My Cousin Rachel / The story behind Rachel Weisz's hauntingly beautiful costumes
Rachel Weisz and Sam Claflin in My Cousin Rachel
My Cousin Rachel: the story behind Rachel Weisz's hauntingly beautiful costumes
“Daphne du Maurier is quite something, the way that she weaves a tale,” says Dinah Collin, the costume designer who created Rachel Weisz’s beguiling look for the latest film adaptation of one of du Maurier’s dark novels, My Cousin Rachel.
As cousin Rachel, Weisz is the enigmatically beautiful widow (after a short marriage) of Ambrose Ashley, a Cornish landowner who brought up another of their cousins, Phillip after he was orphaned. Rachel and Phillip only meet for the first time in the months following Ambrose’s death when Rachel arrives from Italy to Cornwall. The ensuing drama swirls around Phillip’s infatuation with his distant relation and Rachel’s own possibly bewildering motives.
Rachel’s look in the film is regal, elegant and subtly integral to whipping up intrigue. “One of the things which came up in discussions was that we thought she should look like something from outer space to the Cornish locals,” says Collin of the way she sought to play up Rachel’s Italian sophistication. “We went to the National Portrait gallery to establish where in the 19th century her style should be. We wanted her to look really elegant but also classic so we set her in the 1840s.”
Although Rachel’s look is an elevated contrast to the villagers and farm workers, it is not overly ostentatious to give a semblance of authenticity. “She only had two proper dresses, really because she would have travelled from the continent with very little” Collin emphasises, adding that delicate blackwork was added as a trim to enhance Rachel’s sense of opulence.
Rachel’s poise and style is underlined with carefully chosen details. “In some scenes, we gave her a white necktie inspired by the stock ties which are traditionally worn with riding clothes, it gives her more edge,” Collin explains.
Riding is central to the film’s arc so equestrian pieces form some of the most poised and dramatic looks. “We made her a black Melton jacket which does up to the neck, it was based on an 18th century man's jacket which folds over the legs,” Collins recalls of one of the pieces which was custom-made to create a strict silhouette.
Although bonnets would have been de rigueur at the time, when Collin tried a mantilla-like veil of black lace instead it was ‘just the thing’ to set Rachel apart, and add to the almost-haunting, removed effect of many of her appearences.
By way of contrast to all the austerely beautiful black come several shots of Rachel in nightdresses which Collin created from piecing together authentic white cotton lace from the period. It is in these moments where the tension between the character’s innocence and sensuality reaches a crescendo, a point underlined by the reveal/ conceal feel of all that billowing white prettiness.
One of the film’s most memorable scenes sees Phillip giving Rachel a precious set of heirloom pearls. “The pearls are a big subject matter,” says Collins. “We had them made based on a painting we found from 1835. They were supposed to have been worn by his mother but we didn't want it to be fussy.” The effect of the pearl necklace is enhanced by the off-shoulder neckline of Rachel’s black dress, which allowed for Weisz’s porcelain-pale decolletage to create a striking contrast (see top photo).
Aside from the pearls, and another haul of glimmering treasures which come into Rachel’s possession at one point, her jewellery is muted but still expensively magpie-worthy. “She wears a little pair of tiny black sparkly earrings and a ring which both came from an antique dealer. Rachel loved it and wanted to wear it a lot.”
While colour barely features in Rachel’s looks, those flashes which do appear are all the more impactful for it. In one scene, she ensconces herself in an orange and turquoise paisley wrap. “In a way because it’s such a classic thing it seemed a natural thing to do, especially as she’s walking outdoors,” says Collin.
In one of the film’s pivotal moments (no spoilers), Rachel is seen in a luxurious teal dress with a burgundy velvet jacket. “I didn’t know which colour to put her in there were some beautiful Italian silks in a swatch. They have an incredible shine which means they reflect on the camera. I felt it had a feel of the 1950s couture.” Whether the innocent messaging of the blue is solemn or a decoy is just one of the mysteries entwined in the film, surely du Maurier would approve.