Home Estate Planning The Saltburn lesson: clothes and costume are different

The Saltburn lesson: clothes and costume are different

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Full disclosure: I saw Emerald Fennell’s Saltburn before Christmas and, after an uneven first 20 minutes, I was absolutely dazzled. The sumptuous, sinister, stylish film was an ascending spiral of shocking delight which left me after two hours laughing at the 38-year-old writer/director/producer’s sheer audacity.

There has been a lot of gleeful dissection of the film’s style. Saltburn has a very specific setting in time: Oliver arrives at Oxford in Michaelmas term 2006, putting the bulk of the film in the summer of 2007, and Fennell was very particular about that fact. Filming took place in 2022, 15 years afterwards, and, as she told one interviewer, that interval, “wherever you are in time, is kind of lame, you know: everyone looks dated, but not cool. It’s not ironic yet.”

Of course it is no coincidence that Fennell was 21: she graduated from Greyfriars, a tiny “permanent private hall” at Oxford run by the Capuchin monks, that summer and made her screen debut in ITV’s Trial and Retribution. It feels personal to her—“I’m just a basic bitch raking over the coals of my life like everyone else”—which added enormous piquancy to the task of Sophie Canale, the costume designer.

Canale, whose back catalogue includes Bridgerton, Kingsman: The Secret Service and Assassin’s Creed, nailed the importance of her role: “Clothing is really key to who and how people are. We’re all part of tribes, even if we don’t intend to be.” There has been a focus on that strange period of the mid-2000s, ten years after the heyday of Britpop, with Westlife battling Razorlight and the Kaiser Chiefs in an attempt to find a coherent vibe that was never really uncovered.

The costume designed ticked off designers and brands like Christopher Kane, Agent Provocateur and Valentino, but also Kate Moss’s partnership with Topshop (now under the wing of online giant ASOS). Inevitably those who crave a new wardrobe which can make reference to current culture will look at what the characters wear and look for inspiration. I’ll content myself with the fact that the Cattons dress for dinner at Saltburn and have my dinner jacket pressed. But there is a fallacy in this that I think we miss.

When we rush to adopt “a look”, whether it is the summer of 2007, or Audrey Hepburn’s little black dress by Givenchy, or Dior’s New Look in the bleak post-War days of 1947, we risk pickling it in aspic. What we adopt as a costume was worn at the time principally as clothing, with its own nods to the then-present and past, but we scoop it up and cut it adrift from its cultural moorings. And that makes it something different.

I think we instinctively understand this distinction even if we don’t articulate it. We might like what we see on the cinema screen, feel drawn to it and want to take on its feel: if you’re old enough you will remember the Young Fogey fallout from Granada’s epic 11-part Brideshead Revisited in the early 1980s. But slavish copies will always bear the hallmark of artificiality, of stilted discomfort. Fundamentally they lack authenticity.

Fashion will always be essentially a contradiction. We want to look as if we are au courant (well, I imagine most of you do: I see no other explanation), yet we desperately want to be individuals. The same, but different. Saltburn is a rich pattern book for your spring/summer wardrobe, especially if you’re of an age at which the late 2000s are happy, hazy, hedonistic, carefree memories, but be inspired rather than imprisoned.

And enjoy it. As Farleigh says, bring on the slutty faeries…

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