'Brideshead' Revisits Costumed Excess of Aristocracy

By Herman, Valli | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, August 11, 2008 | Go to article overview

'Brideshead' Revisits Costumed Excess of Aristocracy


Herman, Valli, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


Ah, the lush trappings of the aristocracy. The palatial estates, vintage convertibles, breathtaking parasols, embroidered gowns and perfectly tailored suits -- if you weren't sitting in a theater, you might think this parade of '20s, '30s and 1940s Anglophile finery was a Ralph Lauren retrospective.

Instead, these trappings of the upper-crust are on display in the film "Brideshead Revisited" (in limited release starting Friday). The story is taken from Evelyn Waugh's controversial 1945 novel about the pampered lives, forbidden loves and religious conflicts of a family of English aristocrats, the Marchmains.

To help tell the tale, the Irish costume designer, Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh, had to make viewers empathize with the protagonist, Charles Ryder. "Brideshead" is, after all, a story about Ryder, a middle-class London student, an outsider who, like the audience, aches to inhabit the Marchmains' glorious, sheltered world of wealth and privilege.

Even with the sound turned down, viewers would know Ryder -- he's the guy in the drab suits, always slightly wrinkled. The aristocrats? They're the ones draped in fox stoles, purple satin capes, evening gowns with gold thread, and menswear so dandified -- vests, white tails, handmade woolens -- that it wouldn't look out of place on modern-day Diddys.

Of course, the novel also inspired the popular miniseries that aired on PBS in the 1980s, which became source material for Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh (her Irish Gaelic name is pronounced EE-mer nee-VALE- down-ig).

"I was in my teens when the television series was on," she says from Ireland. "I used to beg my mother, 'Please can we watch "Brideshead," ' because it was the most exciting thing on at the time. It was quite an iconic thing for me. I remember it started fashion trends at the time. …

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