Daniel Day-Lewis – His Swan Song: A Fine Life Beyond Fashion

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Daniel Day Lewis 4

Daniel Day-Lewis at the 85th Academy Awards, presented with his third Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role for Lincoln (2012).

Daniel Day Lewis, multi award winning actor, has announced that he is to end his much-admired career, retiring after completing filming of a role appraising a new generation of designers and fashion followers about Charles James, the talented creative known as “America’s First Couturier”.

British born and a master creator, Daniel Day-Lewis is a rare and gifted individual admired both by his peers and his audience. He is an extraordinary superstar of our age and his career has resulted in a very fine body of work, which will be his own legacy, wonderful roles that have had a life of their own way beyond fashion.

He first worked with writer director and American filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson in 2007 on the multi award nominated film There Will Be Blood, which the New York Times declared earlier this year, the ‘Best Film of the 21st Century So Far’.

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Daniel Day-Lewis at the Oscars

Anderson has written the screenplay and with Day-Lewis widely acclaimed for his ability to plumb the depths and connect with the essence of the characters he plays, would mean the stage is set for the Phantom Thread to be released at Christmas 2017, to become another triumph for Lewis and Anderson both.

They are making a film that will inform us about what it takes to live a ‘fashionable life’. Charles James (1906-1978) started his brilliant career as a hat-maker, creating specialised hats directly on to his client’s heads, creations that were considered at first more like sculptures than integral aspects of costume.

James by Beaton

Photograph of Nancy and Charles James by Cecil Beaton, 1955. Courtesy of the Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby’s

His most poignant statements about his world throughout his career were broadcast by perhaps its most acclaimed photographer for decades, the great Cecil Beaton (1904-1980) through imagery. He continually captured both Charles James the man and his costumes during their lifetimes.

Beaton wrote an essay for Vogue in 1946 asking ‘Is it the clothes or the woman’. He observed ‘fashion’; designers dressed and reshaped women’s bodies, as if the scissors were slicing through flesh, not fabric.

Eight models wearing Charles James gowns, in French & Company's Interior

Charles James Ball Gowns, 1948, courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photograph by Cecil Beaton, Beaton / Vogue / Condé Nast Archive. ©Condé Nast

James designed dresses for grand social occasions. His legacy of style included creating a whole new age of ballgowns and his most iconic and much admired image was taken by Beaton in 1948 when, within a few years of the war, everyone was wanting to celebrate life and beauty once more.

It is a room full of models wearing splendid Charles James gowns, photographed in the ornate interior of French & Co, New York. The models are just like the room’s neoclassical architecture; cool and elegant, and it’s no surprise they have been likened to images of ancient sculpture, swathed in silk – Venus for a night.

Charles James (American, born Great Britain, 1906–1978) "Butterfly" Ball Gown, ca. 1955 Brown silk chiffon, cream silk satin, brown silk satin, dark brown nylon tulle The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Friends of The Costume Institute Fund, 2013

Charles James (American, born Great Britain, 1906–1978) “Butterfly” Ball Gown, ca. 1955 Brown silk chiffon, cream silk satin, brown silk satin, dark brown nylon tulle The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Friends of The Costume Institute Fund, 2013

Beaton and James both met at Harrow a British public school, discovering they had been blessed with a rare talent that would help them both in different ways to define decade after decade of fashionable societal life during the twentieth century on each side of the Atlantic. This is the period American filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson has set his film, at a time when Charles James was, as indeed is Daniel Day-Lewis, at a great pinnacle of his career and life. James at the time was designing garments for members of high society and the royal family.

Charles James Gowns The Met

Installation photo of gowns by Charles James, courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art New York, 2014

Some of Charles James quite simply stunning gowns were given names and in 2014 they were showcased in an exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

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Daniel Day Lewis in The Age of Innocence

Throughout his career Daniel Day Lewis has continually produced convincing and courageous performances. As an aspect of his career he has always been considered, offering brilliant betrayals both informing and inspiring his viewing audience.

His professionalism demanded he worked hard to understand the qualities making the people he portrayed memorable; whether they were a delightful fictional construct, or men of history by infusing them with the nature of their reality.

“Shall I be gone long?
For ever and a day
To whom there belong?
Ask the stone to say
Ask my song”

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Happy Days – C Day-Lewis and his son Daniel in 1968

The stanza of a poem by his father scholar and Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom (1968-1972) Cecil Day-Lewis CBE (1904-1972) seems to say it all.

