"Phantom Thread": A Film About How Every Dress Is the Result of a Ménage à Trois
Paul Thomas Anderson's film explores the love triangles that fuel genius and the people that inspire it.
Photograph courtesy of Focus Features.
Once I held out my hands to show why stories about love triangles are so pleasurable, or painful, or best of all, both. I made my pointer fingers into a church steeple and touched my thumbs together, the triangle shaped by the empty space in between, and said, “It’s because you’re close but never close enough.” You’d do anything to cross that distance, even risk falling right through it. Then again, it could be because every relationship is triangulated in its own way. Lovers with a kink for literality will find a third person. For other couples, it's the projection of an unrealized ideal—the ghost of the perfect partner, the imagined "third"—that fucks them up or over.
Phantom Thread is a movie about both kinds of triangles. It is a story with a surprising kink for romance that will be recognizable to many kinds of couples, but could have only ever been about a man who makes dresses, and the women who want to wear them.
The latest in Paul Thomas Anderson’s line of exceedingly beautiful films featuring exhaustingly difficult men—supposedly, as well, Daniel Day-Lewis in his final acting role—Phantom Thread is about a fashion designer running his eponymous couture house in 1950s London. And what a name it is: Reynolds Woodcock, an invention Day-Lewis proposed to Anderson over text message. Anderson told GQ that he “fucking choked on my cornflakes” when he saw the suggestion, a name funny enough to be right out of a more overtly perverse Edith Wharton novel.
Reynolds has an entire world contained in his townhouse. His sister, Cyril (played by Lesley Manville, who made my heart beat faster just by watching the way she would smooth her hair behind her ears before speaking) runs the daily operations, starting every morning by opening each shuttered window so that we can see the full effect sunlight has on those white walls and wood floors. The Woodcock siblings sleep there, but to say they live there wouldn’t be saying enough—this is the place where their work happens, and it is Reynolds’s work that is their life. Every room has its purpose: a dressing room for clients, a showroom for presenting collections, a room for breakfast, which is where Reynolds likes to sketch, and adjoining Reynold’s room is the guest room, intended for the rotating women who we understand move in and out of their life as his needs dictate. These relationships are designed never to get in the way of the family business, and once Cyril and Reynolds mutually agree that a woman is disturbing the peace, she goes. The only thing they really love, besides each other, is the work that happens in the most important room in the house: the atelier. Cyril lets in the seamstresses after she lets in the morning light, and they go up the spiral staircase in their modest dresses and sensible heels, covering their outfits with white uniforms.
The periodic introduction of a new woman is an important element to their family business routine, and we are here to watch the story of Reynolds and Alma, a waitress he meets at a countryside inn with a face made for oil paintings. Features that call for preservation in paint or photography are often the quality in a muse that male artists use to drive themselves mad: the inability to truly capture what’s happening behind her eyes, what her small smiles really mean. “I feel as though I’ve been searching for you for a very long time,” he tells her on what appears to be their first or second morning together, a declaration Gothic in its sudden and unearned—but sincere—romantic drama. Alma returns with him to London and more or less moves into the guest room immediately, accepting Reynold’s unasked request to become his fit model and his lover. She’s perfect, Reynolds tells her as he examines her body in a slip, taking measurements that Cyril records. That’s what men say because they know it’s the fastest way to find a woman’s flaws.
In fact, Alma is like other women in many ordinary ways: she is too loud at the breakfast table, too demanding, too convinced of her own needs and unwilling to concede to the shared household myth that Reynolds’ needs always come first. Yet she is close to perfect in an unexpected sense. She is the first woman more than willing to believe in the family’s particular form of magical thinking—the superstitions that Reynolds and Cyril have been sharing since childhood, stories about ghosts that protect them and curses they wouldn’t dare break. Ghosts are real to them, though whether they exist is beside the point. Believing in them is what matters. An early scene shows Cyril and Reynolds talking about the presentation of a beautiful gown on a beautiful socialite; Reynolds hopes their dead mother, wherever she is, saw it. It’s comforting, he explains, to think the dead watch over us; “I don’t think it’s spooky at all,” he says to Cyril.
