazon Prime in February 2017.

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