Sheena Napier may not be a “household” name like Beavan and Landis but she has worked steadily in the industry (mostly designing for TV) for years and has been nominated for an Oscar (for Enchanted April), an Emmy and won a BAFTA (both for Parade’s End).
The talk started with Napier talking through how she got started in the costume industry. She went to art college to study theatre design but discovered that her poor maths skills (her words not mine!) caused problems with set design but, more importantly, she was much more interested in costume as social comment and social history. At the time costume was a vocational course rather than a degree so Napier left. She went on to work in the theatre and despite initial intentions to return to college she never made it back.
She started ironing for the opera and then worked for the wardrobe master at the Festival Theatre (I want to say Chichester Festival Theatre but I didn’t catch it – I’m sorry!). Napier said that John Bartlett was the greatest teacher she ever had and he taught her everything about costume. He was a perfectionist and wanted everything to be made properly – no shortcuts. He taught her tailoring, costume making and the importance of attention to detail.
Napier told us horror stories relating to time shortages and occasions of working for three straight days and nights to get costumes finished (we’ve all been there) but said that this camaraderie in the environment strengthened her love of costume and the industry.
She took over from Bartlett as wardrobe mistress for five years (making good use of the costume cutting books he bought her) and relied on his advice:
Tell them you can do the job, then you have to do the job and you’ll find that you can do it.
After working in the theatre Napier took some time out and had a knitwear craftshop in the country until opportunity came knocking. A friend of hers at the costume department at the BBC told her how desperate they were for design assistants. Napier’s knowledge of costume houses and fabric sourcing locations gained from her work in the theatre meant that she was able to become a design assistant and completely jump the traditional previous step of dresser – with a little bit of tension from some members of the department. She signed a three-month contract and left three years later.She knew that the BBC costume department was on its last legs so after some success working for the BBC (particularly her work on ‘Allo ‘Allo) she was able to leave to design Enchanted April. The film was made by the BBC in partnership with Greenpoint Films but when it was bought by Miramax it was widely distributed and became (in Napier’s words) a “proper” films. (This was the film that marks Napier’s Oscar nomination for Best Costume Design.) The success of Enchanted April led to designing Backbeat but then a critically unsuccessful film left Napier out of work for a while. Napier learnt the importance of saving money and to spend the time off in a positive way. The next film she mentioned was Ravenous which has gained a cult following but she’s not personally a huge fan of.
Ravenous was then followed by The Heart of Me and then Poirot (the show Napier is most famous for). She told us that she wasn’t particularly keen on taking the job because the show had already been on the air for 15 years and she felt like it would be taking over someone else’s work. She was one hour late for the interview (and she’s never late) but she loved David Suchet and the director and their work process. They talked through every character’s life and story and she felt that this was something she would enjoy doing. Her first Poirot episode was Five Little Pigs and she thinks it is still her favourite (and mine).
I want you to be able to know something about [the character].
This was specifically important with the Poirot adaptations where a story must be condensed to such a degree that character details are inevitably lost but costume can be used to create the depth and understanding of the character for the audience.
Napier told us of the trials of late casting that she first became aware of when filming Death on the Nile. Besides Suchet the first actor was cast five days before shooting – frantic costume fittings became standard for most of the shoot. She also told us that she turned on a tv and found an old episode of Poirot playing and realised that they were using the same cardigan! Due to late casting, limited budgets and time constraints costume making was impossible (apart from for Suchet) and there was (and is) a limited costume pool for the 1930s. Napier made the decision to start buying and storing pieces and she has a 150 sq ft storage space that is filled. She loved working with Suchet and was able to focus on attention to detail (as taught by Bartlett) but also try to make each episode look different. She was particularly fond of The Labours of Hercules which she thought was the most stylish episode. [Napier thinks that http://recycledmoviecostumes.tumblr.com is a little unfair.]
[One fun note was a photo of a pair of cufflinks that were nicknamed the “murdered man” cufflinks and appeared on every murdered man. They were never seen but were a fun in-joke.]
Then we looked at Napier’s work on Parade’s End. She brought one of Rebecca Hall’s (Sylvia Tietjan) dresses with her that had been made based on an original dress. The dress combined some original very delicate pieces of beading (one of the few times when Napier allowed her maker to cut up an old dress) with modern fabrics. There was an original dress that she wanted to copy but all the modern fabric she found was too heavy to replicate the tiny pleats in the dress.We then moved onto The Village; the second series filming now. The budgets have gone down but expectations have gone up! There was another story of late casting – this time the day before shooting and the producers didn’t seem to be too interested in arranging a fitting.
The last completed work Napier has designed is The Great Fire and this lead to discussions of costume authenticity. Although she appreciates the attention to detail that Bartlett taught her she also understands that the story is the most important factor.
We’re not curators, we’re storytellers.
If an actor isn’t comfortable in something or the shape isn’t as flattering as it could be things will be changed. It isn’t about Napier, but about the actor on screen. They need to be able to sell the character and can’t do that if they’re uncomfortable.
There followed some questions:
It is possible to identify when period films were made (for example a 1930s film made in the ’70s). How important is it to be timeless?
The Heart of Me was made in the Merchant Ivory mindset where everything was meant to be perfect. This is no longer true. Everything is seen from a modern perspective and the director is the boss – what they say goes. For example, directors tend to hate hats (actors generally like them) but the directors are likely to get the final word. No matter how inaccurate.
Favourite time period?
She was excited to do The Great Fire because it’s a period not commonly done but she loves all periods and contemporary. Her main interest is in characters. But if she could “wear” a period it would be the 1910s shown in Parade’s End.
So there we have a great talk by Sheena Napier. There are a number of films and tv shows that I haven’t seen but I would be seriously tempted now!