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.


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 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


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

Anthony Powell and Deborah Landis: In Conversation

Just quickly…

So after previous V&A talks with Susannah Buxton and Deborah Nadoolman Landis, I went to another one! This one was open to the public so, I guess, there was a wider range of audience members. (I say I guess because my friend Tom and I got to the auditorium early and secured front row seats as early as we could.) When I attended the curator talk with Deborah Landis, she was verging on being late having attended the OBE ceremony for Jenny Agutter earlier in the afternoon; however on this occasion she (and John Landis) were as early as Tom and me. (Amusing me when she was “introduced” later.)

Two of Anthony Powell’s costumes from ‘102 Dalmatians’ (2000) – Cruella before and after her rehabilitation.

For those who don’t know, Anthony Powell is a theatre and film costume designer with three Academy Awards to his name – Travels with my Aunt (1972), Death on the Nile (1978) and Tess (1979) – as well as a Tony Award for School for Scandal (1963) and the Irene Sharaff Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004; among others. Tom is a designer that I have worked with on two shows and am in the midst of working with at the moment and he cites 101 and 102 Dalmatians (1996 and 2000) as the films that confirmed his desire to go into costume design (although he works as a theatre designer). Powell’s designs for those films are fairly legendary and two costume are featured in the Hollywood Costume exhibition. An interesting note about having Landis in conversation with Powell is that, after Landis designed Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Powell went on to design Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1983) and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1988). Sadly due to time restraints (and a stern V&A lady) discussions of this “hand over” were skated over. Besides Powell calling Landis “the Queen of Indiana Jones” and Landis calling Powell “the Prince”. The talk followed a fairly chronological order of Powell’s film career – but missing a number of films. Powell regularly interrupted Landis with stories to be told “very quickly”. Never true!

Anthony Powell’s designs for ‘Death on the Nile’ (1978) from the Dressing the Stars: British Costume Design at the Academy Awards exhibition at the Fashion Museum in Bath in 2011. (My poorly taken photos.)

Anthony Powell trained as a theatre designer at the Central School of Arts and Crafts, now Central School of Saint Martins. Working as a designer wasn’t quite paying the bills so he was taking odd jobs as well. Someone he worked with was married to an American and invited Powell to dinner one evening with her parents – assuring Powell that they would get along. The father turned out to be film director Irving Lerner. The next day he rang up Powell and asked if he’d ever designed a film, if he would like to and if he’d join him in Spain in a few days time to design The Royal Hunt of the Sun (1969). Powell’s advice for designers trying to break into the film business?

Just go to lots of dinner parties.

Anthony Powell’s illustrations, research, costume and still of one of Bette Davis’s costumes from ‘Death on the Nile’ (1978) from the Dressing the Stars: British Costume Design at the Academy Awards exhibition at the Fashion Museum in Bath in 2011. (My poorly taken photos.)

He also believes in luck. “Total chance. Being in the right place at the right time.” You also need to recognise opportunities. He completely believes that had he not attended that dinner his life would have taken a completely different journey. When Powell arrived in Madrid he was thrown in the deep end and asked numerous questions about armour (no knowledge of) by the wardrobe master. The armour was all made specially in Toledo and has (or was) been put into the Royal Armoury in Madrid as “real” armour. Powell was also very gullible and believed the crew when they told him that no-one in Spain made hats or jewellery. So he made them all himself!

Anthony Powell’s illustrations, research, costume and still of one of Bette Davis’s costumes from ‘Death on the Nile’ (1978) from the Dressing the Stars: British Costume Design at the Academy Awards exhibition at the Fashion Museum in Bath in 2011. (My poorly taken photos.)

His next film was Nicholas and Alexandra (1971) where he was one of four costume designers. This talk led into discussions of his process. Powell is his own illustrator. He accepts that many designers work with illustrators but he himself could never understand that process. Then again, he illustrates beautifully so it wouldn’t be an issue! Powell reads the script in a quiet and tranquil place. If no ideas come to him in that first read-through he won’t do the film because he knows it won’t be a right fit for him. He wouldn’t sketch at this point but would make notes in the script. In theatre you can take a young, thin actor and pad him out into Falstaff. In film, “the camera sees untruth”. You can’t impose a character onto an actor. Powell would always meet with an actor before sketching designs.

