Sheena Napier: Costume Design Talk at the V&A

The last costume talk I attended was last September with Deborah Nadoolman Landis and the last V&A talk was with Jenny Beavan back in January 2012 – so this talk was well overdue.

costprs

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).

'Enchanted April' 1991

‘Enchanted April’ 1991

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.

'Enchanted April' (1991)

‘Enchanted April’ (1991)

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.

'Backbeat' (1994)

‘Backbeat’ (1994)

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.

'Ravenous' (1999)

‘Ravenous’ (1999)

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.

'The Heart of Me' (2002)

‘The Heart of Me’ (2002)

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.

'The Heart of Me' (2002) [Going against Napier's wishes see if you can spot Olivia Williams' dress later on in this post...]

‘The Heart of Me’ (2002)
[Going against Napier’s wishes see if you can spot Olivia Williams’ dress later on in this post…]

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.)

'Poirot' Five Little Pigs (2003) [Notice a younger Little Finger from Game of Thrones?]

‘Poirot’ Five Little Pigs (2003)
[Notice a younger Little Finger from Game of Thrones?]

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.

'Poirot' Five Little Pigs (2003)

‘Poirot’ Five Little Pigs (2003)

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].

'Poirot' Death on the Nile (2004)

‘Poirot’ Death on the Nile (2004)

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.

'Wah-Wah' (2005), designed by Sheena Napier.

‘Wah-Wah’ (2005), designed by Sheena Napier.

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.]

'Ballet Shoes' (2007), designed by Sheena Napier.

‘Ballet Shoes’ (2007), designed by Sheena Napier.

[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.]

'Wild Target' (2009), designed by Sheena Napier.

‘Wild Target’ (2009), designed by Sheena Napier.

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.

'Parade's End' (2012) [This is the pink dress Napier brought with her.]

‘Parade’s End’ (2012) [This is the pink dress Napier brought with her.]

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.

'Parade's End' (2012)

‘Parade’s End’ (2012)

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.

'Poirot' The Labours of Hercules (2013)

‘Poirot’ The Labours of Hercules (2013)

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.

'Poirot' Dead Man's Folly (2013). The final episode of 'Poirot' filmed but not the final aired.

‘Poirot’ Dead Man’s Folly (2013). The final episode of ‘Poirot’ filmed but not the final aired.

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.

'Marple' A Caribbean Mystery, designed by Sheena Napier

‘Marple’ A Caribbean Mystery (2013), designed by Sheena Napier

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.

'The Village' Series One

‘The Village’ Series One (2013)

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!

S x

Saturday Special: Vanilla Fudge

Fudge! The idea of fudge has intrigued and haunted me for years. The discovery that we actually do own a sugar thermometer and all the necessary ingredients for this simple vanilla fudge cemented my decision to try it out! The recipe is taken from Hummingbird Bakery’s Home Sweet Home book and is the first recipe I have made from the book!

Vanilla Fudge

Ingredients

300ml full fat milk

350g caster sugar

100g butter

1 tsp vanilla essence

Method

  1. Lightly grease one 17.5cm square tin. (I only had a circular one!)
  2. In a medium pan, bring the milk, sugar and butter to the boil, stirring to melt the butter and dissolve the sugar. Continue to boil for approximately 20 minutes, stirring constantly. The mixture must reach the soft ball stage – 115 oC (239 oF) on a sugar thermometer. You will need to stir quite vigorously towards the end as the fudge can catch on the bottom of the pan easily.
  3. Once it has reached the correct temperature, remove the pan from the heat and set aside to cool for 5 minutes, then mix in the vanilla extract. The fudge might soufflé up in the pan – this is normal. Beat with a spoon until the fudge has thickened and lost its glossy appearance.
  4. Carefully pour the fudge into the prepared tin and leave to set completely. Don’t put in the fridge.
  5. Turn out the fudge onto a chopping board and cut into the desired portion sizes.

I had two minor issues when first making this. 1) It took a long time to reach the soft ball stage because I didn’t have the hob on a high enough temperature and I used too small a saucepan so had to transfer mid-way through! 2) When cutting my fudge up I found that a lot of pieces tended to crack. I don’t know why but it didn’t affect the taste just made the pieces very uneven!

I hope your fudge turns out as tasty as mine – but in better shape!

S x

Puttin’ on the Glitz: Fashion & Film in the Jazz Age

At the end of March I attended an event at the British Library hosted by Amber Butchart and (Lord) Chris Laverty. I covered this event for Joe Kucharski over at Tyranny of Style and I’m posting the link here in case you haven’t seen it!

