Jenny Beavan: Costumes for the Silver Screen

When I was in my second year at university we were informed that an Oscar-winning costume designer was coming in to give a lecture to our course. This designer was Jenny Beavan. At the time of her talk, Sherlock Holmes had come out a few months previously. She spoke to us about her start in the industry, her way of working and showed us some photos from fittings for Sherlock Holmes (vocal swoons for Robert Downey Jr.). Beavan won an Oscar (along with John Bright) for A Room with a View in 1985 and has been nominated a further eight times. She won a BAFTA for her work on Gosford Park (2001) and this is one of my absolute favourite films. Knowing that she worked on that made me more interested to listen to her speak.

Jenny Beavan

Jenny Beavan

After having attended a number of V&A talks connected with costume design, and mostly with the Hollywood Costume exhibition, I was on the lookout when the membership event guide appeared in the post. And there it was. A talk by Jenny Beavan. Nearly three years after having seen her the first time. I booked up as soon as I could and was, very nearly, threatened by snow issues. I refused to let that stop me and made it.

(I walked past Beavan in the V&A café an hour or so before the talk but I was too embarrassed to go all fan girl on her. It was like the time I bumped into Colleen Atwood in the toilets at the premiere of Snow White and the Huntsman. I just froze and grinned like a madwoman. Kristen Stewart, Jason Flemyng, Chris O’Dowd and Minnie Driver didn’t have this effect on me. That was my star struck moment.)

The talk started with a brief introduction by someone from the V&A (I didn’t get her name…) and explained a little about Beavan’s beginnings (she studied theatre design at Central School of Art and Design) and some of her most well known work. When Beavan came to speak she told us from the start that she can attribute a lot of her career to luck. Lucky introductions. It’s those introductions that get your foot in the door.

'A Room with a View' (1985)

‘A Room with a View’ (1985)

Her Oscar-winning work on A Room with a View came about following a series of lucky meetings. These all have their origins in a eurhythmics class she attended at the age of three. She met Nick Young who was from a wealthier family than Beavan and her sister but the families became firm friends. Young shared a study at university with someone who knew someone who knew James Ivory. Young worked for the Southbank Show and suggested a film called Hullabaloo Over Georgie and Bonnie’s Pictures (1978) (to be made by Merchant Ivory) that needed costume “gathering”. Peggy Ashcroft was starring and needed someone to help create costumes. Beavan was suggested and she and Ashcroft created a wardrobe (on no budget) through a combination of pieces from their own wardrobes. It was through Ashcroft that Beavan met John Bright (co-designer of A Room with a View). John Bright owns Cosprop, which is an amazing costume hire house in London. This meeting set up a friendship between the two that exists to this day. Ashcroft was ready to go off to film in India but felt a little nervous so exchanged her first class plane ticket to two economy tickets so that Beavan could accompany her and help with her costumes. During filming, Beavan was drafted in to act. She told us that she thinks every costume designer should be made to act – to experience the other side of the camera. And to have to move in a corset. This led to Beavan joining the Merchant Ivory family.

After this, Merchant Ivory filmed The Europeans and the costume designer Judy Moorcroft was simply told that Beavan would assist her. Once you were part of the Merchant Ivory family that was it!

'The Bostonians' (1984)

‘The Bostonians’ (1984)

The next film that Moorcraft was set to design was The Bostonians (1984) but she dropped out to design Passage to India. Beavan was just told that she could design it. Beavan went to Cosprop and Bright helped her with the costumes and even came over to help with filming. She says that she always considered that job to be co-designed with Bright so she requested that he receive a co-designer credit with her. This was the beginning of their costume design collaboration and led to their first Oscar nomination. Beavan stated that Bright’s historical costume knowledge is vast and forever helpful, whereas she has a great storytelling capacity. Working together meant a joining of those two skills. They designed 12 films together but also worked separately. They haven’t co-designed a film together since Merchant Ivory.

Beavan then showed us some slideshows she had prepared that concentrated on her work in two of her more recent films – one reason being that there is more digital visuals to support her talk.