He would have no doubt been pleased his son and daughter bequeathed their father ‘s papers to Oxford Universities Bodleian Libraries in 2012, where his ‘lifelong friends and peers all met as undergraduates,’ Lewis observed at the time.


Daniel Day Lewis as Johnny and Gordon Warnecke as Omar in My Beautiful Laundrette

Daniel Day-Lewis’s portrayal of the street-punk named Johnny in the low-budget movie My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) was a triumph. The love story between Johnny and Omar (Gordon Warnecke) was both defining and uplifting. After leaving the cinema, I remember feeling they had been part of a movie that would impact on social change in a good way.

Daniel Day Lewis as Cecil Vyse

Daniel Day-Lewis as Cecil Vyse in A Room with a View (1985)

It was in the same year Daniel Day-Lewis gave the seemingly passionless pretentious fiancée of Lucy Honeychurch (Helena Bonham Carter) Cecil Vyse, in the delightful A Room with a View (1985), both a purpose and presence. He gave us a sensitive portrait of a complex man of many limitations who seemed to have a great deal happening just below the surface. He gifted Cecil with a depth of humanity and frailty rarely seen before.

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Daniel Day-Lewis as Cecil Vyse and Helena Bonham Carter as Lucy Honeychurch in A Room with a View (1985)

He was integral to perhaps one of the finest ensemble casts assembled in a movie that so sensitively examined the restrained culture that was the order of the day in Edwardian England. His was the role that encouraged us all to think about how we feel, instead of rushing to act rashly on our feelings.

‘I have no profession. My attitude – quite an indefensible one – is that as long as I am no trouble to anyone, I have the right to do, as I like. It is, I dare say, an example of my decadence’ was one of Cecil’s best lines, although I confess to his admiring his extolling Cecil’s plans for he and Lucy’s glorious future together.

“I will have our children educated just like Lucy, bring them up among honest country folk for freshness, send them to Italy for subtlety and then, and not until then, bring them to London”.

Age of Innocence

Daniel Day Lewis in The Age of Innocence (1993)

It would take four years before his portrayal of Christy Brown in My Left Foot (1989) , a movie that completely broke all our hearts as he made us all think deeply and connect with those living life with a disability, an experience that was part of my life.

The film was universally admired and it won Daniel Day-Lewis his first Oscar at the Academy Awards for Best Actor.

His Newland Archer in Edith Wharton’s great novel The Age of Innocence (1993) was so achingly elegant.

He made us all want to go back in time and gloriously inhabit the world of late nineteenth century in New York, during the age of the fashionable promenade.

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Daniel Day-Lewis as Nathaniel Poe (Hawkeye) in The Last of the Mohicans (1992)

His dazzling portrayal of Nathanial Poe, or ‘Hawkeye’, in The Last of the Mohicans (1992) was both brave and fearless and it is no surprise when you discover how hard he worked to acquire wilderness survival skills before playing the role.

The extraordinary battle sequences and highly emotive musical score were indeed captivating. “I will find you”, the romantic words said when promising the woman who had won his heart Cora (Madeleine Stowe) she was not alone in the world, is a phrase and idea society embraced with alacrity.

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Daniel Day-Lewis as Hawkeye and Eric Schweig as Uncas in The Last of the Mohicans (1992)

However for me it was how Daniel Day-Lewis presented the hero Hawkeye that mattered the most; here was a man inhabited by an intrinsic characteristic, one that can only have come from deep within Lewis’s own soul; dignity as a quality.

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Daniel Day-Lewis

Daniel Day Lewis won the BAFTA Award for Best Actor for Gangs of New York (2002) and the trio of Academy awards he has received have been richly deserved, as were the incredible pile of wins from other institutions and the nominations he has gained throughout the length of his brilliant career.

His passionate pursuit to find the basis for the character of a man who lived life to the full was realised well in the role he was surely born to play: Lincoln (2012), as he gave us a compelling portrait of a man who ‘put people ahead of politics, even though he was artful at using politics to be able to accomplish his task’. *

DDL as Lincoln

And in the end, it’s not the years in your life Daniel Day Lewis that count. It’s the life in your years, helped in no small measure by your abilities, rare insight and heartfelt integrity emboldening a truly brilliant acting career.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2017

*Quote Steven Spielberg on making ‘Lincoln’.

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