Oscar-nominated costume designer Arianne Phillips annotates images from Madonna’s new Wallis Simpson biopic.
In W.E., a cinematic study in style, Madonna, who cowrote and directed the movie, animates the hidden life of Wallis Simpson, the scandalous, twice-divorced American expatriate who married—and dethroned—Edward Windsor, the King of England, in 1937. The movie, which uses fashion to inform the characters, splits its time between the past and present day: Wally, an unhappily married wealthy woman (sleepily played by Abbie Cornish), becomes obsessed with the duchess (portrayed with elegance and wit by Andrea Riseborough). When Simpson’s clothes and jewelry are on display at a Sotheby’s auction in Manhattan, Wally’s fascination with these stunning artifacts—among other beauties, a charm bracelet of gem-encrusted crosses, by Cartier; a gossamer silver chiffon gown by Vionnet; a gray wool flannel Schiaparelli day suit that Simpson idiosyncratically accessorized with medals on the peplum—offers her a window into the duchess’s private world. Interestingly, Madonna views the magnificent clothes and jewels with a conflicted eye: Simpson’s possessions may have been lovely, but they did not guarantee happiness. Or even admiration: While always well dressed, the duchess was ostracized and a rather tragic figure.
“I started doing research in 2009, a year before we began filming,” explained Arianne Phillips, who’s been collaborating with Madonna for 15 years. “To me, Wallis Simpson was a style icon, but I didn’t know she was a couture client well before she met Edward. She was also a hungry whore for jewelry. Edward gave Wallis jewelry to make her feel royal. My first task was figuring out how to re-create those famous gifts.”
Phillips forged relationships with Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels to replicate the cross bracelet and 10 other iconic pieces. For the gowns, undergarments, and dresses needed for the 60 costume changes in the film, Phillips scoured the Vionnet and Schiaparelli archives and then, with the cooperation of both houses, redesigned and (often reimagined) Simpson’s clothing. “Some of the pieces that the duchess actually ordered I thought were hideous,” Phillips said. “Those wouldn’t work for the movie, so we modified and invented. Wallis wasn’t pretty; she was handsome, at best. In England, it was noted over and over how unattractive she was. But Wallis was a lot of fun—very entertaining. She had a freedom to her that was definitely reflected in her clothes; the duchess was all about presentation. And that became her refuge, and her prison.”