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January 23, 2012

Windsor (Love) Knots

From Dior gowns to archival Cartier gems, Madonna’s new flick W.E. should provide plenty of chic eye candy

By Nancy Staab

Sure, we are all a little swept away by Wallis Simpson’s epic romance, but couture and Cartier represent the other posh pair in Madonna’s new movie W.E. chronicling the historic love affair between the sphinx-like American divorcée and the King of England.

Andrea Reisborough and James D'Arcy were dressed for the film W.E. as impeccably as the real Windsors Andrea Reisborough and James D'Arcy were dressed for the film W.E. as impeccably as the real Windsors

Madonna’s film W.E.  opening Feb. 3, may gloss over the less-than-Hollywood aspects of the Wallis Simpson story, but the Material Girl director certainly didn’t slight matters of the couple’s impeccable wardrobes or the elaborate jewels that they commissioned and inscribed to each other over the years. In fact the film just picked up a Best Costume nomination from the Oscars. And when you’re a one-name superstar like Madonna you can summon courtiers like Cartier, House of Vionnet, former Dior designer John Galliano, Roger Vivier, and Van Cleef & Arpels and these luxury houses virtually snap-to in order to supply your film with original gowns, shoes and gems or, if not, painstaking replicas, based on the archives. These pedigree labels, favored by Wallis Simpson, all make marquee appearance in the film, serving as a third character in the couple’s love story.

The Duke and Duchess of Windsor The Duke and Duchess of Windsor

The whippet-thin, raven-haired Simpson, who admitted she was not a beauty, instead cultivated a rather severe form of chic, which she often used as her armor, her calling card, and weapon of mass seduction in the 1930s and 1940s of her heyday. She once cited “you can never be too rich or too thin,” and apparently she also felt that you could never have too many couture garments in your closet. Jewels were equally important to the couple. The theory is that they lavished each other with extraordinary baubles to forget what they both had sacrificed to achieve their love-match, including the crown of England and much of the pomp and privilege that attended it. Later, the lavish jewels serve as a poignant counterpoint to the love story’s less than picture-perfect outcome.  But in happier times jewels held very intimate, personal meanings for the couple and were often lovingly inscribed to each other in phrases that were part of their private love language (indeed “W.E.” itself symbolizes the couple via their intertwined initials). A Sotheby’s auction in 2010 brought global attention to some of these love trinkets such as a Cartier snuff box for Edward engraved with a world map on its lids and colored gems marking significant cities or the sleek panther jewel by Cartier for Simpson.

Simpson's heart brooch monogrammed with the initials W.E. Simpson's heart brooch monogrammed with the initials W.E.

The Sotheby’s auction also serves as a trigger for Madonna’s movie itself. In the movie’s frame story a young woman named Wally (played by Abbie Cornish) becomes infatuated with Wallis Simpson’s historic romance and its physical mementos, as her own romance proves less than storybook. There are parallels to Madonna’s own infatuation as well. She told London's The Daily Mail that she became besotted with all things Wallis Simpson when she married film director Guy Ritchie and relocated to England. Feeling alienated, she began delving into biographies of past monarchs to acclimate herself to the history of her new home, but her interests got diverted when she stumbled on King Edward VIII and his scandalous abdication of the throne for the Baltimore divorcée. (A soon-to-be-released new Wallis Simpson biography, That Woman, on Feb. 14 by Anna Sebba, based on the unearthing of some new Simpson letters, also fans the current flame of fascination.)  And needless to say, Madonna found many similarities between herself and Simpson, according to an interview she gave to the Associate Press: citing that both were Americans married to Brits, shared a love of fashion, both were idolized and reviled, possessed a sense of adventure, tenacity, resourcefulness and resilience and both endured the limitations imposed by enormous fame.

Reisborough wearing a hat by Stephen Jones in the film Reisborough wearing a hat by Stephen Jones in the film

Fashion stand-outs of the film include a bias-cut lamé gown reproduced by Vionnet. The house also supplied two cocktail dresses and a second ball gown to the film. Meanwhile, John Galliano re-created four Dior originals, while milliner Stephen Jones provided all the hats. Menswear was not slighted either-- with many pieces supplied by Alfred Dunhill and in one scene Edward (played by James D’Arcy) even sports a kilt. Edward was just as famous as his spouse for sartorial splendor and a certain fastidiousness when it came to tailoring. The Windsor Knot is actually named after him. And when original or reproductions pieces could not be scored, it fell on Oscar-winning costume designer Arianne Phillips  (Walk the Line and A Single Man) to faithfully create the rest of the 60 costume changes for Wallis Simpson (played by Andrea Reisborough) in this film, including a spot-on re-make of the famous Elsa Schiaparelli navy suit with white leather scroll work and Simpson’s 1937 Mainbocher wedding gown (recently referenced again when Stella McCartney designed a gown for Nancy Shevell to wear to her wedding to Paul McCartney).

Cartier, in particular, supplied several iconic gems for W.E., including Simpson’s trademark multi-cross necklace, a striking panther gem and Simpson’s emerald engagement ring. And in a few cases, Madonna even raided her own jewel boxes for the 100 or so pieces in the film. As a side note, Madonna also raided her own estates for much of the authentically period Art Deco decors featured in the movie (never mind that much of the Windsor’s actual furnishings included antique 18th century French pieces).

Perhaps best illustrating the enduring potency of style, Madonna even wore archival Simpson pieces by Cartier to the debut of the film W.E. at The Venice Film Festival last fall, including the Latin crosses bracelet, which Cartier re-created and gifted to her. Madonna had made a watershed trip to Venice many years before, also bearing many crosses…. and a virginal wedding dress worn tongue-in-cheek. But what a difference a few decades makes. Now she returned to the floating city not as music video vixen but as aserious film director and her style idols had become more refined too:  channeling not Goth-Lolitas but the impeccable chic of Wallis Simson right down to her trademark red lips and pedigreed jewels.

 W.E. (Weinstein Co.) opens Feb. 3.