When he was sixteen years old, Reynolds tells Alma on their first date, he made his mother’s wedding dress. She was a widow about to take a second husband, and his nanny refused to help him, believing that to make a wedding dress would curse her and she would never marry—there are endless superstitions about wedding dresses, he explains, models who won’t wear them and seamstresses who won’t touch them. Cyril helped him instead. The nanny never married, Reynolds tells Alma, to underscore her ridiculousness. “And your sister?” Alma asks. “Did she ever marry?” Reynolds seems surprised by the question. Of course she did not. Neither of them did. Reynolds tells her he is a confirmed bachelor, a phrase that is a code with many different meanings, but his form of bachelorhood is just many marriages. He is a serial monogamist who seems to have a skill for turning every woman he meets into a willing wife.
A lesser movie would reduce their story to just that, a battle of spousal wills. Instead, Phantom Thread takes the diametrically opposed concepts of romance and reality to a conclusion that is as shocking as it is logical, and hilarious. What we are watching is a couple create a secret world that other people can see, but only they can know: a relationship often but not exclusively known as a marriage. Alma, we see on that very first date, could be his equal in perverse superstitions, and then some. Reynolds explains to her his custom of sewing secrets into the canvas lining of his clothes, and that the suit jacket he’s worn to dinner contains a lock of his dead mother’s hair. Only a woman like Alma, who is surprising and never surprised, would hear that and think — well, that must be what love is.
The modern designer best known for sewing secrets into suit jackets is Alexander McQueen, who claimed that when he worked as a tailor on Savile Row, he sewed the words “I am a cunt” into a suit made for Prince Charles. The suits were “recalled” by the commissioned firm, Anderson & Shepherd (incidentally, Day-Lewis specifically requested that they make his suits for the film), and no message was ever found. Perhaps McQueen was lying, or perhaps he was mistaken and some other wealthy cunt of a man has a priceless archival work up his sleeve. Perhaps the boast was the point, and the recall the joke: I am picturing a wood-paneled room bigger than my apartment where a royal wardrobe must be kept, covered in the destroyed wools and silks of suits worth tens of thousands of dollars, a butler or valet standing over all that destruction with sharp scissors and a fine needle, looking for the offending stitch.
But the official references for Reynold Woodcock’s character have been cited as Cristobal Balenciaga, known for his skill as a couturier and his impossibly high standards in his studio, and Charles James, the British-born designer called “America’s First Couturier,” who was credited with bringing the traditional practice of couture to the United States, and was equally well-known for his shifting moods and tempers. Both Balenciaga and James had cults of devotees who believed that their clothing was a form of sculpture, the dresses made with such skill that they felt infused with magical properties—women were better when they stood in their dresses, their bodies appearing more beautiful, with more elegance and strength and symmetry than nature or genetics or diet could ever provide.
James’s influence was recognized in his own time—Balenciaga said he was the only designer in the world “who has raised dressmaking from an applied art to pure art” —and his influence is all over the film. Costume designer Mark Bridges looked at the archives of Charles James, as well as archival gowns from Balenciaga offered for research by the Victoria & Albert Museum, but the best, funniest comparisons are more in the characteristics than the clothes. The similarities are sometimes hiding in the small details, like an off-hand comment by Cyril that she will give Reynold’s soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend the “tuba dress” as a parting gift, which could be a reference, in phonetics at least, to James’s Taxi Dress, currently part of the Metropolitan Museum’s permanent collection (which the filmmakers also visited). Like Woodcock, who sends Alma to steal a dress off a sleeping socialite because they hate the way she looks and acts while she wore it, James was quick to insult and isolate clients he thought were beneath him, once telling a woman, “I couldn’t possibly make anything for a frump like you.”
But past his time and into our now, James is remembered mostly by fashion obsessives—a designers’ designer, whose influence is everywhere in clothing, even if his name is less spoken in ordinary households. The fashion world that Anderson depicts is from a time when designers were required to have a certain kind of dignity and decorum, and their celebrity was kept behind closed doors, intended for women who had the status and the money to pay for their attention. Anderson lifts one truth from Balenciaga’s life in the scene where Alma walks in her gowns for the small audience—in this age, when designers didn’t do the obligatory bow at the end of a show, Balenciaga preferred to watch from a small hole in the curtains that separated the clients from the atelier. Reynolds, too, can’t help but peek through the peephole from the door to the dressing room. Alma, of course, can’t look back, but her passing glance at the opening in the door suggests she knows he’s watching her.