A closer look at one of Anthony Powell’s dresses for Bette Davis in ‘Death on the Nile’ (1978) from the Dressing the Stars: British Costume Design at the Academy Awards exhibition at the Fashion Museum in Bath in 2011. (My poorly taken photo.)

Travels with my Aunt (1972) was prepared for Katharine Hepburn. Days before shooting she was fired by MGM. The director George Cukor convinced Maggie Smith to take the role but a wardrobe had already been created for Hepburn. They started with costumes that had already been made and would work on Smith and then made more costumes as the film went on. The film was working fine until the new owner of MGM wanted it changed. He wouldn’t release the cast or crew from their contracts so they had to continue filming with a re-written script. “It was a mess.” Powell won an Oscar for the film but he maintains that it was because of the Academy’s fondness for George Cukor:

They wanted him to be connected with an Oscar.

Powell always tries to make the next project different from the previous. A designer’s job is to change their designs and style to suit the next project – even his drawing style.

A closer look at more of Anthony Powell’s illustrations for ‘Death on the Nile’ (1978) from the Dressing the Stars: British Costume Design at the Academy Awards exhibition at the Fashion Museum in Bath in 2011. (My poorly taken photo.)

Discussions of his work on Papillon (1973) led to high praise of Dustin Hoffman, who was willing to try anything. This included wearing contact lenses so that he could wear the super strong “fishbowl” glasses. There were also stories about Steve McQueen. Culminating in the story of Powell’s motorcycle journey around Jamaica with him – something that Powell regards as a test McQueen submitted him to.

A closer look at Anthony Powell’s illustrations for ‘Death on the Nile’ (1978) from the Dressing the Stars: British Costume Design at the Academy Awards exhibition at the Fashion Museum in Bath in 2011. (My poorly taken photo.)

To meet up with each cast member of Death on the Nile (1978) Powell had to undertake a ‘world tour’. And of this tour, Bette Davis told Powell to tell her what day would be best for him and she would cancel her arrangements. She also booked a car to drive him from New York (where he had met Angela Lansbury) to Connecticut. When he arrived he smelt home-baked cookies and freshly brewed coffee – by Davis herself. After the cookies and coffee, Davis stripped off so that Powell could see what he was working with! Powell noted that she had the most beautiful Edwardian shoulders, delicate ankles and exquisite feet – that would be what he concentrated on. Davis had strong views about what she wanted but, after some diplomacy by Powell, knew that he would handle everything perfectly and left everything up to him. Including wearing hats – which she had strongly protested in that first meeting.

Anthony Powell’s illustrations for ‘Tess’ (1979) from the Dressing the Stars: British Costume Design at the Academy Awards exhibition at the Fashion Museum in Bath in 2011. (My poorly taken photo.)

Powell praised Roman Polanski’s direction and understanding of film. He first worked with Polanski on Tess (1979) and also on Pirates (1986), Frantic (1988) and The Ninth Gate (1999). Polanski trusted Powell explicitly and never knew what an actor was going to wear until they turned up on set!

One of Anthony Powell’s dresses for ‘Tess’ (1979) from the Dressing the Stars: British Costume Design at the Academy Awards exhibition at the Fashion Museum in Bath in 2011. (My poorly taken photo.)

(Time restraints led to very brief discussions on later films so I will breeze through these as well!) Powell was responsible for Cole Porter scoring Evil Under the Sun (1982). There was “something missing” from the film and he said that if they were willing to fork out a lot of money, a Cole Porter score would just complete the picture. Steven Spielberg always welcomed celebrity visitors to his sets and, if they hung around long enough they were dressed as extras. So in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, both Barbra Streisand and Drew Barrymore are dressed as guards, and Glenn Close convinced Powell to dress her as a pirate to get into Hook (1991). She was actually given lines and a full week of shooting. This was Powell and Close’s first meeting and led to their collaboration on 101 Dalmatians.

‘102 Dalmatians’ (2000) costume plot by Anthony Powell

Close gave Powell freedom with Cruella De Vil’s costumes and said that she would know how to play the character from his costumes. A statement that Powell says filled him with terror – if he’d got the costumes wrong, the performance would have been wrong. The one brief discussion concerning Miss Potter (2006) – Powell praised Renee Zellwegger. Her accent particularly. She stayed in her Miss Potter accent throughout shooting and he only ever heard her natural accent once shooting had wrapped.

