In Colette, out on 9th January, you will see Keira Knightley take on the role of the trailblazing author Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette.
The woman behind the Claudine books famously defied societal constraints at the turn of the century, by being liberated sexually (she had long-term relationships with both men and women), and taking ownership of her art after ghostwriting for her first husband Willy for years.
Keira’s portrayal of her is gritty, witty and showcases just how painfully relevant she still is. In fact, the actress told us it was one of the reasons she took on the role, ‘It felt so contemporary, because it’s talking about gender politics, and sexual politics and it’s so interesting when you find a period film that feels so current.’
‘The whole story explodes any thoughts you had about what the conventions of that day were. The whole thinking that your voice wasn’t as valid as a man, that’s all things we’re grappling with today,’ she adds.
However, I can’t mention her performance without a shout out to her costumes, which tell as much of a story. ‘Everything she is wearing is a statement free of conventions with the freedom of expression’, explains costume designer Andrea Flesch, ‘I wanted to show the evolution of her personality through her clothes, how she becomes more and more daring. She didn’t care about gender roles.’
A sentiment Keira agrees with, telling us, ‘If you read biographies, her androgyny is talked about quite a lot. We wanted to represent that, with masculine ties, jackets, high necks. I also worked on her physicality, like doing – ok, it’s cold, but we’re actually doing it now, crossing our legs – trying to appear as little as possible. It was about that male spread, those masculine clothes allow that manspreading. She’s very cool, she’s got the waist coats and the ties, it feels strong, and that’s what we wanted to convey in her character.’
At first, Colette is a somewhat innocent country girl, in love with an older man she wants to join in Paris, which is represented in the bright colours and feminine ruffles on her dresses.
Andrea explains. ‘I used brighter colors and lighter fabrics in her early years (the yellow country dress for e.g.). As we see Colette growing into a modern woman, the cuts become very simple and black and white (the most elegant colours) dominate her wardrobe.’
She starts finding her place in Parisian society, and in her marriage with Willy, but comes to realise that there are many expectations of her, which she rebells against.
‘Everything she is wearing is a statement free of conventions with the freedom of expression. I used skinny ties a lot – not many women would wear that at the time […] I wanted to show the evolution of her personality through her clothes, how she becomes more and more daring. She didn’t care about gender roles. This tops up when she appears in a man’s suit,’ says Andrea.
Colette’s spirit reminds me of Coco Chanel’s, who was the first designer to shun corsets. ‘I felt a very strong connection with Coco Chanel,’ admits Andrea, ‘they had the same sort of thinking and facing life, not ones for stereotypes, and an emphasis on comfort. They even had the same favourite flower white gardenias, and Chanel’s favourite writer was Colette.’
Keira adds, ‘Colette interviewed Chanel. That would’ve been quite a force! It wasn’t intentional but two French icons, really interesting women. I love the story of Chanel, that she didn’t conform, they were both trailblazers.’
Fast forward to today, and actresses are still making headlines for breaking convention on the red carpet by wearing suits instead of gowns – crazy when you think that it’s over a century since Colette ‘entered’ society.
Keira, for one, is all for suits on red carpets, if only they made more for women. ‘I love it when I see women in suits, but as somebody with an arse and thighs, I recognise how difficult it is to find trousers that fit.’