Daniel Day Lewis reverse-engineered a vintage Balenciaga dress from scratch

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Over the years, I’ve covered a lot of bonkers stories and bonkers interviews. I will never label Daniel Day Lewis as “bonkers” or “crazy” or whatever, but it should be said… he is a profoundly strange man. For the most part, it’s a delightful sort of strangeness, in that he’s a true original, an authentic and consummate artist living in a world of oversaturation, fake reality and Twilight Zone politics. Basically, we don’t even deserve DDL. He’s too good for this world. I sat down to read DDL’s W Magazine cover profile, not really expecting anything. But man, he actually TALKED. He’s promoting Phantom Thread, his last movie ever. He announced his retirement shortly after wrapping on Phantom Thread, and he talks a lot about how he just made up his mind that the film would be his last. He also talks about learning how to sew and really learning how to craft a dress. This story is extraordinary:

To become Woodcock, Day-Lewis, who is 60, watched archival footage of fashion shows from the 1940s and ’50s, studied the lives of designers, and most important, learned to sew. He consulted with Cassie Davies-Strodder, then curator of fashion and textiles at the Victoria and Albert Museum, in London. And for many months he apprenticed under Marc Happel, who is head of the costume department at the New York City Ballet, watching intently and then helping to reconstruct the famous Marc Chagall costumes for a production of Firebird. At the end of the ballet season, Day-Lewis decided he needed to build a couture piece from scratch.

“I saw a photograph of a Balenciaga sheath dress that was inspired by a school uniform,” Day-Lewis told me on a chilly day in October….“The Balenciaga dress was very simple,” he continued. “Or at least it looked very simple until I had to figure out a way to make it and then realized, My God, this is incredibly complicated. There is nothing more beautiful in all the arts than something that appears simple. And if you try to do any goddamn thing in your life, you know how impossible it is to achieve that effortless simplicity.”

Unable to borrow the actual dress, which is in the Balenciaga archives in Paris, Day-Lewis made a sketch of it and then, using his wife as a fit model, set to draping heavy gray flannel directly on her tall, narrow frame. “Rebecca was very patient,” Day-Lewis said with a slight smile. “The code that I had to crack was a very particular gusset in the armpit. You couldn’t tell from the photos how the gusset was designed. Marc and I each worked on our version of the gusset and, through trial and error, ­figured it out.” Day-Lewis lined the dress in silk, in a pinky shade of lilac that would become Woodcock’s signature hue. “Rebecca has worn the dress,” Day-Lewis said proudly. “It’s very pretty.”

[From W Magazine]

Bless him. That kind of level of dedication to research is next-level. It makes me sort of wonder if he has an undiagnosed obsessive-compulsive disorder which is fed by his next-level preparations for his films. Here are more highlights from W:

On The Age of Innocence: “Too English. But Scorsese was a damn good reason to say yes. I had seen Taxi Driver five or six times in the first week that it came out, and I was hoping he’d ask me to do something more like that. Back then, contrary to expectations, I only wanted to tell American stories.”

Deciding to do his first “English” film in 32 years: “I don’t know why, but suddenly I had a strong wish to tell an English story. England is deep in me. I’m made of that stuff. For a long time, a film set in England was too close to the world that I’d escaped from—drawing rooms, classic Shakespeare, Downton Abbey did not interest me. But I was fascinated by London after the war. My parents told stories about living through the Blitz, and I felt like I ingested that. I am sentimental about that world. And my dad was very much like Reynolds Woodcock. If a poet is not self-absorbed, what else is he?”

Deciding to quit acting: “Before making the film, I didn’t know I was going to stop acting. I do know that Paul and I laughed a lot before we made the movie. And then we stopped laughing because we were both overwhelmed by a sense of sadness. That took us by surprise: We didn’t realize what we had given birth to. It was hard to live with. And still is.”

The sadness: “I haven’t figured it out. But it’s settled on me, and it’s just there. Not wanting to see the film is connected to the decision I’ve made to stop working as an actor. But it’s not why the sadness came to stay. That happened during the telling of the story, and I don’t really know why…I knew it was uncharacteristic to put out a statement. But I did want to draw a line. I didn’t want to get sucked back into another project. All my life, I’ve mouthed off about how I should stop acting, and I don’t know why it was different this time, but the impulse to quit took root in me, and that became a compulsion. It was something I had to do.”

[From W Magazine]

He seems to push away the interviewer’s attempts to draw out psychological reasons for his retirement, but it struck me that he spent three decades running away from his posh, British, intellectual life and when he returned to it for Phantom Thread, he couldn’t shake it off – he couldn’t shake off his past, his American life, and then he realized that he actually did become a man just like his father. I don’t know. It’s just a theory.

Embed from Getty Images

Photos courtesy of Getty, W Magazine.

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33 Responses to “Daniel Day Lewis reverse-engineered a vintage Balenciaga dress from scratch”

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  1. Jabberwocky says:


    • Jenny says:

      Me too! And incredibly sad that DDL is retiring.

    • Nicole says:

      Same. So sad he’s retiring. He’s one of the greats

      • third ginger says:

        I am repeating myself in my old age, but he has been my favorite actor since 1985!!

      • Susannah says:

        His Lincoln performance is one of the greatest I’ve ever seen. That movie itself isn’t that good but how he portrayed Lincoln’s voice and mannerisms, his innate optimism and tremedmous weariness after losing his son and dealing with such a devastating war, were absolutely spellbinding. I feel like I know Lincoln because of DDL’s portrayal, as odd as that is to say, it was that incredible.