Anthony Powell’s signature in ‘Hollywood Costume’ by his costume plot for ‘102 Dalmatians’ (2000)

Anthony Powell was a wonderful speaker and I wish the talk could have been longer – he was enthusiastic, joyous and just wanted to tell his stories! Afterwards there was a book signing so I was able to get two out of three books signed by Landis (one I donated to Tom because I’m such a good friend!) and Powell signed alongside his costume plot for 102 Dalmatians in Hollywood Costume. Tom had recently bought two of Powell’s illustrations for The Avengers (1998) so these were signed and dedicated. All in all it was an incredible evening and I loved every second! Now, where are all those films for me to watch/rewatch?

Deborah Landis’ dedication in ’50 Designers/50 Costumes’ – ‘One of three!’ not technically accurate after my donation!

S x

Curator Talk with Deborah Nadoolman Landis (and Keith Lodwick)

After I visited the Hollywood Costume exhibition at the V&A on Friday I was also able to attend a curator talk with Deborah Nadoolman Landis. (I probably hurried around the exhibition a little to allow for something to eat before the talk – but I always knew that this would never be a one visit exhibition.)

As the talk was about the exhibition I felt that it would be best to see the exhibition first so that there would be a greater understanding of what Landis was talking about. It was the right decision!

Landis started off by talking about why the Hollywood Costume exhibition is at the V&A rather than at a film museum – which some people may think is more suitable a place for such an exhibition.

Costume designers are first and foremost designers.

This gets overlooked a lot – especially where contemporary costume design is concerned. I thought that this was a great way to start to just confirm the design side of costume. It isn’t shopping. They are creating a character along with the actor and the director.

Every design tells a story.

Landis went on to talk about the lack of evolution of costume design – in that it always starts with a person in a screenplay. The screenplay is where the character initially lives.

There was also mention of the fact that not every costume that one would like to see is included (one particular I will refer to later on). Personally I was hoping for some costumes from Singin’ in the Rain, Inception, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Gosford Park, Back to the Future but that’s because I have a particular fondness for those costumes. I remain impressed at the wide range of costumes that are on display – but everyone always wants more!

Then Landis spoke about her understanding of working on a film: Under-graduate – understanding the costume design, graduate – working with actors and directors, graduation – wrap-party. (These are the extent of my notes but Landis mentioned this in an off-hand manner but I still found enough humour in it to write them down!)

Planet South Kensington to Planet Hollywood.

Landis wanted the Hollywood Costume exhibition to be a cinematic experience (one reason for the specially commissioned score composed by Julian Scott) and to evoke the feeling of a movie – or a ride.

The body of a blonde, the head of a brunette.

The exhibition starts with the story and then leads into costume and identity. [Big period costumes are not such a draw for Landis as they are for the general British public!]

The interviews throughout were carried out for the exhibition by Landis (and Tim Burton was interviewed by Keith Lodwick – assistant curator) excluding those of Edith Head and Alfred Hitchcock. For obvious reasons.

The finale section of the exhibition was referred to as “The Greatest Hits” of costume design. The exhibition is intended to be for everyone.

Some Like it Hot dress and stole: through this exhibition it was discovered that the stole is made of swansdown.

The ruby slippers – believed to be the dancing pair.

One of the first questions related to the use of screens and projections for the actors’ faces. Landis told of how fellow costume designer James Acheson (The Last Emperor, Dangerous Liaisons, Spider-man) told her not to do the exhibition because it would be:

dead frocks on dummies.

Costumes are intended for an actor, on a screen, in a certain scene. They are not made for exhibitions in the same way that fashion is. It was important to give the costumes back their life and they came upon using film footage on screens. It might be just a slight move of the chin but that movement gives motion. And Landis also mentioned how the screens themselves felt cinematic.

Landis spoke of her admiration for Irene Sharaff, having grown up with Broadway musicals and the great Hollywood musicals, and Cecil Beaton after seeing My Fair Lady at Radio City Music Hall.

There was a story (that I will never do jsutice writing down here) about one key costume that they were unable to get for the exhibition – the Ascot dress from My Fair Lady (1964). The story started with talk of Debbie Reynolds and her famous costume and prop collection that has sadly been sold. The Ascot dress was one of those sold (fetching £3.6 million). A story that involved Meryl Streep (who Landis met once for the interview) and an unnamed collector eventually led to the iconic subway dress worn by Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch (1955) [Travilla]. That dress sold for £4.3 million. So although the Ascot dress isn’t on display, they do have the subway dress.

