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#41: Fantasia

February 22, 2009

It’s Oscar Night, and while I can only feign interest in most of it, one category that I get very excited for is Best Costume Design which often gives much deserved attention to period styling. I am embarrassed to admit that I haven’t seen any of the films nominated this year, but I’m quietly rooting for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, on the top of my to-see list because it takes place in the 1930’s, my favorite era. (Also, here it might be worth noting– toot toot– that I recently had the opportunity to *touch* a pair of authentic period pants worn by Brad Pitt in last year’s The Assassination of Jesse James— I don’t care who wore them, they were incredible, circa 1880’s.)

Last year’s winner, Atonement, was a total feat of the imagination. Magic! I think I’ve rarely been witness to such beauty on screen or in life, lending itself so visually to desperate tragedy and romance. While the costumes were very much designed with high regard for authenticity to the late 1930’s and early 1940’s, many contain whimsical elements of anachronistic fantasy, which I am sure were carefully considered and happened to work extraordinarily well for the film as it was told from a point of flash-back, from a lady with an overwrought memory subject to fantasia and meshing decades. Photographs of some of the costumes can be viewed here.

The costumes in Atonement took me so deep into this time period that I felt especially inspired to find easy ways to add stylistic elements of this era to my daily life. Here’s a photo of the character Briony in her World War II nurse’s cape, and below, a picture of my matching cape. My inclination is that the incredibly visual criss-cross of Briony’s cape was a costuming choice by the designer, Jacqueline Durran, as I’ve never seen a nurse’s cape with this added element. Could use a historian’s input here… perhaps they did exist for British nurses.
Briony’s cape also displays a very lovely and photogenic pointed collar, which also may have been styled specifically for the film.

The red felt-lined, navy blue wool nurse’s cape with stand-up collar and two to three button styling was first introduced to the military during World War I by the American Red Cross and used through World War II.

This poster was created for a Japanese POW camp… somehow I doubt nurses in a POW camp would be wearing their whites and capes, but makes for an interesting visual…
POW cape

Aside from the simplistic and utilitarian design choices that make vintage military so exceptional and timeless, I love it because it was built to last. You can still get your fix and wear the hell out of it, which I do. Meanwhile, the cherished silk-chiffon bias cut dresses sit in the closet…

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Alicia permalink
    April 28, 2009 8:30 pm

    As of yesterday, I can assure you these capes did exist. They’re British Red Cross uniforms and I managed to buy one very recently. It arrived yesterday and it’s going to the dry cleaners today ready to be worn. The red criss-cross is strips that come from the inside back on either side and cross over and button behind your back to make sure it stays on – there’s no buttons on the front to do it up like the US ones. The collar is also pointed, so I’d say the style in the movie is an exact replica.
    Only question now is what to wear it with!!

    • indiansummervintage permalink*
      May 3, 2009 1:08 pm

      Thanks so much for this note, Alicia!! I am THRILLED to know that this piece existed and that someone will be enjoying it. XOX

  2. October 8, 2009 6:13 pm

    Just seconding Alicia’s note. Here’s a link to one sold:

    You’ll need to scroll down to see the cape. Maybe it’s the one Alicia bought? I wonder which closure method worked best; I can see arguments both ways.

    I purchased a USA vintage nurse’s cape this summer, and will be posting about it on my blog in the next day or two.

  3. November 11, 2009 4:29 pm

    Throughout my nurse’s training and beyond, I wore capes exactly like those portrayed in that WONDERFUL film, “Atonement”. The only thing that differed between hospitals was the colour: some were navy blue, royal blue, and even green. I never had a cape with a button, more’s the pity, it would have been so much more user friendly than the big metal hook and eye which was used instead. I have to say though, those hook and eyes must have been made of industrial strength metal and sewing thread as I never had to replace one. I have had my nurse’s cape now for close on 30 years. Made of 100% navy blue wool, scarlet red interior, also wool, with 2 matching strips for crossing in the front and buttoning in the back, a detachable hood and 46″ long, it looks as good today as it did the first day I got it. Thankyou so much for a nostalgic half-hour.

    • indiansummervintage permalink*
      November 11, 2009 4:52 pm

      Thank you for sharing your story Chris!

  4. Lisa permalink
    December 16, 2009 2:06 am

    Hi ,
    I have one of these – bought it of an auction site as LOVED it but it has just sat in my wardrobe never been worn mores the pity – exactly as described above with the hook and eye and fabulous red lining. Im selling it now on Trade me and hope it goes to a good home…was just looking thru sites to see it I could add info to the auction and saw your site! thanks for the stories…

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