BL

The event was great and it’s worth thanking everyone all over again. And, contractually*, I have to say how charming and handsome Chris is. Amber was perfection and wears a turban like nobody’s business.

I hope you enjoy and don’t forget to check out the rest of Tyranny of Style.

S x

*not really.

Saturday Special: Simnel Cake

It’s Easter Saturday and we have a traditional Easter cake for you. This recipe comes from Nigella Lawson’s website. I don’t like dried fruit so I won’t be enjoying the cake personally but my parents will!

dinner cake

Ingredients

  • 100 grams glace cherries
  • 500 grams mixed dried fruit
  • 175 grams soft unsalted butter
  • 175 grams caster sugar
  • zest of lemon
  • 225 grams plain flour
  • teaspoon baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • ¼ teaspoon ground ginger
  • 25 grams ground almonds
  • large eggs
  • tablespoons milk
  • kilogram yellow marzipan to decorate
  • icing sugar for rolling
  • tablespoon apricot jam (melted)
  • egg white (optional)

Method

  1. Take everything you need out of the fridge so it can get to room temperature. Preheat the oven to gas mark 3/170°C/325°F. Butter and line the bottom and sides of a 20cm / 8 inch springform cake tin with a double layer of brown baking paper. Chop the cherries very finely and add them to the rest of the fruit.
  2. Cream the butter and sugar until very soft and light, and add the lemon zest. You could do this by hand, just with bowl and wooden spoon, but I own up to using my freestanding mixer here. But it’s not crucial, not least because the intention with fruit cakes is not to whip air into them. Measure the flour, baking powder, cinnamon, ginger and ground almonds into a bowl and stir to combine.
  3. Add 1 of the eggs to the creamed butter and sugar with 2 tablespoons of the dry flour-and-spice ingredients, then beat in the remaining eggs in the same way. Beat in the rest of the dry ingredients, and then the milk. Finally fold in the fruit.
  4. Dust a surface with a little icing sugar and then roll out about 400g / 14oz of the marzipan. Cut it into a 20cm / 9 inch circle which will fit in the middle of the cake later. Spoon half of the fruit cake mixture into the cake tin, smoothing it down with a rubber spatula, and then lay the marzipan circle on top of it. Spoon the rest of the mixture into the tin on top of the marzipan circle and smooth the top again. Bake for half an hour and then turn the oven down to gas mark 2/150°C/300°F for another 1½ hours or until the cake has risen and is firm on top. Let it cool completely on a rack before you spring it open.
  5. Unspring the cooled fruit cake, and unwrap the lining from the cake. Roll out another 400g / 14oz circle of marzipan, paint the top of the cake with the melted apricot jam,and then stick it on.
  6. Make 11 apostle balls out of the remaining marzipan, roughly 2.5cm / 1 inch in size. Beat the egg white – just till it’s a bit frothy and loosened up a little, no more – and use that as glue to stick the apostles around the edge of the cake.
  7. Now for the bit I love, but you can ignore altogether. Paint the whole of the cake with egg white, and then blow-torch the marzipan so that it scorches slightly, giving a beauteously burnished look.

I hope you all have a wonderful Easter and enjoy this sunshine we’re having!

S x

http://www.nigella.com/recipes/view/simnel-cake

Saturday Special: Pieminister’s chicken, leek and cider pie

The pastry chicken on top is compulsory (it's not compulsory)

The pastry chicken on top is compulsory (it’s not compulsory)

This recipe comes from Pieminister: A Pie For All Seasons, which is the poshest recipe book I’ve ever owned.

The chicken, leek and cider pie (from the Spring section of the book – fancy!) is one of the best pies I’ve ever tasted; and if you don’t fancy pastry, the filling makes a pretty amazing broth/soup type thing.

Pieminister recommends using Orchard Pig cider, but that’s probably because they know the bloke that makes it. Any medium or dry cider works just as well.

Here we go!

Ingredients:

1 free range chicken (I used thighs because they’re the shiznit)