    • nicole says:

      This looks really good, and he is such a good actor, I will definitely watch this.

  2. smee says:

    The headline of this post sounds like my dream “porn” movie 😉
    Cannot wait to see this film.

    • Jabberwocky says:

      Finish it with “…custom fit for Jabberwocky” and yes, that’d be the only ‘porn’ I’d need.

  3. Wilma says:

    I’m so looking forward to this movie! And so impressed that he made a Balenciaga! I make clothes myself and while every dress can be made with patience and careful working it is hard to work out how something in a garment works based on just photos.

    • LadyMTL says:

      I can barely sew on a button without stabbing myself in the fingers and / or losing my patience, so I cannot imagine the level of dedication it must take to make clothes from scratch.
      Bravo to all of you who have that skill!

      • third ginger says:

        I am still ashamed that I got a “D” on the apron I made in middle school. Admiration for this skill.

    • Tiffany :) says:

      “so impressed that he made a Balenciaga!”

      I love him and all, but can we really call what he did a Balenciaga? He took a stab at draping a knock-off. It is kind of like the people that give the side-eye to Natalie Portman for suggesting that a ballerina can be made in 6 months of training. I don’t think an actor with limited training, or even person with years of experience, could make a garment that fit just like a Balenciaga.

      • Wilma says:

        I do believe creating a couture dress is attainable for everyone who’s willing to put the effort in. Though you do need a good eye for construction, Balenciaga should not be too complicated. You can teach yourself this from books and don’t need a complicated skillset. Just a lot of patience and a careful way of working.

  4. T.Fanty says:

    I mean, he’s always had issues with his background. He walked away from Hamlet and never returned to the stage. He seems to be a very troubled man.

    • isabelle says:

      Read a long article about why he did it, basically he was overwhelmed at the time. He seems very sensitive, not in emotions but through environment. A true sensitive person, a person like that wouldn’t be able to act back to back or a lot. Probably why he takes long breaks and is now retiring.

  5. MostlyMegan says:

    He lives in Ireland and has dual UK/Irish citizenship.

    • nicole says:

      Yes he has a house in Wicklow, he spends alot of time here, he was amazing playing Christy Brown in My left foot, I cant think of any other actor who is as good as him.

  6. third ginger says:

    I don’t need to analyze him, tempting as that may be. He has an astonishing track record in film. I will just see PHANTOM THREAD, and enjoy all the other past performances.

  7. Scal says:

    I really really want to see the dress that he made for his wife!

  8. ALLY says:

    From a gossip point of view, it’s fun to watch the Rebecca Miller-directed and -co-scripted Maggie’s Plan and imagine why the idea of amicably shipping a needy and self-centred artsy husband back to his beautiful, eccentric ex-wife might have appealed to Miller.

    • Meadowlarky says:

      Not gonna lie, I did the same thing when I watched it. Lol. It’s also hard to forget how much of a playboy DDL was before he married… like, literally, womanizing up until the day he married Miller.

    • mannori says:

      MTE. Also: her insistence about how couples are always composed by one partner who’s the “star” and the other always taking the back seat. She worded it differently I wish I could remember her exact words. That was pretty obviously autobiographic

  9. Lucy says:

    This will probably be the first movie of him that I’ll actually get to see at the cinema. About the strange thing, could it be that DDL is actually an alien of sorts, alla Swinton?

    • PunkyMomma says:

      I was just thinking he’s a bit like David Bowie — not of this place. Tilda fits in that realm, too.

  10. Annetommy says:

    Pretentious, moi? I’m disappointed he didn’t use his renowned cobbling skills to make matching shoes. Truly a Renaissance man!

    • isabelle says:

      Don’t think he is pretentious at all. He is eccentric & a bit odd, sensitive. Compared to most celebs he is very low on “give me attention” scale & have never heard an interview with him talking down to someone or pretending to be someone with supposed high intellect. Very opposite of it, he comes off humble.

    • Jabberwocky says:

      Interesting. I never thought I’d see it suggested that learning how to cobble shoes – literally used for generations as shorthand for “menial labour” – could be claimed to be pretentious.

      Where are you from, Antetommy?

      • Annetommy says:

        I think “reverse engineering” a frock is pretentious. And being a cobbler by trade is a very useful and respectable job. But for a famous actor to go and do it? He’s perfectly entitled to do it, but I’m entitled to see it as a rather patronising bid to be an ” artisan”. The final scene of Timothee Charmalet’s face in Call Me By Your Name moves me more than anything DDL has ever done.

  11. themummy says:

    He honestly seems like an incredible and incredibly interesting man. It will be interesting to read biographies of him someday. I bet they will be great reads.

  12. Eleonor says:

    I think acting for him is emotionally exhausting and he has reached the point where he wants to stop.
    He is one of the most amazing actor out there, and he has all my respect.

  13. mannori says:

    mmm we love to love Daniel and his incommensurable talent but he loves to love himself and being praised and lauded, rightfully so in his case unlike to all the other egomaniac and often talentless colleagues of his. He’s done this before. He’s quit and went into hiding and becoming a shoemaker in Firenze. And THEN HE CAME BACK. He can’t help it: he will come back. He just needs to feel “desired” again.