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Phantom Thread's Poignant Glimpse Into the Designer Mind

By Jackie Mallon

Jan 2, 2018


In Phantom Thread Daniel Day Lewis plays dress designer Reynolds Woodcock whose Georgian townhouse in 1950s London is frequented by only the most elegant women: princesses, actresses, debutantes and muses. Although the most-repeated inspiration for the character has been Charles James, the actor himself admits to researching the lives of designers including Cristóbal Balenciaga, Hardy Amies, Norman Hartnell, Michael Sherard, Digby Morton, Edward Molyneux, Victor Stiebel, and John Cavanagh.

The secret to a dress

The swooning piano score, the high-ceilinged rooms and entrance-making staircases, and most importantly the costumes designed by Mark Bridges with credited help from the Victoria & Albert Museum are lustrous and filmed with a sense of intimacy, in particular a lingering shot of seamstresses’ fingers folding a grosgrain trim. The tone is romantic but suspenseful as the dresses contain secrets. Much as Alexander McQueen famously claimed to have done, Woodcock slips little embroidered messages into the seams such as “Never cursed” in the hem of a wedding gown commissioned by a royal. “You can sew almost anything into the canvas of a coat,” he says in voice-over. And there is the feeling that this renowned visionary imbues every sleeve, train, neckline and silk flower with a piece of his soul.

Truth in fiction

But the phantom thread that connects individuals on grand quests for creativity is often slightly more twisted than cliché descriptions such as renowned visionary, or supreme perfectionist or sensitive genius might suggest. As a former design assistant to characters such as Woodcock in the non-fiction fashion world, I have witnessed at intimate quarters how the spinning of dreams can be a warped, often absurd affair. This is why other designers will find the movie so refreshing. Contemporary fashion documentaries keep the non-fashion viewer too much in mind, movies like Unzipped or Valentino; The Last Emperor, to varying extents, only show what the designer wants us to see. But in this work of fiction, we see the truth.

An incurable condition

Woodcock calls himself ‘incurable’ which is a decent description for the condition. He moves swiftly from inspiration to impatience, chronic insecurity to utter self-absorption, cruelty to childish vulnerability. As he measures every inch of his new muse, Alma’s, body we see how he casually wounds her by remarking on her lack of breasts while relishing the challenge of “giving” her some. She is a creature to be built and he is the only one with the masterplan who is up to the task. Woodcock, your omnipotence is showing, and it not only makes for great drama but resonates.

The arc of a dress

The lifespan of dresses has traditionally been six months, the arc of a fashion season. So unlike a painter or sculptor, clothes artists are seeing the birth of their vision and the beginning of its death as soon as the last stitch is sewn. So much craft and labor––at one time in the movie I counted fifteen sewing ladies and Woodcock surrounding one dress––goes into the process of realizing the fantasy, and then it’s over, curtains, fade to black. A perfect companion piece to the movie is Leopardi’s romantic poem Dialogue Between Fashion and Death in which Fashion asks Death to recognize her as his sister saying, “Do you not remember we are both born of Decay?” Woodcock delivers a similar line in the movie: “There’s an air of quiet death in this house.”

Self-destructive tendencies

The sense of doom around the designer’s craft explains the feverish urgency with which he sketches: if the muse leaves, he will be bereft. The petulance he exhibits when his routine is even slightly disturbed, and the strange gluttony and purging to his habits also indicate that he is subject to a contract that might expire at any moment. He orders a restaurant breakfast of Welsh rarebit with a poached egg on top, a pot of Lapsang tea, jam––but not strawberry––and sausages, then chides his sister and business partner, Cyril, for bringing stodgy food into the house. His existence is a tentatively struck bargain with the divine, a fragile power dynamic to which the largest threat is inevitably the vagaries of fashion itself; the outside forces of change.

Many designers, Rei Kawakubo, Giorgio Armani, to name two, claim not to look into their past, only forward. A phantom thread for many designers, at which they daren’t pull for fear of what will unravel, is the worry that they have reached their peak already, that they can never reclaim former glory and are losing relevance. To dwell on the past would suggest they have run out of ideas or, worse, their success was an illusion and they are little more than phantom thread weavers. (Although the fashion moment of 2017 was arguably Versace’s revisit of the archives served up on the supermodels of that era so maybe Donatella has an instinct for the zeitgeist or an ear for counsel that her peers lack.)


Many designers like Woodcock claim indifference, even superiority, to society’s frivolities and market demands, interested only in charting their own course, but when he is informed of a client’s defection to another house, one which is considered ‘chic,’ he spits the word like it is an affront to the beauty and discipline that he represents. Chic?! His sense of betrayal cuts deep, taken as a personal attack, and we would not be surprised to hear him yell, I made her everything she is! ‘“My brother can feel cursed,” explains Cyril. Unfortunately it is a curse that will never be lifted.

No mere trifles

Dresses can be considered trifles in the grand scheme of arts and culture. Only recently did museums begin to create exhibitions around designers’ work and initially clothes were displayed alongside pieces of furniture and art from the period to give them more gravitas. “Is Fashion Really Museum Art?” asked the New York Times in 2011, even though this was at the heart of the frenzy around the record-breaking Alexander McQueen Savage Beauty exhibit at the Met. But fashion creators, both those of the past upon which Woodcock has been modelled, and some of those still working today having spent decades dressing princesses, actresses, debutants and muses, obsess like painters over color, line, form, movement and fantasy; they suffer at the mercy of a tug-of-war between catharsis and purgation that has become integral to their creative process and which makes the lives of those around them difficult. But make no mistake, they labor under the impression that they are artists. For them it is society that is slow to catch on.

Read more on fashion films here. By contributing guest editor Jackie Mallon, who is on the teaching faculty of several NYC fashion programmes and is the author of Silk for the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion industry.

All photos from Phantom Thread Facebook page