Out of Africa and into Every Woman’s Wardrobe

There is a subtle and beautifully consistent pattern to the performance of the costumes in Out of Africa, which premiered in Los Angeles on this day in 1985. Without being heavy handed in appearance, the clothes effortlessly provide a visual manifestation of the stages of the life of the film’s heroine, Karen Blixen. Karen is a wealthy Danish woman who arrives in colonial Kenya to marry her lover’s brother in order to secure a noble title and, presumably, the bit of freedom that may come with being wealthy and living far from the social constrictions of early 20th century Europe.

Like all great performances, the costumes of Out of Africa are supported by an exceptional crew. Read any review immediately after its premiere on December 10, and you will be serenaded with praises of the film’s colors, those majestic hues that make up the landscape of Africa. Costume designer Milena Canonero was able to utilize the full effects of color in Karen’s wardrobe, thanks in part to her close collaboration with production designer, Stephen Grimes. Grimes, who went on to share the Oscar win for Best Art Direction-Set (Africa was nominated for 11 Oscars and won seven, though it lost the category of Costume Design to Ran), sent Canonero color copies of the paintings he did onsite in Kenya, so that she was ble to harmoniously tie the colors of the set into her designs.

In Kenya, Karen finds herself responsible for establishing and maintaining a coffee farm and the hundred-plus native workers who come with her new land. It becomes clear within the first days of their marriage that Karen’s husband has no intention of minding the farm or his new wife. It doesn’t take long for his philandering ways to send Karen home to Denmark for treatment of syphilis. Upon her return, Karen is not the same woman who first stepped off the train in Kenya several years earlier. Her dress says it all. In stark contrast to the delicate, ivory number she wore upon her initial arrival in Africa, Karen is now clothed in a deep, navy dress. It is a color that will effortlessly punctuate itself throughout the khakis and pale shades that dress the remainder of Karen’s African story.

The second perfectly timed appearance of blue comes during a dinner shared between Karen and her dear friend Berkeley. She has just returned from safari with her new lover Denys, a carefree American in love with Africa and his own independence. Karen again wears navy, a sublime backdrop for the scarf tied around her neck. The scarf is patterned with a tribal motif and paired with a wooden-beaded necklace. Her tribal accents and the deep color of her dress convey her new freedom, her new peace and a oneness with Africa.

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Karen spends the majority of the film a married woman, but her husband plays little significance in her daily life. For this reason Karen represents a free-spirited and strong-willed woman, an essentially American manifestation of the fiercely independent female. So it is little wonder that her clothing, the most easily replicated portion of her personality, found its way into American women’s fashion—and, soon, the rest of the Western world—immediately after Out of Africa’s release. According to Canonero, “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.”
Ralph Lauren and Banana Republic were just two brands to capitalize on the desire for safari-wear inspired by the styles of the film. Shortly after the movie’s release, there were reports of customers at Banana Republic specifically requesting to be dressed in fashions from the film. By the following summer, stores like the Limited and the Gap, as well as designers Donna Karan, Michael Kors, Yves Saint Laurent (who first did a Safari collection in 1966) and Thierry Mugler, who even sent Iman—look for her brief, but striking, cameo in the film—down the runway leading a tiger cub on a leash, were also creating safari jackets, khaki midis and crisp, white blouses.

Out of Africa was not the first time that Canonero was able to turn costume into contemporary fashion. Canonero’s work for 1981’s Chariots of Fire earned her a second Academy Award (her first was in 1975 for Barry Lyndon and a third came in 2007 for Marie Antoinette), and was credited for inspiring a revival of the 1920s styles sported by the movie’s characters.

Yves Saint Laurent did Safari first in 1966; in the late 80s, seemingly every designer was working the style into their collections.

Although it was the khaki-colored separates Karen Blixen sported during her encounters with lions and while caravanning supplies across the Kenyan desert that immediately caught attention and pocket-books, the influence of Canonero’s meticulously researched efforts concerning the traditional native costume of the Kenyan people would more quietly make a lasting impact as well. To see how, let’s return to Karen’s second navy dress. It is so casually accented by the “ethnic” details of a tribal-inspired scarf and beads. It is a look that is guaranteed to routinely show up in the fashion world’s conscience season after season. Proving that as long as American women continue to relate to Karen Blixen’s free spirit and strong will, Out of Africa will continue to make its way into our wardrobes. —Katrina Ernst

Cinemode is OTDIF’s ongoing compilation of the world’s most stylish films, a must-see list for fans of fashion. From Klute to Breakfast at Tiffany’s to Shaft, some of the greatest style inspiration comes from the characters and costumes in film. Bookmark Cinemode and check back often to read the growing list. The reviews, written with an eye specifically toward fashion, are added to On This Day In Fashion on the anniversary of the film’s release date.

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One Response to “Out of Africa and into Every Woman’s Wardrobe”

  • Good article. For those of us women/feminists living in 1985, “Out Of Africa” was our dream. A strong woman, snubbed by her husband, a wastrel, she ran the farm, she cultivated the affections of the workers (though she called them, “MY Kukuri” — the times of English masters and servitude), she fell in love and had the courage to be a free woman. Through adversities, she carried on. Karen used to say that she loved “the colors of Africa” — she loved the yellows, the beiges and kaikis, the soft greens, and though I did not know it at the time, watching the movie, the costume designer Canonero took the look of the land and blended the clothes into it. The movie, the colors are gorgeous, subtle, yet inspiring. The outfits of Karen (she had money), were perfect for Meryl Streep. Canonero did an excellent job with the costumes, subtle, yet riveting.

    For those of you young ones who haven’t availed yourself of viewing this movie, I urge you to. A masterpiece.

    I was one of those who went to Banana Republic to buy such clothes. To me, B.R. WAS that look.

    Thanks for this look at the ideas behind the film and costumes.

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