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Credit: HBO

Look of the Week: Old Hollywood glam in His Dark Materials

Contributed by
Nov 22, 2019

Welcome back to Look of the Week, celebrating the best in TV and film sartorial excellence, past and present across sci-fi, horror, fantasy, and other genre classics!

"The clothes you wear determine the way people see you," Mrs. Coulter (Ruth Wilson) tells Lyra (Dafne Keen) in the second episode of His Dark Materials. Set in a parallel world, the television adaptation of Philip Pullman's Northern Lights series features a host of stunning costume moments in the first three episodes alone. James McAvoy as Lord Asriel joins the knitwear and shearling jacket swoon-worthy fray, but it is Mrs. Coulter who earns the title of most glamorous.

Spoilers ahead for the first three episodes of His Dark Materials.

Credit: HBO

Thanks to a closet fit for an Old Hollywood star, costume designer Caroline McCall ensures that all eyes are on Mrs. Coulter whenever she enters a room. She sashays her way into "Lyra's Jordan" wearing a beaded teal velvet jacket that informs both Lyra and the audience that she is a powerful presence, while also hinting at her wealth. Both McCall and the runway have recently looked to the mid-century for inspiration, which only adds to the allure of this character. Variations of blue and green are repeated throughout Mrs. Coulter's clothing during these first three episodes, from her pajamas to a silk trenchcoat. Jewel tones are a dominant theme, as is Mrs. Coulter's penchant for a belted silhouette. The nipped-in waist only adds to the vintage aesthetic that weaves its way through her outerwear, cocktail dresses, day suits, and bed attire. At times it is hard to discern whether she is in loungewear or whether she is about to leave her swanky abode; what she wears to bed is fancier than most of my wardrobe.

During Lyra's nighttime snoop in "The Idea of the North," Mrs. Coulter's belted white gown is reminiscent of Katharine Hepburn's Philadelphia Story costuming. She attempts to reassure (OK, more like gaslight) Lyra in this scene, but while her gown is the shade of innocence, Lyra finds it hard to believe her. Mrs. Coulter sweetly wishes the young woman goodnight before unleashing her rage on her golden monkey. There is nothing pure of heart about her, no matter what her gown suggests.

A gray hue sneaks into Mrs. Coulter's palette, draining the warmth in preparation for a scene that culminates in violence and drops a paternity bombshell: Lyra's uncle, Lord Asriel, is actually her father. Clothes do determine the way people see you, and at this moment Mrs. Coulter loses control and her facade drops. She doesn't reveal the identity of Lyra's mother, even if everything leading up to this scene has hinted that her interest in the young girl holds a deeper connotation.

She also plays mother-daughter dress up, turning Lyra into a miniature version of herself by putting the girl in similar jewel tones to the ones she favors. Mrs. Coulter didn't get to raise her child, and clothes are an attempt at bonding. It doesn't help that everything Lyra now wears is restrictive. However, this new wardrobe is also a good analogy for their relationship.

Credit: BBC

Taking Lyra out for lunch is another chance for Mrs. Coulter to impart some wisdom, as she points out they are the only women in the room. Her fur-trimmed lapels act as a reminder of the North that Lyra so desperately wants to see and will be heading to. From the previews, the winter attire of His Dark Materials looks particularly cozy. It is no surprise that Mrs. Coulter's fur-lined outerwear also looks incredibly glamorous.

Credit: HBO

There is deeper meaning beyond drawing focus in the value of clothing and appearance for the woman Lyra flees. In "The Spies," Ma Costa (Anne-Marie Duff) tells Lyra that Mrs. Coulter is her birth mother, and that she was sent to Jordan College as a form of protection.

An affair with Lord Asriel led to this pregnancy, which she thought she could pass off as her husband's, but when the baby was born it was evident who the real father was. Asriel killed Edward Coulter after he threatened the life of his daughter, but Mrs. Coulter became a social pariah, stained by her indiscretion. Appearances matter because her reputation was shattered in the past. She has power again, and her clothing emphasizes this meteoric rise.

Credit: HBO

The emerald green dress Mrs. Coulter wears while hosting a soiree is the height of Old Hollywood glamour. Not only is the color exquisite, but the delicate beading and backless design are attention-grabbing. Costume designer Caroline McCall has previously worked on Downton Abbey, a background in vintage design that shines through, and has cited Hedy Lamarr and Vivien Leigh as influences, which is clear to see during this sequence. This is a fantasy world of zeppelins and daemons, but it draws heavily on our version of reality with a sartorial twist. The trenchcoats Mrs. Coulter wears are either shorter than the traditional design or made from luxurious materials, which adds to the mystique of this parallel universe.

In moments of solitude, there is a vulnerability and haunted quality to the villainous lead, including her balcony walk as she teeters on the edge of both the building and an emotional abyss. Lyra's purple dress, with its delicate white collar, is laid out on the edge; these clothes are all she has left of her daughter. It is also worth noting that Mrs. Coulter is wearing pants and flat shoes in this scene, in part because this is her loungewear, but it is also a practical choice. Straddling a wall in the pencil skirt silhouette she favors wouldn't work visually or physically. Plus, she also has a fight sequence that follows; pencil skirts don't make for the best action attire.

So far, His Dark Materials and Mrs. Coulter have delivered power attire to aspire to, decadent pajamas, and festive party frocks. Next stop: the North, a lot more red clothing, and winter sartorial inspiration!

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