The King’s Speech (2010)

'The King's Speech' (2010)

‘The King’s Speech’ (2010)

You start with the script. Then you talk to the director to understand his vision. Then there was the script breakdown to figure out what pieces would be needed for each character. Then Beavan looked at the real-life photographs. Because the film was based on a real-story, that was photographically documented, these were the first steps of research.

Beavan usually starts her design process with a trip to Cosprop. She pulls rails of clothing that instinctively call out to her – whether it is the colour, the fabric, the shape. Then she puts things on a stand and starts figuring things out.

I’ve never been very good at drawing. I’ve always found it two-dimensional.

Beavan said that a number of items in Cosprop, of the period, were original. And, just like with other items from the costume hire, have a history to them. They have a life before the film. She prefers things like that. Also, the budget for The King’s Speech was so small (£105,000) that they couldn’t really afford to make anything (except for the Princesses who were to wear the same things). Everything was sourced or hired.

When a costume designer is given a job it is likely that there are no actors cast at this point. Beavan said that she finds actors are cast two weeks before being on camera and then they “go on holiday”!

No fittings, no frocks!

Fittings with the actors are very important. For everyone. Actor’s can find their character during the fitting process.

Queen Elizabeth

Helena Bonham Carter as Queen Elizabeth in 'The King's Speech' (2010)

Helena Bonham Carter as Queen Elizabeth in ‘The King’s Speech’ (2010)

Beavan had some photos of fittings that she was able to show us. Starting with Helena Bonham Carter. Carter used to come for fittings after filming Harry Potter so they would arrange to have Cosprop open later. And have cups of tea. Looking at research of Elizabeth she seemed to wear bright colours. When these were put on Carter, she looked like she was in fancy dress. The muted colours were more in the spirit of Elizabeth – that’s what the actor needs.

King George VI

Colin Firth as Bertie in 'The King's Speech' (2010)

Colin Firth as Bertie in ‘The King’s Speech’ (2010)

As with Elizabeth, Beavan researched the real Bertie and then started fittings. In the film Firth is seen with a top hat. Firth doesn’t like wearing hates and the one he does wear is quite large. But that is just like the hat Bertie wore and the process of trying one hat on helped Firth to understand him.

Beavan also mentioned that you have to be aware of fittings taking place without the “correct” hair and make-up. The actors come in ‘as is’ so you have to look past that.

Sherlock Holmes (2009)

Robert Downey Jr. as Sherlock Holmes and Jude Law as Dr. John Watson in 'Sherlock Holmes' (2009). Downey Jr. is shown wearing the dressing gown referred to later on.

Robert Downey Jr. as Sherlock Holmes and Jude Law as Dr. John Watson in ‘Sherlock Holmes’ (2009). Downey Jr. is shown wearing the dressing gown referred to later on.

Beavan got a phonecall from her agent at about 11am. Could Beavan read a script she would email her and be ready to meet with Guy Ritchie at 3pm? Beavan read the script and had to rush out of the door. She grabbed two books: Gustave Doré and a book of Victorian photographs. She showed Ritchie the Doré and it won him over. It was the grimy London look that he wanted.

People who weren’t what they seem.

Irene Adler

Rachel McAdams as Irene Adler in 'Sherlock Holmes' (2009). The flash of pink underneath the coat that gave Beavan her first indication of the character of Adler.

Rachel McAdams as Irene Adler in ‘Sherlock Holmes’ (2009). The flash of pink underneath the coat that gave Beavan her first indication of the character of Adler.

Beavan started by considering Irene Adler. She thought of her as a woman with loose morals, a chameleon. She created a mood board for her. She had found a piece of pink fabric in Cosprop and was determined that it was right for Adler. She made up a rough stand, using an old costume from The Matrix she thinks, and then got a friend to do some illustrations for her. This was to help Ritchie have an understanding because it was his first period film and because Warner Brothers love drawings. She then went to renowned costume maker Jane Law to make up some toiles and then to make the final costume. All based around one piece of pink fabric (that turned out to be a cloak).