Whether or not Woodcock is real is as besides the point as whether Miranda Priestly is Anna Wintour—Woodcock is recognizable. There is something about the qualities in Thread so specific to fashion and fashion designers. While we could find parallels in, say, the plight of the auteur filmmaker (as other people have noted, this film could be read as insight into Anderson’s own life, and it’s certainly true that running ateliers and film set require the same level of cost, care, and artistic direction). But fashion, unlike film, has a different metric and a different value system for success. The rewards for being in are so high while the mercies of being out are so few; the prospect of being saved by public opinion posthumously is a cruel punishment for an industry defined as much by timing as merit. These qualities have been assigned to fashion designers in popular culture for practically ever—whether satire like Robert Altman’s Pret-a-Porter or the sadomasochistic dynamics in The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant—and in Anderson’s writing, Reynold’s character has the same elements of the self-serious and the pretentious, the ego and the anxiety, all related to the fear of finding himself in the same place, yet at the wrong time.
Meanwhile, it is the work of a fashion designer itself that Thread is concerned with. Unlike a runway show, a scroll through Instagram, or an afternoon at the Costume Institute—our era’s primary means of interacting with fashion—we spend more time in Anderson’s film with slips and seams than we do with the gowns themselves. It is the skeletons of the dress we see, laid flat on drafting tables or pinned to mannequins or wrapped around Alma’s body, the process between Reynold’s sketches and the completed works more important than the finished product, and more easily understood. “A house that doesn’t change is a dead house,” Reynolds says, a lesson that is felt in every kind of house but is the crushing, unrelenting truth of the industry he’s chosen, where a new trend or a cultural moment could lead to the complete unraveling of everything he’s worked towards.
Reynold’s brief but apoplectic rant about the word “chic” will become one of film’s iconic monologues about the language of fashion, a rage against an unfamiliar idea he refuses to accept. When his favorite client goes to another house, Cyril explains it is not a question of whether his dresses are still considered beautiful: “I think people want what is fashionable, and what is chic,” she says, the distinction of an intelligent businesswoman, which is what she is. Reynolds, meanwhile, wants to be seen as an artist, and his brand of torture is that he’s chosen an art that will only ever be seen as commerce first, because art, the thinking goes, is never done for hire and best done for love. Compromise is the consequence of fashion: a designer who believes his life’s work should be behind a frame will always suffer when it comes time to put the dress on a body. Cyril refuses to tell him which house the client went to, but if this is 1950s London and a wealthy woman is looking for chic, we can guess it would be to Paris: to Christian Dior.
Thread takes place during the last years of Dior’s life, who died very suddenly in 1957, leaving a 21-year-old Yves Saint Laurent in charge. The official cause was listed as a heart attack; some said it was the result of his unhealthy diet, as he was known for his appetite, so much so that Diana Vreeland, when hearing of his death, said “Poor Christian. He died for the table.” This is another quality given to Reynolds, who cares deeply about how and what he eats — he likes butter on his mushrooms but not too much, asparagus only with oil and salt, breakfast pastries without icing (unless, later, he decides he does want icing). He is not a man who would choke on cornflakes, preferring his breakfasts to be the most important meal of his day, if not his life, if not the entire world. The first term of endearment Alma gives him after taking his enormous breakfast order is, “the hungry boy.” He refers to porridge with cream as “a little naughty,” and the last line of the film is, “I’m getting hungry.” Then again, this could have all been code for another appetite. An unverified rumor maintains that Dior died of strenuous sexual activity during a threesome.
Phantom Thread is a love triangle, though only slightly literally. There are three characters competing for love and control, which they think are the same, but the true drama of the story exists between the man, the muse, and the dress. We could find many parallels for this man in real life, and the muse comes and goes, but the dress is always what matters. The dress is where the real story happens, in that mix between what a designers thinks and what he makes, the person you are and the person he wants you to be. Fabrics may degrade, but they have no souls to lose, a position that makes for an ideal angle for a phantom triangle. The dress stays the same. Reynolds, Alma, and Cyril are three people united in their love for assigning ghosts to gowns.
The name “phantom thread” refers to a Victorian-era condition—like carpal tunnel but for couture—when East London seamstresses would go home after sewing dresses all day, and their hands would keep moving, working with a needle and thread that didn’t exist. Reynolds mentions the superstitions of wedding dresses, making fashion seem full of ghost stories and urban legends about women and the curses of their work. Meanwhile, the women who make it all the way through Phantom Thread are all too real, and are just scary enough to love. Reynolds’ affection seems entirely tied to how easily scared a woman is; like his comfort with ghosts, his women can’t find his behavior too spooky. Cyril, in her undefined role, would be chief executive officer in today’s parlance: she works to keep the house running in the most practical of senses, managing the domestic, administrative, and financial duties so that Reynolds has the luxury of pretending that none of those realities exist in his world, and he is free to think only of his tastes for fashion and food. When the real world creeps into the ghost world he’s built around himself, he turns cruel and petty, and expects Cyril to remove the offense, which is to say, he expects her to remove the bad feeling itself.
