Paul Thomas Anderson’s masterpiece makes you think about love and fashion in ways you never have before. Janice Breen Burns deep-dives into Daniel Day-Lewis’s final film, and compares the real-life atelier of Antony Pittorino and Jacob Luppino of J’Aton, with the allegoric world of couturier Reynolds Woodcock.

(Phantom Thread opens this Thursday, February 1. This feature first appeared in The Saturday Age and Sydney Morning Herald. Longform post: allow 10-15 minutes readtime.)

Screen Shot 2018-01-29 at 11.15.53 am

The London atelier of couturier Reynolds Woodcock is exactly as you might imagine a peculiarly English temple of mid-1950s glamour; all elegant upswept stairs and chignons, shining gowns and chandeliers, the prim pock pock pock of heels on marble.

It’s a beautiful thing, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread, set in that House of Woodcock, a sleek, then sweet, then dark, then kinky plunge into a love affair in the fashion decade that nailed our most persistent archetype of womanly beauty: va-bust-va-waist-voom-hips, balanced over nicely turned ankles and dagger-slim feet.

I’ll stick my neck out and call it the best fashion film ever made and if humanities faculty doctoral thesis’ aren’t still being written on its mille-feuille of meanings – couture’s phantom threads – about love, sex and power in 10 years, I’ll hang up my frockritic pen forever.

Consider, for example, this tete-a-tete between Woodcock; Daniel Day Lewis ostensibly in his final film before retirement, and Alma, a young diamond-in-the-rough village girl who has caught his eye and got his creative – and other – juices flowing. She’s played by the naturally chic (I’m mischievously ignoring Woodcock’s later spit: “Chic; a filthy little word…”) Luxembourg actress Vicky Krieps, a one-to-watch in her first major international role.

“You have no breasts,” Woodcock says, measuring Alma for a gown.

“I’m sorry.” (She’s not sorry.)

“No no; it’s my job to give you some. If I choose to.”

Screen Shot 2018-01-29 at 11.06.49 am

And well may you say in this neo-post-feminist age; “Good grief” but, such was the golden age of couture, fashion’s era of demi-gods and patriarchy-by-glamourous-design. (Notwithstanding the century’s legendary madams Gres, Vionnet, Lanvin, Cheruit, Paquin, Chanel and Schiaparelli, most historic couturiers were and still are, male.)

Anderson’s deep research into 1950s’ high couture alighted particularly on Cristobel Balenciaga and Charles James. In their typically intense collaborative process, Day Lewis channelled both legendary couturiers, mastering their most intricate arts of draping, cutting, sewing and tailoring to more truthfully “inhabit” the impeccable and – from his lush shock of peppery grey hair to his perfectly perfect brogues – heart-pumpingly handsome Woodcock. (At the zenith of his method-acting immersion, Day Lewis actually cut and tailored an entire Balenciaga-esque suit.)

In Phantom, Day Lewis’s Woodcock is mesmerisingly split, oscillating between arrogance and agony to plug up his high-born women clients’ laundry list of issues from self-loathing to hopeless desire with exquisite couture, and then irritated by his flagging control and child-like weakness as a lover. “Reynolds is forced to wrestle to the ground his own peculiarities,” Anderson explains in his film notes (on which I relied for his insights after he cancelled two interviews. Read; very legendary, very busy….)

Screen Shot 2018-01-29 at 11.14.46 am

And so Phantom’s threads unspool from its centre. Woodcock’s atelier plays like an allegory of all fashion. The way we smother self doubt, bolster our ego with frocks, suits, cosmetics, hair styles, shoes and accessories. Woodcock and Alma’s affair plays like an allegory of all love. The way we circle and assess each other after that first chemical ping. How we test and test, syrupy sweet at first, then poking, jabbing, badgering for what’s real, what’s going to fit. You and me; are we possible? How much can you take of me? Can I control you? Will you control me? How could we work?

Eventually erratic, albeit tolerable, synchrony is reached and we are a couple at last. Or not. “It’s a variation on the gothic romance that examines the intimacy of falling in love,” says Anderson, “Against a backdrop of the dangerous battlefield known as the House of Woodcock.”

