Style in Film: Meryl Streep in ‘Out of Africa’

One of the great performances in Out of Africa is provided by the costumes. They effortlessly punctuate the stages in the heroine’s life, beautifully guiding us through her African adventure. “The costumes in Out of Africa had quite an impact on fashion. It was as though the fashion world was ready for the styles of the film; the costumes just caught something that was in the air”, costume designer Milena Canonero said.

In a 1986 Los Angeles Times article, Canonero revealed that she enjoyed working in the period of the early 1900s, because, unlike the Edwardian and Victorian periods or earlier, the clothes aren’t “costumey”, they could be adapted and worn today. Indeed, Meryl Streep’s costumes led to a flow of safari lookalike retail fashion in the late ’80s as a clear result of the influence of this film’s costumes. Designers like Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan, Michael Kors, Yves Saint Laurent and Thierry Mugler also used the style as inspiration for their collections after the film’s release.

Meryl Streep and Robert Redford play the leading parts in Sydney Pollack’s 1985 adaptation of Karen Blixen’s (whose pseudonym was Isak Dinesen) novel by the same name. Streep is Karen Blixen, a wealthy Danish woman who comes to colonial Kenya to get married and ensure a noble title, and Robert Redford plays the role of dashing Denys Finch Hatton, a free-spirited adventurer. The designer says that both actors have “their own styles of wearing the clothes”.

In order to come up with authentic costumes, true to the people and settings, Canonero had a very challenging work, including a meticulous research, which took her from the New York Public Library, to the museums and costume houses of England and Italy, to Blixen’s home in Denmark, immersing herself in her family archives and literary works, including fiction and personal letters, and to Africa, of course, where she consulted with anthropologist Richard Leakey.

Wherever she went, Canonero took along her Nikon — outfitted with a close-up lens for capturing small details — to photograph any visual references she could find and then she compiled her own reference library. She also worked in close collaboration with Stephen Grimes (who won the Oscar for his work as the production designer of the film), who arrived early on location in Kenya and would send her colour copies of his paintings so that she could blend the colours for the sets into her designs. Costumes for the lead characters and other non-Africans were made in London, while those of the local people were made in a workshop she set up in Nairobi.

Her wedding hat, made of white silk with antique embroidery, is the fanciest hat Meryl Streep wears throughout the film. The wedding costume was “very French” according to the designer, who wanted to make more of it than the original costume Karen Blixen had worn at her own wedding, which was very simple according to one of her letters.

The gold pin Meryl is wearing with many of her riding outfits is in fact Karen Blixen’s own, the only item from the author’s own wardrobe Melina Canonero could find and which was lent to the film.

My favourite lace-up paddock boots in camel leather and beige fabric.

“I didn’t copy one single thing, but I got influenced (by Dinesen) when I discovered some great photographs of her riding in duster coats and britches and standing around with two dogs wearing riding boots and safari jackets.” Meryl Streep wears a multitude of safari and riding looks in linen, cotton and drill cloth in shades of white, khaki and brown: khaki costumes and midi skirts, jodhpurs, belted safari jackets (“but double-breasted didn’t suit the shape of Meryl, so we did a different jacket”), crisp, white blouses and shirts, pith helmets and wide-brimmed safari hats, knee-high boots, a style not only suited for the place, but which conveys her adventurous self as well. The clothes project her free-spirited, independent personality.

But her elegant attires also include romantic linens in ivory and white, which suggest her other side: she came to Africa in search of romance as well. Canonero says that 30% of the wardrobe and most of Streep’s hats were original period pieces that she either rented, borrowed or lent from her personal collection.

The way she wears wrapped shawls evokes the local tribes.

When she returns to Africa, Karen takes on a new colour she adds to her safari pale hues: navy. Whether her travel dress, a jacket or this delicate dress in deep navy that she pairs with a tribal motif printed scarf and wooden-beaded necklace. The designer had to convince the local Kikuyu women to make the bone and brass earrings and bangles the heroine wears in the film.

This elephant brooch is my favourite of the many she wears throughout the movie.

“I’m not trying to do anything that affects fashion,” says Canonero. “If the clothes influence fashion, it is because fashion is already there.” One thing is for sure: the costumes in Out of Africa have had a lasting impact on fashion and will continue to serve as inspiration for designers and our wardrobes alike.

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photos: screen stills from the film captured by me; kindly link back to classiq if you would like to use any of these images | production credits
sources: Los Angeles Times, January 3rd, 1986; Sun Sentinel, February 11th, 1986

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