Madeline Fontaine, a French Costume Designer in Hollywood

Madeline Fontaine has dressed Audrey Tautou, Asterix, Yves Saint Laurent, and Jacqueline Kennedy. The French costume designer, who originally entered the profession “almost by accident,” received the César Award for Best Costume Design for A Very Long Engagement (2005) and Séraphine (2009). This Sunday, she will be in the running to receive an Oscar for Best Costume Design for Jackie, a French-American-Chilean production by director Pablo Larraín.
© Dave J. Hogan/Getty Images

France-Amérique: As part of filming Jackie, you had to recreate around ten outfits from the time. How did you go about your research?

Madeline Fontaine: With Jackie, we were lucky enough to have access to an incredible film and photo heritage. The team in charge of recreating the White House at the studios in Saint-Denis, France, had already carried out a lot of documentary research. My team and I focused on Jacqueline Kennedy’s character, her wardrobe, and the colors she loved. It was far easier than for other films or series, where you have to trawl through museums, study paintings, pore through books and interview historians.

Can you tell us about how you recreated the pink Chanel suit Jackie Kennedy was wearing on the day of her husband’s assassination in 1963?

Our work had to be extremely precise. We were unable to use the original piece as a guide [the iconic suit is stored in a windowless room at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland, and will not be presented to the public before 2103], but we received help from Chanel. We tried to find the right material, the perfect color, and the same production techniques. We first considered having the fabric remade by the person who worked with Chanel at the time, but we didn’t have time to approve the thread colors and weave enough material to create the five suits needed. Instead, we reproduced the pink woolen fabric for the suit and created the impression that the piece was a little looser. At the time, haute couture pieces were not as fitted as they are today.

Natalie Portman in Jackie. © Fox

You are currently working on the third season of the television series Versailles [available on Netflix since last December]. How did you reproduce the 17th-century costumes?

My work focuses on historical interpretation, not reconstitution. I use archive documents and my own research on art and costume history to recreate a historical setting. My goal is not merely to show viewers period costumes, but rather to transport them back to the film’s era and atmosphere.

Can you tell us about the costumes from the royal court?

There are 17th-century embroideries and silks available, but they are museum pieces and we obviously couldn’t use them for filming. I try to transmit sensations, sometimes even using anachronistic materials. While creating the silk clothing for Versailles, I used modern fabrics, prints and flocks that reflected light and created the impression of animal hide. But you can’t tell on-screen. The range of fabrics available today means we no longer have to reproduce old costumes piece by piece. It really reduces costs as well!

Do you have any authority over the historical accuracy of the productions you work on?

Screenwriters and directors are scared of history. I have to fight to make sure they apply the same codes from the period. American film makers tend to idealize the era of Louis XIV. They give it a gilded, glamorous sheen, and worry the end result won’t be modern enough. I am aware that headwear makes it hard to light faces on the screen, but hats are hats! If the character doesn’t wear one, then you find yourself in a different era. Hats and canes help make up the arsenal of male characters from the time. If you remove them for fear of presenting a dusty vision of history, then your story will lack something, or be off-topic. Clothing is a symbol of a period and of social standing. Each costume tells a story.