Woodcock and Alma’s ultimate solution to his needs and her wants crystallises in a shocking end twist that I won’t reveal here. But Woodcocks’ first shot across Alma’s young bow begins with an offer of beauty; a gown she has not requested. Hence, the tete-a-tete about breasts and who’s job it is to bestow them; God or Woodcock. The gown (despite my own perceptions jangling around patriarchal control); “Is a love letter to Alma,” says costume designer Mark Bridges, phoning from LA. “It’s his way of communicating to her how much he admires her, is enchanted with her.”

Screen Shot 2018-01-29 at 11.10.52 am

Bridges dove as deeply as Anderson and Day Lewis into these days of high protocol and the zenith of English couture, surfacing with concepts for gasp-worthy gowns on which the narrative dramatically pivots. “The ensemble dressing captured my imagination,” he says, “The rules, everything matching; the gown, shoes, jewellery and – the height of luxury – gloves the same fabric as the gown.”

Women’s bodies were sculpted, corrected, manipulated into the ideal; “Underpinning, the right kind of structure, the right shape under the dress was so important,” Bridges says. “Defining and making the waist look as small as possible…”

Woodcock’s first couture overture to Alma, for example, is a ball gown in pale lavender duchess satin (main pictures, top), a thicker and more sculptural cloth than your average silk, with a peculiarly feminine rustle and Hollywood-esque lustre. Woodcock/Bridges also overlaid the bodice, fitted snug to Alma’s torso and framing her milky-pale bare shoulders, with a rare curlicued ivory lace, delicately snipped and stitched to spill downward onto the gracefully swayed skirt and upward from its floorsweeper hemline.

The lace cranks up the gown’s girly modesty without dialling down its glamour and, if fashion is indeed a system of semiotics, a visual language with its own grammar and syntax as first theorised by academic Alison Lurie in the 1980s, then this is indeed, a love letter to Alma by a man with a precise recipe for how she might fit into his world. If she will only accept and concede.

“That moment when he dresses her is very complex,” says Vicky Krieps by phone from London. “It’s not only putting her in a box, it’s also wrapping her in beauty, wrapping her in warmth. It’s not negative to her, it feels like a blessing for Alma because there’s been a lot of cold wind in her life.”

Screen Shot 2018-01-29 at 11.13.20 am

Krieps’ Alma is Phantom’s elegant innocent, passive and bemused by Woodcock’s ordered life (supervised by his flinty sister Cyril, exquisitely realised by Lesley Manville) and his elegantly tetchy tests: “There is entirely too much movement at breakfast,” he carps one morning, his serenity shattered in Alma’s thunderous toast-buttering, crunching and tea-pouring.

It’s an hilarious moment but the irritation phase of falling in love is also thin ice. Every lover knows that. And Alma ultimately switches from patient participant, to quiet schemer – with some icky consequences – in her pursuit of synchrony, love and coupledom.

“She finds a way, and it’s an allegory of every kind of relationship that’s found its way,” Krieps says. “It’s like looking at old couples; very very old couples, and you know they’re together for life because they sometimes have weird and unique ways of being and communicating, ways that are strange but that was their way to meet as two individuals.”

Screen Shot 2018-01-29 at 11.09.17 am

In his atelier, Woodcock’s wealthy, aristocratic and royal clients are pampered, groomed to gorgeousness, pocked with insecurities. They need beauty; props, masks, reconstructive armour to help them more closely approximate the ideal woman. The loveable woman. “That’s the power of clothing,” says Bridges. “People can put something on and become someone else, or feel stronger or role play or just feel confident to express themselves.”

Phantom’s most remarkable gown achieves all this in spades for the puzzlingly timid Countess Henrietta Harding, a client of Woodcock’s performed by Gina McKee. “I feel like it will give me courage,” the countess says of the creation he’s calibrated especially to fit her foibles. Intriguingly, Bridges adapted the design from an original sketch by Day Lewis during the pre-production months he spent “inhabiting” Woodcock the couturier.