This were some of the thoughts, rambling, and discussions that went on at the curator talk and I hope this post makes sense and is interesting! Just don’t forget to visit the exhibition if you can!

S x

(Quotations peppered throughout are from Deborah Nadoolman Landis at the talk unless stated otherwise.)

Exhibition Review: Hollywood Costume at the Victoria and Albert Museum

Costume is character – Martin Scorsese

First thing: I cannot recommend this exhibition enough. As I recommended the book ‘Hollywood Costume’, so I recommend this exhibition – just be prepared to lose a few hours of your day. They’ll be worth it.

There are 131 costumes on display ranging from 1920 to 2012. There will obviously be some costumes that haven’t been included (which senior guest curator Deborah Nadoolman Landis herself acknowledged) but within these 131 costumes there will be at least one costume (at LEAST) for you to appreciate. And by appreciate, I mean love. There are iconic costumes that have lasted time and stand out for the audience and contemporary costumes that “fade” into the background –  as best contemporary costumes are thought to. A number of costumes on display have been widely commented on, be they Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) [costumes designed by Deborah Nadoolman] or Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz (1939) [Adrian]. But this exhibition is not merely a display of “pretty things” – it is an exhibition that aims to explain the role a costume designer plays in the production of a film.

To explore this the exhibition is split into three “acts” within three galleries. The first act looks into Deconstruction. The aim in this gallery was to show the first stages in creating a costume.

Designing the Character: before a costume is designed the script needs to be read and thoroughly understood. Without the script, there is no story, no character and no film. The first costumes on display are shown with a film still behind them and animated script pages relevant to that particular costume in front. Some of the screenplays make specific reference to the costume whereas others make no mention. Gone With the Wind (1939) [Walter Plunkett] specifies that Scarlett O’Hara ‘…catches a glimpse of the green portieres hanging at the windows…’ while Angel (1937) [Travis Banton] just mentions that everyone at the opera can’t take their eyes off Marlene Dietrich. [Side note: Charlie Chaplin’s costume for The Little Tramp from The Circus (1928) [Charlie Chaplin] is displayed behind animated autobiography pages explaining the origins of the costume. I particularly liked that the display crackled and had imperfections to give the impression that it had been projected from film rather than digital.]

Character and Composition: a costume has to work within the story and within the setting. This includes considering the genre, the environment and the period. One particular aspect I thought was great was the inclusion of interviews with the general public about what they were wearing. I think that this will help for people to understand the basis of contemporary costume design. Everything that you pick out to wear has a story. There is purpose behind it. A history. A life. It makes you real. And these are the kind of decisions that a costume designer needs to make for a character. The costumes used to illustrate this point are from two contemporary films, with two iconic characters if for different reasons. Jeffrey Lebowski/The Dude’s dressing gown from The Big Lebowski (1998) [Mary Zophres] is displayed alongside Jason Bourne from The Bourne Ultimatum (2007) [Shay Cunliffe]. [Side note: Bourne’s costume looks browner in the flesh than in the film. Clips of the film were shown next to the costume and you definitely get the feel that it is closer to navy blue in colour.]

Serving the Story: more examples of the way that costume is used to aid in telling the story.  The process that Jeffrey Kurland went through when designing Ocean’s Eleven (2001) was shown on a large board – an animated drawing board as it were. The script, mood boards, discussions with director and actors, fitting photos, test shots and the final film stills. This table was surrounded by the main costumes dealt with: Danny Ocean (George Clooney), Rusty Ryan (Brad Pitt), Basher Tarr (Don Cheadle), Linus Caldwell (Matt Damon) and Reuben Tishkoff (Elliott Gould). There are also two costumes from a film that hurts my heart to watch – and a costume has an important part in that. You’ll understand when you see it.

Deconstructing Character: looking in more detail into how to create costumes for believable characters. The biggest section is dedicated to Indiana Jones. There is no doubt that he is a massively iconic character who can be recognised from merely his silhouette but the best part was the detail that has gone into the display. Every aspect of his costume is explained. Whether it is the research, the reason, detailing, bought or made, how it was broken down. This was one of my favourite displays for just that clear explanation projection.