1 carrot, peeled and cut into quarters

2 celery sticks, cut into quarters

2 onions, cut in half

1 whole bulb of garlic, top sliced off

6 sprigs of tarragon

a large knob of butter

3 chunky leeks, cut in half lengthwise then sliced

200ml dry or medium cider

2 tbsp plain flour

150ml single or whipping cream

grated zest of half a lemon

3 tbsp chopped chives

about 660g of shortcrust pastry

1 free range egg, lightly beaten

375g puff pastry

salt and pepper

Method

  • Put the chicken in a large pot with the carrot, celery, half an onion, the garlic bulb, 2 tarragon sprigs and a little salt.
  • Add enough water to almost cover the chicken. Cover the pan, bring to a simmer and cook gently for 45 mins until the chicken is cooked through. Remove chicken from the pot.
  • Strain the chicken stock into a pan, discard all the vegetables but keep the garlic
  • Boil stock until reduced by half. Take the skin off the chicken and wolf those muthas down between two slices of bread discard
  • Tear the meat to shreds
  • Chop the rest of the onions, melt the butter in a pan and add the onions. Then add the leeks and cook until softened. Pour in the cider then simmer until reduced by half.
  • Stir in the flour, cook for a few seconds, then add 400ml of the chicken stock, then the cream and lemon zest.
  • Bring to a simmer, adding more stock if needed. Chop the remaining tarragon and add to the sauce then remove from the heat.
  • Squeeze in the garlic bulb flesh, stir in the chives and that sweet, sweet chicken. Season and leave to cool.

    All that chicken-y goodness works well as a broth if you're not in the mood for a pie. But you should always be in the mood for a pie.

    This works well as a broth if you’re not in the mood for a pie. But you should always be in the mood for a pie.

  • Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/gas mark 4.
  • Roll out the shortcrust pastry and use it to line a large ovenproof dish. Fill the pastry with the chicken mixture and brush the edges with beaten egg.
  • Roll out the puff pastry and use this to cover the pie, trim off any excess pastry and press the edges of the pastry together to seal.
  • Make a couple of small holes in the top to let out steam.
  • Leave to stand for 10 minutes then bake for 30 minutes until golden brown.
  • Take it out of the oven and take a moment to quietly reflect and shed a tear because the world will never realise your genius.
  • Eat that sucka with roast potatoes.

 

@thatmissdeen x

Natasha (Black Widow) Romanoff’s Journey from ‘Iron Man 2’ to ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’

Natasha Romanoff has an interesting journey in the Marvel films, not least that her character arc moves through different films with different protagonists. As the only female Marvel superhero (at this point) she sits in the ground between “pleasing” fanboys and being a strong character in her own right. The success of this in the films can be argued, just as her costumes can, but her existence is something we should be happy about. As a starting point.

(Mild spoilers for all three films.)

Iron Man 2

Costumes designed by Mary Zophre

IM2 4

The first time we see Natasha Romanoff she is called Natalie Rushman and is applying to take over from Pepper Potts as Tony Stark’s personal assistant. She is dressed competently with elegance but not overstated. Her clothing isn’t threatening but still maintains an air of sex appeal – to gain the attention of noted womaniser Tony. The use of monochromatic colours also works to make her blend in with the background. An ideal situation for a spy.

IM2 6

Now that “Natalie” is in Tony’s employ her costumes become much more fitted, colourful and sexy. She is doing all she can to fit in with his world. She is fulfilling his idea of the perfect personal assistant – she needs him to keep her around and to confide in her. (The dress looks like a combination of a few Roland Mouret designs.)

IM2 5

This dress is in a much more sober colour but still has the fitted look of the earlier dress. This dress fits more with the Pepper Potts personal assistant role – is she changing her cover to become more like Pepper because that’s who Tony trusts implicitly? (The dress looks very similar to Black Halo’s Jackie O dress.)

IM2 3 IM2 2

This party dress (Dolce & Gabbana) is much more in tone with the earlier coral dress. She is fitting in with the party crowd but still able to stand out. The second photo shows a scene cut from the film where Natalie is more openly and obviously flirting with Tony. This dress plays into that perfectly. She may be his personal assistant but she is also still a guest at his birthday party.

IM2 1

Then we have the reveal of the worst kept secret – Natalie Rushmore is Natasha Romanoff who is Black Widow. A spy working for Nick Fury in S.H.I.E.L.D. This is the first iteration of the iconic catsuit. It’s very fitted (as you would expect) and the piped seams are there to draw your eyes down the whole of the suit. Add this to the low zipped neckline. Any ways that could be used to sex up a skintight catsuit without being too overt have been used here. It still works as a functional outfit but you wouldn’t exactly see this costume on a male spy/agent.

IM2 7

IM2 8

Although “Natalie”‘s cover is blown with Tony she is now employed as Pepper’s assistant. Her costume now takes on a more sombre tone that is more fitting for Pepper and less seductive. Her role is to observe and protect Pepper and she is more likely to be kept on by being competent at her job than by looking sexy. The dresses still fit with Natalie’s overall look but they’ve been adjusted for the scenario. The perfect spy.