The artists we tell stories about usually have a Cyril in their lives, part micro-manager and part enabler. In the fashion industry, especially: when we tell stories about our geniuses, we find the people who made that genius possible, such as Pierre Bergé, who took care of the operations and expansions of Yves Saint Laurent while also, for many of the years they worked together, being his lover. The 2008 documentary Valentino: The Last Emperor was as much about the life and work of Valentino Garavani as it was about his relationship with Giancarlo Giammetti, his partner in life and in business. Cyril does all this for love, we can tell, but she also does it for herself. She is the one who reminds Reynolds who pays for this house when his romantic sensibilities are offended by a crass, sad socialite; she is the one who tells him to keep his hurt feelings to himself, because they “hurt her ears.” One incredible moment between them—at the breakfast table, of course—is when Cyril threatens to turn him into exactly what he fears. She has told him that he must make a decision about Alma, because he can’t keep treating her like a ghost. “Don’t pick a fight with me,” she tells him, “You certainly won’t come out alive…. I’ll go right through you.”
Alma, in particular, is a character sensitive to power. She says she only began to think of herself as beautiful, or worthy of attention, when Reynolds told her she was; this kind of imbalance between them drives her to slight instances of madness, tears and tiny tantrums. “There’s something between us,” she says during a terrible dinner. It’s not another woman, but the dresses that she’s jealous of. He gives his attention to them so freely and easily, and she can only depend on getting that same attention when she’s wearing the dresses he’s made for her. This is one of many allusions to Rebecca, a film cited by Anderson as inspiration; mostly, he wished there had been a moment when Joan Fontaine, in her role as the unnamed narrator obsessed with the ghost of her husband’s first wife, turned around and said, “I’ve had enough of your shit.” Rather than exact inspiration, Rebecca is the perfect companion film to Thread, both being stories that use clothing as a tactile and emotional material, though their interpretation of fashion’s romance is very different. Rebecca’s unnamed narrator uses clothing to supersede her husband’s desires. (Perhaps my favorite joke in any movie, ever, is when Mr. de Winter begs his new wife to never wear black satin and pearls, associating them with the wife he hated, and she does exactly that, showing up in a later scene in the outfit she thinks he’s only pretending not to want.)
The way Alma goes from her job as a waitress to a model has the romance we associate with Gothic tales, and also with the Midwestern girls who become famous models after the right casting agents spot them at a local Dairy Queen, but the film takes place in the decades where models were still called mannequins, their jobs as anonymous as possible and their bodies meant to be as virtually invisible so that couture clients could better picture themselves in their place. Alma, if she is not careful, could have more in common with a Jean Rhys heroine than with Kate Moss. More recently, as Carmen Maria Machado wrote in the short story “Real Women Have Bodies,” a similarly creepy allegory about the ghosts of fashions past, “it doesn’t do the fashion industry any good to have women fading away. You can’t put clothes on air. Not that they haven’t tried.”
In Thread, Alma is very happy to dress as Reynolds tells her to (one scene, in which she complains about his choice of fabric, seems more like antagonistic foreplay than actual distaste), but refuses to concede in other areas. On their first date, Alma warns Reynold not to attempt a staring contest with her, even as a joke, because he’ll lose. The way she is ultimately proven right is now my second favorite joke in any movie, ever. But Rebecca and Phantom Thread do share a similar moral, if you can call it that — a warning against falling in love with ghosts, especially if there is a willing and wanting woman right in front of you. Some women, Hitchcock and Anderson know, would die to be a first wife, the woman that forms a man and sets the course of his entire life; our protagonists prefer the power of being the last wife left standing.
She and Cyril both recognize this; it’s why, unlike Rebecca, they do not come to see each other as adversaries, but two corners of the same triangle. They are flesh and blood, and they intend to stay that way. If anyone is going to vanish into thin air, it will not be them. Cyril is safe as the real power in the house. Alma finds a role, she explains as the film ends, the credits rolling over a scene of her standing while Reynolds pins together the canvas of what will no doubt be another gorgeous dress. She will be Reynold’s protector, and if that means giving him something he needs to be protected from, all the better. She will hold his life and his life’s work in her hands forever, so that the dresses fill the space between them rather than hold them apart, saying it is her job to keep Reynolds and his clothing safe from “ghosts, and dust, and time.”