A Royal Romance: a display of ten costumes for “royalty” from 1933 – 2007. The costumes displayed are arranged in chronological order from left to right. I realised this when I got to the middle. It doesn’t affect your enjoyment to view them in reverse chronological order but seeing them in the “correct” order means you can see the development of the dress silhouette more clearly. My favourite? I love Milena Canonero’s costumes for Marie Antoinette (2006). The film isn’t perfect but I could just look at those costumes all day long.

The second act was Dialogue. This act looked at relationships between directors and actors and situations that affect the film process and, in turn, the costume design process.

Creative Contexts – Collaborating with DIrectors: this section looked at four key relationships between directors and costume designers. These are collaborations that have lasted for numerous films – some even decades. Albert Hitchcock and Edith Head with The Birds (1964). Martin Scorsese and Sandy Powell with Gangs of New York (2002). Mike Nichols and Ann Roth with Closer (2004). Tim Burton and Colleen Atwood with Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007). Each display included a costume and interviews with those (where possible). The display of this individual sections was very well thought out and I felt it summed up and represented the collaboration and “teamwork” between the pairs.

Changing Contexts: looked at the change in the film world from silent to sound, black-and-white to colour and moving to the world of CGI. This was particularly interesting as a way of showing how developments in technology affect all aspects of the film industry.

Collaborating with Actors: this section concentrated on Meryl Streep and Robert DeNiro who were interviewed by Deborah Landis specifically for this exhibition (and the accompanying book). Having both worked in the industry for a number of years in very recognisable roles it was great to see them talking about the importance they place on costume.

Act three was Finale. This is the gallery that everyone expects to see from the outset: particularly memorable costumes. These include The Girl’s white dress from The Seven Year Itch (1955) [Travilla], Cecilia Tallis’ dress from Atonement (2007) [Jacqueline Durran], Sugar Kane Kowalczyk’s cream dress from Some Like it Hot (1959) [Orry-Kelly], Batman’s Bat-suit from The Dark Knight Rises (2012) [Lindy Hemming], James Bond’s suit from Casino Royale (2006) [Lindy Hemming] and Tony Manero’s suit from Saturday Night Fever (1977) [Patrizia von Brandenstein]. It may appear that I’ve told you all of the costumes in the final room but, believe me, I haven’t. At the end of the gallery, for four weeks only, are the ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz. I’m quite lucky to have seen the ruby slippers at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington a few years ago so I’ve now seen them twice. They are still amazing to behold, if only for the history behind them.

There are a few “niggles” with the exhibition. Considering that Landis has written the book ‘Hollywood Sketchbook’ looking at one hundred years of costume illustration, none of the costume illustrators are credited alongside their illustrations. I know. I looked. Another lack of acknowledgement goes to the costume maker behind specially constructed costumes. I understand that a number of costumes will be a collaborative make and that makers have always tended to be in the background (look at the fashion world – even couture clothing). But when a costume is on display I feel that, where possible, all people involved be justly recognised. However, I understand that this exhibition was looking at costume designers in particular and that is one huge step forward in itself. I personally found the displays fascinating in their layout, inclusion of sketches, interviews, film clips and specially recorded music score wonderful but heard complaints and “moans” nearly instantly. Mostly these were due to being “unable to read displays”. I had no such problem – even with the low lighting which I understand to be necessary for the protection of the costumes and also to fit in with Landis’ aim for a movie experience. I would rather have lower light to see a costume from the ’20s or ’30s so that the costume can still go on display for years to come. It may not be possible to see as much of the costumes as one would have liked due to their positioning but this is mainly due to the fact that there are 131 costumes on display. Beyond showing each costume separately on its own and blocking the galleries it would never be possible for each costume to be seen fully.

The costume is part of their character – Tim Burton

This exhibition was always intended to explore and explain the role of the costume designer and I think that it does that incredibly well. Bravo Deborah Landis, Sir Christopher Frayling, Keith Lodwick and the whole team at the V&A for creating such a wonderful exhibition. I plan on making numerous return trips. The exhibition opens tomorrow (20th October) until the 27th January and you can book here. I believe that the exhibition is going on a tour after January so hopefully more people can continue to see it and understand the important role of a costume designer.

S x

[There are also a number of talks and events that are connected with the exhibition. I’m trying to go to as many as possible – look into tyhem!]

