Warning: This story contains spoilers, but nothing that isn't revealed by the movie's trailer or a basic historical knowledge of Lili Elbe.
"The Danish Girl" starring Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander has barely hit theaters — it debuts on Friday in the U.S. — but the Oscar buzz has been steadily building for both actors since the film's premiere at the Venice Film Festival this past summer. Redmayne, who won an Oscar for his ability to convey a life-changing transformation in last year's "The Theory of Everything," plays a Danish painter named Einar Elbe who realizes he is a woman trapped in a man's body and becomes one of the very first people in history to undergo sex reassignment surgery. Vikander plays Eble's wife, Gerda Wegener, a successful painter, who struggles to understand the changes in her husband but remains steadfast in her support of Einar's true personhood — Lili Elbe.
The film takes place in Copenhagen and Paris between 1926 and 1931, a time when women's fashion underwent its own liberation thanks to the work of designers Jeanne Lanvin, Coco Chanel and Paul Poiret — all of whom the film's costume designer Paco Delgado researched and referenced for Lili and Gerda's dresses.
"We started the movie looking very Edwardian, with a lot of the costumes being... more oppressive for the body," said Delgado, who worked previously with both Redmayne and director Tom Hooper on 2012's "Les Misérables." "We wanted to see a progression in Lili's life and also we wanted to show that she was being liberated from the restraints of the body she was living in."
"The Danish Girl" opens in the a conservative, Edwardian-era Copenhagen for which Delgado chose heavy wools and tailored, thick materials in blues, grays and blacks. Meanwhile, hair and makeup designer Jan Sewell, who also worked on "Les Misérables" and "The Theory of Everything," highlighted the actor's masculine features and designed a period-appropriate men's wig. "Eddie is, of course, a beautiful looking man, so very much in the beginning when Lili is presenting as Einar I had to sort of slightly emphasize Eddie’s masculinity so that's when I did a lot of my shading and highlighting," she said.
Sewell also embraced the liberating trends of the decade, especially when it came to the three custom-made wigs Redmayne wears in the film. "I tried longer wigs on Eddie and they weren't quite as successful as the shorter ones," said Sewell. "I also very much wanted to pay homage to the fact that in the '20s, it was a brave time for young women then, they were cutting their hair off." Sewell said that Redmayne's fine features also freed her up to expose his neck.
Sewell said her greatest challenge was the high-definition camera used to shoot the film. "I also knew that Tom would be shooting close for some of the very heavy emotional scenes, and I did not want it to look like Eddie was wearing makeup," said Sewell. To that end, she used a beeswax makeup base that sinks into the skin and also worked directly with a makeup factory to mix period-appropriate color palettes.
When Lili first experiments with makeup in the film, she is a bit heavy-handed, said Sewell. "[Redmayne] was one the one who informed me that quite often when people transition, they over-feminize," she said. "So that's where we came in with the very auburn wig... [and a] very strong lip color came in. I completely changed his lip shape when he was Lili because I took the corners away of his mouth and pushed the emphasis towards the front of his mouth, so he mad much more of a pout."
For his research, Delgado traveled to Copenhagen with Hooper and Stewart before shooting began to observe the city's architecture and climate. "We went to the national library in Copenhagen and they showed us real pictures of Lili, Gerda and their friends," he said. Delgado also consulted films, books, Elbe's autobiography "Man Into Woman" and looked at Gerda's paintings, from which he faithfully reproduced the first fluffy white dress Lili wears to sit for Gerda (see image below). "Obviously Eddie's dimensions are different to anything we could find already made of the period," he said. "The problem with the '20s is that most of the fine silks and really special materials haven't survived very well." He bought a lot of antique garments to either piece together or source for material, and ultimately made 95 percent of Redmayne and Vikander's costumes.
A pivotal scene in the film is Lili's first dressed public outing, when the couple attends a ball and Lili wears a dress borrowed from the opera house's costume department. "We always thought it had to be slightly theatrical somehow but also it had to reflect the color palette we wanted to show," said Delgado, who had a Lanvin dress in mind.
When Lili and Gerda move to the more bohemian Paris, their costumes reflect the shift in atmosphere. "We opened the palette to warm colors and the fabric had more movement," said Delgado. But for Gerda, and for Lili's later scenes, he said Coco Chanel was a primary inspiration. "She was the first designer that thought of the modern woman, really the new woman at the time," he said. "She was the first one to introduce knitwear because that allows them to have movement."
The fact that the costumes paralleled the contrast between Copenhagen's cold light and Paris's vibrant southern tones was very important to Delgado, who said Hooper explained the film to him as first and foremost a love story and secondly the journey of Lili Elbe — "how she became who she was." Indeed, in "The Danish Girl," freedom of identity jumps off the screen, not only in Redmayne and Vikander's performances, but also in the fabric, makeup and set of of every scene.
"The Danish Girl" hits theaters Nov. 27. See the trailer below.