Dissertation Proposal: Joan of Arc and the Theatricality of Dress

By Alexandra Little

Joan of Arc and the Theatricality of Dress

Inspiration for this dissertation topic was a gown at the Barbican’s Jean Paul Gaultier: From Sidewalk to Catwalk exhibition. The ‘ex-voto’ gown (Fig. 1) combines the spirituality of religion with metallic plating on the dress associated with armour. This gown brings to mind the duality of war and religion in the figure of Joan of Arc.


Fig. 1: Jean Paul Gaultier, Ex-voto gown, Couture Collection, Spring 2007.

There is an iconic image of Joan of Arc that can be visualised. Fashion designers and costumiers have distorted and re-imagined this saintly figure in a variety of ways, for a variety of performances. Hollywood creates a depiction of history, whilst couture interprets a theme; this reworking of representations and use of symbolism that the audience will recognise helps to portray a character and idea. It is the connection between couture and costume that has emerged through this initial research: at what point does couture become costume?

‘The modern’ can never represent a clean break with the past; instead ‘modernity’ can be understood as a set of historical discourses and processes that are profoundly and necessarily caught up with the construction of the past’ (Evans, 2009: 20). This is extremely true with the intertwined relationship of war and religion running throughout history. This fraught tension and continual clash is, still today, a major part of historical study and seemingly a great influence creatively. However, film and fashion’s interpretations of this topic are altered to fit briefs that cause a reworking of history for creative development. The traditional dress of Joan of Arc has barely changed; with flowing skirts and armour she is a symbol of heroism, belief and strength. But throughout time and previous depictions, the aura of Joan, or a woman in armour, is as much a representation as the named character itself.

This is exemplified in Alexander McQueen’s ‘Joan’ Collection, A/W 1998-99 (Figs. 2 and 3), by a designer who frequently referenced strong women. This is also true for John Galliano’s Autumn 2006 couture collection for Dior (Fig. 4), which also used women in armour. Camilla Morton for Vogue described the Dior collection as: ‘surrealism took on Joan of Arc or Lewis Carroll’s Queen of Hearts in Wonderland’ (2006). However, the couture house stated no direct reference to Joan of Arc.


Fig. 2 and 3: Alexander McQueen ‘Joan’ Collection, A/W 1998-99.


Fig. 4: John Galliano for Dior, Couture Collection, Autumn 2006.

Barbara Karinska’s costumes for Joan of Arc (1948) won the first academy award for costume design (Fig. 5). Robin Blaetz, a film professor, discusses:

 ‘Unlike…other Joan of Arc vehicles, which took pride in the use of medieval texts to achieve authenticity in armour and costume, this version turned to a designer who specialized in idealizing the female form. Karinska’s goal was not to recreate the era or aura of Joan of Arc but to accentuate the line of the thigh’ (2001: 131).

According to a review of The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc (1999): ‘Of the performers, none matches in quality the exquisite photography, art direction or costume design [Fig. 6] that adorn the film’ (Zwick, 2000). Both films had mediocre response from critics, but one thing that stands out is the costumes of Joan of Arc in both productions.


Fig. 5: Ingrid Bergman as Joan of Arc in Joan of Arc, 1948. Directed by Viktor Flemming. USA: Sierra Pictures.


Fig. 6: Milla Jovovich as Joan of Arc in The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc, 1999. Directed by Luc Besson. USA: Gaumont.

The fashion houses’ use of couture is a creative expression. The majority of their revenue comes from accessories and fragrances. Due to this, couture displayed on catwalks is rarely worn out of context. It becomes an influence and inspiration for ready-to-wear and other mediums as an art form. This investigation will be an academic analysis looking into the relationship of high fashion and film costume. To tell a story, it is the similarities, differences and deconstruction of the key symbolism of a character that is used on the stage of a catwalk and on screen; where couture becomes so eccentric that it is costume. Fashion and film are creative outlets, but also commercial industries to generate profit. If the creative output were not economically conducive, these industries would not develop. However, it is the production of creativity in an academic approach that will be the focus.

This investigation will be covering a 60-year period and is limited to postwar western culture. Establishing the foundations of the research in the 1948 film Joan of Arc, will allow a comparison between the 1999 film The Messenger and McQueen’s collection of 1998-99, noting the changes in those 50 years. The research timeline will be completed with an investigation into how this has changed in the last 10 years with Galliano’s designs in 2006, which is associated with the idea of Joan of Arc, but not explicitly. Therefore, these milestones will be used to track cultural changes and alterations in design over a longer period, with specific examples in a more in depth analysis.

Throughout this initial research, the following questions have emerged: what do costume and couture have in common? And so, what are the key features and qualities used to depict Joan of Arc through appearance in film and fashion? The depiction of Joan of Arc is very regularly used throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, but what significance does this have as a reflection of contemporary society? Is this a reflection of her canonization in 1920?

Colin McDowell assesses that, ‘when we put on clothes we not only create a physical barrier; we also cocoon our personalities. We prepare ourselves for our daily combat with the world’ (2013: 162). Our clothes are our armour fundamentally and it is interesting how fashion and costume designers have played on contemporary ideals from a historical perspective. Joan of Arc is a symbol that is as relevant today as she was in her lifetime 600 years ago. Armour has become redundant due to developments in warfare and modern techniques, and yet this historical representation makes the armour a symbol of strength and harks back to an age of chivalry and morality.  The physical armour is represented but the metaphorical idea of it is more relevant today.

The display of these outfits on the catwalk and on screen is seen globally. These historical figures can be understood to be symbols, whether relevant or irrelevant to the world, they become a commentary on society at the time. Therefore, this investigation simultaneously looks at the depictions of the historical figure of Joan of Arc in film and fashion. By analysing trends in the cultural, economic and political significance of these representations at the time of their release, the intent is to show how this affects or alters the costume or fashions.

The topic of Joan of Arc has been well written about in many fields, as have the above designers and films; but these aspects of fashion history have not been questioned in relation to couture and costume, except for discussions of couturiers as costumiers. For example, The Fifth Element (Jean Paul Gaultier), another Luc Besson film, American Gigolo (Giorgio Armani), and more recently A Single Man (Tom Ford). There are sentences and small sections in books about this topic but the research to date has not shown an investigation into the contemporary reworking of the past. This investigation will seek to address this absence through the comparison of the two films and two fashion collections specified previously. Approaching dress history and contemporary fashion through the comparison of performance in film and footage of the catwalk gives a new approach in academic research. In challenging traditional ways of looking at art and imagery, and applying this to film and fashion, an original perspective on the relationship between couture and costume in the creation of the same character will be developed.



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3 thoughts on “Dissertation Proposal: Joan of Arc and the Theatricality of Dress

  1. Such a fascinating and original subject, Alex! I love that you’ve situated the relationship between couture and costume around the figure of Joan of Arc (not a person commonly linked with fashion). As you identified there is a strong relationship between religion, war and art, but (naively!) it never occurred to me that this relationship is also appropriated by fashion designers, creating a whole new meaning. Can’t wait to read your final research! – EM

  2. Pingback: Dissertation Proposal: Joan of Arc and the Theatricality of Dress | [In …DIGITAL NEWS | DIGITAL NEWS

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