The Avengers

Costumes designed by Alexandra Byrne

A1

We have a new film and we have a new spy position. We never hear Natasha’s spy name here because her cover has already been “blown”. From the dialogue we gather that the mission began as a seduction and this is where the fitted black dress comes in. (Fitted but with a noticeable flair in the skirt to enable the gymnastic fight moves.) The dress also works as her Iron Man 2 costumes did in lowering people’s expectations. She is able to overcome the three Russians aided by this fact. One great touch is the exposed zipper at the back of the dress. Not only is this a modern touch but its adds a layer of toughness to the elegant dress – toughness that we expect from Natasha. She is a highly competent and dangerous spy but uses her sexuality and femininity to trick men. Is this an act of strength or weakness?

A2

The next time we see Natasha she still seems to be undercover but in a different persona. She is dressed to fit in with the world of Calcutta and also to put Bruce Banner at ease. We see that she’s hidden a gun so she is prepared for violence but she needs Bruce to trust her and a catsuit just won’t cut that. The colours are all warm toned and combined with the warm lighting and colours of the set mean that she stays fairly hidden in the shadows. The shawl that Natasha is seen wearing here plays into Bruce’s red toned shirt, creating a comfortable colour scheme between them.

A3

Now we have Natasha as herself, as a fully fledged S.H.I.E.L.D. agent. She is not in any spy persona. She wears tightly fitted jeans (to allow for combat?), a tough leather jacket (her personal form of protection?) and a red top to keep the warm tones that we set up in Calcutta. This Natasha is practical, not overtly sexual. She works in a male-oriented world and needs to be taken seriously be those she works with. Particularly when one of them is the first ever superhero and the other can turn into the Hulk.

A5

The new catsuit. This is still fitted by the fabric seems much more hardwearing and likely to give protection. The seams are no longer piped but flat felled to add strength and stability. They made add a level of sexiness but they are more practical and less obvious. The zipped neckline is still low but there is much less skin exposed. The Black Widow belt buckle (first seen in a much smaller form on the Iron Man 2 catsuit) is more focused and obvious here; as are the number of Natasha’s weapons.

A4

The Avengers saved the world and are taking a break. Natasha has gone back to jeans, a warm toned top and a leather jacket. This time the jacket is much lighter (still playing into her warm tones) and is less of a “threatening” statement. She will always favour leather for its protection but she trusts the people around her ad has gained their trust.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Costumes designed by Judianna Makovsky

FZ-03642_R 97819_Medium

Another film, another catsuit. This suit seems to be a middle ground between Iron Man 2 and The Avengers. The neckline is closer to Avengers, but the fabric appears much more lycra-based as in IM2. The level of weapons seems closer to Avengers, with the belt buckle closer to IM2. There is much more panelling in this suit than in the other versions and means that, as a look, the suit has gone back to its more sexualised roots. There are leather side panels, bulked up shoulder pads, elbow and knee pads and a combination of flat felled seams and piped seams. But in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Natasha is barely seen in the catsuit. She remains Natasha Romanoff rather than Black Widow.

CA TWS1

From now on we have Natasha as Natasha. Many of her costumes remind me of Veronica Mars’ costumes – the jeans, jackets (corduroy and leather), stripes, hoodies. As personality comparisons go Veronica and Natasha aren’t too far removed. We’ve got incognito look one but it’s worth noting that the green corduroy jacket is still in the warm tones that we established in The Avengers.

CA TWS2

This is the most Veronica Mars-y costume. Natasha has chosen greys and more muted tones to help blend in to the background and hide from S.H.I.E.L.D. The greys are still warm in tone and we’re seeing layers as an off-duty form of protection.

CA TWS4

We’re back to pre-hiding Natasha. Black jeans, black top and a leather jacket. The main interest in this leather jacket is its clear 1940s Aviator influence. We’ve had those influences before surrounding Captain America: on Steve in Captain America: The First Avenger, on Peggy in CA:TFA and on Steve in The Avengers. This is one of the few obvious ’40s costume references in the film and it’s interesting that it’s found on Natasha rather than Steve. His costumes are much more modern than they were in The Avengers when there were clear repeated ’40s links.

CA TWS5

The last time we see Natasha is after her Senate subcommittee interview before she is off to find a new identity for herself. This is ‘blank-slate’ Natasha, but ‘blank-slate’ with leather protection everywhere. The leather blazer is smart and practical but tightly tailored at the waist. This is probably overkill and done to stop any chance that she won’t look like “sexy Scarlett Johansson”.

[I left out one costume due to major spoilers, lack of photo and specific spy mode.]

Natasha’s next appearance will come in Avengers: Age of Ultron, once again designed by Alexandra Byrne. Personally, I’m hoping for a return to The Avengers catsuit and hair. And maybe a comment on the arrow necklace she was spotted wearing in CA:TWS.

S x