The gown is frankly hideous; a column skirt of pink silk satin flanked by mounds of bulls-blood velvet cascading to a wide train at the back and flaring to a batwinged bodice with medici diamond splits inset with pearls at the front. Hideous yes, but later in the film, on her husband’s arm at an heraldically grand event, the frock literally props up McKee’s wavering countess as stiffly and surely as a rock-hard carapace. “He can make the timid courageous,” Anderson says of Woodcock in his Universal film notes, “And the unattractive feel beautiful.”

Screen Shot 2018-01-29 at 12.20.52 pm


Transformation at best, miraculous enhancement at least, is still expected of modern couture. Real-life couturier Anthony Pittorino, partner in the legend-in-the-bud atelier J’Aton, passionately vouches for that: “So many (clients) aren’t happy with themselves,” he laments. “They’re coming to us, sometimes almost to change completely what they have: “I hate my hips! I hate my boobs!” And, we just look at each other: “But, my God, you’re beautiful, like Sophia Loren…”

J'Aton Wedding gown made for and modelled here by Rebecca Judd.  Photo: Jennifer Stenglein,

J’Aton Wedding gown made for and modelled here by Rebecca Judd. Photo: Jennifer Stenglein,

Which is toxic comment of course, to young women more enamoured of pretty striplings such as Bella Hadid and Cara Delvigne than ancient Italian movie stars. Pittorino laughs ruefully, and describes scenarios close to those played out in the House of Woodcock: “So we discuss what they’re paranoid about, what makes them feel insecure, and we sort of “redraw” – we call it shading – with boning and shaping (some materials that are more aggressive than others) and lines and embellishments to sort of re-align the body. It’s really a bit like that old thing; smoke and mirrors.”

Pittorino and partner Jacob Luppino are masterly sculptors of the classic womanly silhouette, as drawn in the 1950s. And they’ve created their lush, laboriously handworked gowns (costing an average $30,000) for women as wide-ranging as Beyonce, Rebecca Judd, Kim Kardashian, Dita Von Teese and myriad proverbial girls-next-door.

Dita Von Teese in a remarkable couture gown by J’Aton, Styled by Mark Vassallo, shot by Georges Antoni for Harpers Bazaar 2007.  Watch Voxfrock for an upcoming feature on J'Aton's life and work, particularly the story of this extraordinary gown.

Dita Von Teese in a remarkable couture gown by J’Aton, Styled by Mark Vassallo, shot by Georges Antoni for Harpers Bazaar 2007. Watch Voxfrock for an upcoming feature on J’Aton’s life and work, particularly the story of this extraordinary gown.

For their charm, perfectionism and the odd plunge into despair when a client demurs from their advice (“I’m like a sulky child,” grins Pittorino) the partners’ atelier is probably the nearest any 21st century Australian woman is likely to get to the kind of indulgence and knock-down, drag-out, lover-like intimacy offered by Phantom’s Reynolds Woodcock in Mayfair, 1955.

“The simple truth is,” Pittorino says, “Everyone wants to feel beautiful; men as well as women; they want empowerment, they want acceptance, they want to be liked, they want to be loved.”


Fashionable Footers:

Paul Thomas Anderson wrote, produced and directed Phantom Thread, his eighth film since his seminal Hard Eight in 1996. Phantom is Anderson’s second project with Daniel Day Lewis who won an Academy Award for best actor (the second of three in his career) in their last, typically intense, collaboration, There Will be Blood, 2007.Vicky Krieps has won several supporting role and emerging talent awards including, in 2012 the Prix de Jeune Espoir, Best Young Hopeful, in Luxembourg.

Lesley Manville O.B.E who plays Reynolds Woodcock’s acetic sister, Cyril, is a legendary veteran of British stage, television and film and has won many awards including British Actress of the Year twice.

Lesley Manville as Cyril

Lesley Manville as Cyril

Multi-award winning (Oscar, BAFTA, People’s Choice) costume designer Mark Bridges first worked with Anderson on Hard Eight in 2007 and has collaborated on several films since including Inherent Vice for which he was nominated for an Academy Award for best costume in 2014.

Janice Breen Burns is a freelance journalist and founder and editor of Voxfrock. She welcomes comments and contact at