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The Costumes of 'W.E.'

How costume designer Arianne Phillips worked with Dior, Cartier and others to capture the sparkle of Wallis Simpson.
Jasper Yogi Gough; Daniel Hennessy

During her years living in London, Madonna became fascinated with a woman who also came to the city as an outsider: the Duchess of Windsor. It was an interest that compelled her to write and direct the love story W.E., out wide Feb. 3. The $15 million film centers on King Edward VIII (James D'Arcy), who abdicated his throne to marry the stylish American two-time divorcee Wallis Simpson (Andrea Riseborough) in 1937. It was the couture-fixated Simpson who first pronounced, "You can never be too rich or too thin." 

It fell to Arianne Phillips, Madonna's longtime stylist and an Oscar-nominated costume designer (Walk the Line), to recapture the couple's signature styles. She began by meeting with fashion houses that had originally worked with the duchess. "Wallis was a big client of Madeleine Vionnet, the mother of Paris couture in the '30s," says Phillips. As luck would have it, the house of Vionnet was resurrected in 2008. At Phillips' direction, the label commissioned four copies of original Simpson dresses for the film.

Dior's then-designer John Galliano, a friend of Madonna's, re-created two dresses by Christian Dior, to whom the duchess had been close. The rest, including a remade leather scrollwork suit by Elsa Schiaparelli, were designed by Phillips after two years of research at Paris' Musee de la Mode et du Textile and other museums. For the duke's wardrobe, Phillips worked with Dunhill and Savile Row tailor Martin Nicholls. The Windsor knot is named for the duke, which should give you an idea of his style influence.

D'Arcy had 30 costume changes; Riseborough, 60. But it was the jewelry that proved key to the love story. Edward's gifts to Simpson are legendary, on par with Richard Burton's to Elizabeth Taylor. "I knew the connection between the duke and duchess and their jewelry was huge," says Phillips, who approached Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels to borrow archival pieces and also create costume-jewelry versions of actual pieces made for the couple. The pieces will be destroyed once the movie promotion for W.E. is over. "They don't want to devalue the real things," says Phillips. "It's quite dramatic, like re-creating a Picasso."

Cartier copied 10 pieces, including Simpson's 19.76-carat emerald engagement ring. The most iconic is the diamond bracelet with nine gem-set crosses given to her by the duke to mark their life milestones, each dated with a personal inscription. Cartier ended up making a special cross bracelet -- not an exact replica -- for Madonna and gave it to her after the shoot. (The real item sold at auction to an unidentified buyer in 2010 for almost $1 million.) Van Cleef & Arpels re-created Simpson's diamond-and-sapphire wedding bracelet. Jeweler Neil Lane donated estate pieces and created a W-shaped diamond pendant worn by a character named Wally (Abbie Cornish), a modern woman obsessed with the royal couple. 

The security surrounding the jewelry posed challenges. "We had to select ahead of time all the jewelry we were going to use on which days," recalls Phillips. "A lot of the archival pieces had to come from Switzerland via Cartier. So when an archival piece arrived, it came with a handler from Paris plus two security guards. There were a couple of times when scenes got moved up, and Madonna had to use her personal jewelry. It was like nothing I had ever experienced. It's something that comes along once in your career."

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