Sherlock Holmes

Jude Law as Dr. John Watson and Robert Downey Jr. as Sherlock Holmes in 'Sherlock Holmes' (2009). The costume worn by Downey Jr. was featured in fitting photos shown by Beavan.

Jude Law as Dr. John Watson and Robert Downey Jr. as Sherlock Holmes in ‘Sherlock Holmes’ (2009). The costume worn by Downey Jr. was featured in fitting photos shown by Beavan.

All Beavan knew about Holmes was that Ritchie didn’t want the traditional Holmes. No deerstalkers. Beavan had been a Conan Doyle reader in her childhood so she had her own vision of Holmes – childish, likely to leave piles of clothing around and just grab what’s near, pick things up, appropriate them from other people. She had one phonecall with Robert Downey Jr. before he came in for his fittings. Before Downey Jr. came over to England she tried costume ideas out on a costume co-ordinator. She always likes to try things out on bodies if the actor isn’t there. Then they had the fittings.

A fitting room is a bit like a confessional. You want to be very quiet and considerate.

The raggedy dressing gown that Holmes wears was one that they stumbled upon at Cosprop and Downy Jr. fell in love with. Beavan also commented that on the Sherlock Holmes films a number of scenes are re-written on the day and costume pieces are just needed. The disguise scenes that play in Sherlock Holmes were not in the script. For Holmes’ tramp costume, Downey Jr. came into the costume truck on the morning and just pulled items. He is a spontaneous actor. Beavan also told us how plans change during filming. In Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011), the intention was for Holmes to grab his suitcase when leaving Baker Street. This didn’t happen. He was dressed in drag and couldn’t remain that way for the rest of the film so he ended up wearing Watson’s suit. Details that come out due to necessity.

Robert Downey Jr. as Sherlock Holmes and Jude Law as Dr. John Watson in 'Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows' (2011). Here is Downey Jr. wearing Watson's suit.

Robert Downey Jr. as Sherlock Holmes and Jude Law as Dr. John Watson in ‘Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows’ (2011). Here is Downey Jr. wearing Watson’s suit. But worn in a way that Watson wouldn’t.

Beavan regards the original concept for Holmes as a collaboration between her and Downey Jr. and that everything else just happened.

Dr. John Watson

Robert Downey Jr. as Sherlock Holmes and Jude Law as Dr. John Watson in 'Sherlock Holmes' (2009). You can just make out the tweed of Watson's suit.

Robert Downey Jr. as Sherlock Holmes and Jude Law as Dr. John Watson in ‘Sherlock Holmes’ (2009). You can just make out the tweed of Watson’s suit.

Jude Law was fitted in stock three-piece suits. The fit wasn’t too bad but it all seemed a bit ordinary. Beavan had bought some Harris Tweed that she’d come across and laid this over one of the suits. This then became Watson’s trademark. For Sherlock Holmes; A Game of Shadows, Beavan had 50m of Harris Tweed loomed especially for Law. Each suit needs to be made about six times so you need that much cloth.

You inevitably dress the director up at some point.

Beavan also briefly spoke to us about her work on Mad Max: Fury Road (2014). This film was a massive departure from her previous work and she spent most of last year filming in Namibia. Unfortunately she was unable to show us any photos but she said how much she enjoyed it.

I also appreciated Beavan’s statement about her team. The designer gives the overall idea but she works with crew to produce the extras costumes, teams of makers, breaking-down and dyeing teams. The costume department is a large team and she appreciates and values every member.

This isn’t fashion, this isn’t about the clothes, it’s about the storytelling.

'Gosford Park' (2001). One of my absolute favourite films.

‘Gosford Park’ (2001). One of my absolute favourite films.

'The Black Dahlia' (2006). I may not have loved this film as a whole, but I love all the costumes. The design would keep me going back to it.

‘The Black Dahlia’ (2006). I may not have loved this film as a whole, but I love all the costumes. The design would keep me going back to it.

S x

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4 thoughts on “Jenny Beavan: Costumes for the Silver Screen

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