The Liberation of Lili in ‘The Danish Girl’


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A sketch of a suit for Einar Wegener.

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Paco Delgado

“Ambivalence is more shocking than anything; we love having things defined.” That’s the costume designer Paco Delgado on the challenge of understanding a character like the one Eddie Redmayne plays in the period drama “The Danish Girl”: the real-life Danish artist Einar Wegener striving to become Lili Elbe, the woman he believes himself to truly be.

The character’s evolution — or liberation, as Mr. Delgado described it — is a struggle as Mr. Redmayne swings like a pendulum between Einar and Lili, masculine and feminine, suits and dresses.

Finding the right balance for each scene was a group effort involving Mr. Delgado; the makeup and hair designer Jan Sewell; Tom Hooper, the director; and Mr. Redmayne, all of whom had worked together previously on “Les Misérables.”

Unofficial fittings began almost a year before “The Danish Girl” was announced to the public. “It was during one of those first camera tests that we found Lili; we knew it was going to work,” Ms. Sewell said.

In separate phone calls, Ms. Sewell and Mr. Delgado spoke more about the transition from Einar to Lili and what it means to “have a waist.” Here are edited excerpts from those conversations:

The androgyny challenge In the postwar 1920s, women’s position in society changed, and so did their clothing, Mr. Delgado said, adding, “We go from a silhouette based on the corset to one that is much more androgynous.”

And while that may seem like an assist when dressing a transgender character, in some ways it presented more of a challenge, he said. Clothes were moving away from the body, waistlines were dropping, chests were being de-emphasized, but Lili needed to have a waist. “Men’s bodies are sort of waistless. If you say a man has a waist, it is not a compliment,” Mr. Delgado said. “But for women, it means they are sensual, feminine, and that’s what we wanted to achieve.”

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A sketch for Lili’s ballgown.

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Paco Delgado

So he used belts, sashes and petticoats to give shape to Mr. Redmayne’s midsection and found inspiration in the designs of Jeanne Lanvin, a French designer of 1920s couture, who borrowed heavily from the 17th and 18th centuries.

The liberation of Paris Lili was trying to liberate herself, but so was Gerda, Einar’s artist wife, played by Alicia Vikander. Her look undergoes a different transformation. At the start of the film, in Copenhagen, Gerda appears more Edwardian and restrained in blue and gray linen. But when the couple moves to Paris and Gerda’s career takes off, she loses her corset and adopts a warmer palette. “She wears fringe, silk, so there is a lot more movement in her clothes,” Mr. Delgado said. “They become a more modern couple in every sense.”

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Eddie Redmayne, left, and Alicia Vikander.

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Focus Features

Einar’s feminine features In early scenes, Ms. Sewell tried to emphasize Mr. Redmayne’s masculine features as Einar because the audience would need to see his journey through his face. “So I highlighted his bone structure, his jawline, and I made his brow very strong,” she said. Then she began to strip those features away. “Every scene where Lili has to go back to being Einar, I made him slightly more feminine.”

She began loosening his wigs, bringing wavy curls onto his forehead to make it seem as if he’d stopped getting haircuts, she said. To his eyelashes, she applied mascara she made, “just to darken them, make them look longer.”

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Mr. Redmayne as his look softens in “The Danish Girl.”

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Focus Features

Research revealed that some transgender people tend to overcompensate with heavy makeup and long wigs at the start of their transition, Ms. Sewell said. “It’s almost like a teenage girl discovering her sexuality,” she explained. “They go a little bit over the top.” But she settled on a lighter palette because “Lili was always inside Einar, and I didn’t want the makeup to get in the way of Eddie bringing her out.” She left Mr. Redmayne’s freckles visible, though the real Einar did not have any.

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Mr. Redmayne as Lili in “The Danish Girl.”

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Focus Features

The most important costume In the beginning of the film, Einar wears dark, structured suits with large, flouncy bow ties bursting through cartoonishly high shirt collars, a popular look for men at the time. Mr. Delgado said the idea was that Einar’s suits are akin to armor trapping Lili.

But as the film progresses, “his collars get lower and lower, we move to soft colors, his suits get less restricted.” In Paris, those slight adjustments culminate in a lightweight cream suit he wears belted at the waist, and so feminine that he is mistaken for a woman.

“For me, that is the most important costume in the movie,” Mr. Delgado said, adding, “The day that Eddie walked onto the set for the first time in that cream suit, the reaction from a lot of people, especially the men, was shock. They were used to seeing Eddie dressed as a man. They were used to seeing Eddie dressed as a woman; but this was ambivalent.”

“It just shows how nowadays, we’re so unconcerned with the way we dress that we don’t realize how drastic and reactive fashion could be at that time,” he continued, “that people could feel insulted by what someone was wearing.”



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