Book Review: ‘Hollywood Costume’ edited by Deborah Nadoolman Landis

I’ve been excited about the Victoria and Albert Museum’s ‘Hollywood Costume’ exhibition since I heard about it. (This was over a year ago thanks to Clothes on Film.) So with my visit sorted for Friday (before the exhibition officially opens but I don’t have the connections to get to the Wednesday preview!) the next step was for the accompanying book. I read it in about three days and it is beautiful.

The book is separated into four main sections.

The Art of Becoming: this is made up of essays looking into the nature of costume design, the process of costume design and collaborations. The essays featured include some written by costume designers in the industry such as Deborah Nadoolman Landis, James Acheson, Kristin M. Burke (also the writer of FrockTalk) and Mary Zophres.

Defining the Character: this looks in more detail into the use of costume in film, the history of costume and Hollywood, the relationship between costume and fashion and the effect of costumes on actors. Essays include those written by John Landis, Deborah Nadoolman Landis and interviews with Meryl Streep, Robert De Niro and Ann Roth.

Collectors and Collecting: this section looks at the history of collecting costumes, how some have survived, finding costumes for the exhibition and displaying the costumes. Includes essays written by Deborah Nadoolman Landis and Debbie Reynolds.

The New Frontiers: the smallest section of the book looks into the internet’s involvement in furthering the knowledge of costume design, discussions of design, fantasy/science-fiction/superhero costume design and designing for CGI and Mocap. Authors of these essays include Chris Laverty (of Clothes on Film) and costume designers Jeffrey Kurland and Joanna Johnston.

The book has some incredible photographs be they designs, film stills, photographs of costumes on mannequins or close-ups. The discussions of costume include great thoughts and insight into contemporary costume – the much maligned side of costume design. When I reviewed ‘FilmCraft: Costume Design’ I said that I’d hoped for an interview with Jeffrey Kurland. Well, here it is! I honestly had no idea that the interview was in this book. The only essay that I knew would be included was something by Chris Laverty – the wonder of Twitter.

I want to carry this book around with me and show different aspects to different people I know. I spend so much of my time ranting or raving about costumes and how they are regarded that it’s nice to have some form of “back-up”. Because costume is so important to the world of television, theatre and film; everyone has an opinion – or a lack of opinion due to a lack of understanding. The essays here are so wide ranging that everyone can learn something from them – even if it is just learning the different ways different designers work. Or learning that Meryl Streep has a degree in costume design. And I would, obviously, recommend reading the chapters by Kristin M. Burke and Chris Laverty if only because their blogs are great (and they may have linked to a previous post on DTSFT) – and I’ve been reading them since before this book came out. I promise! My only problem with the book is that due to the nature of essays, some of the information is repeated by different authors. But this is a very petty complaint to be taken with a large handful of salt given the amazing nature of this book.

I would recommend this book to anyone and everyone – not just limited to those with a specific interest in costume design. Costume design is storytelling. Who isn’t interested in a good story?

S x

Dressing Downton: A Talk by Costume Designer Susannah Buxton

It’s been regularly commented on this blog that I have a particular interest in costume design. I’m happy to say that more and more attention has been given to the art of costume design and fewer people associate costume with fashion. (And I will shout at anyone who says I have a degree in fashion. Be warned.) And with this interest comes more exhibitions and talks relating to costume design. The Victoria and Albert Museum in London’s autumn exhibition will be Hollywood Costume and concentrates on the role costume design takes in film making. The exhibition is guest curated by Deborah Nadoolman Landis who is a brilliant costume designer in her own right (responsible for Michael Jackson’s Thriller video costumes, Indiana Jones’s iconic look in Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Blues Brothers and more) was also a two term president of the Costume Designer’s Guild and responsible for a number of books on the subject of costume design. But, this post isn’t about her. That’s for later. This post is about a vaguely connected V&A talk I attended that, in my opinion, wouldn’t have come about were it not for the upcoming Hollywood Costume exhibition.

The talk I attended (due to my Mother’s membership at the V&A) was about the costume design in Downton Abbey and was “held” by the Emmy-award winning costume designer of Series’ 1 and 2, Susannah Buxton. (Series 3 was designed by Caroline McCall. I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t know there had been a change in designer until the talk.)

The talk itself lasted only an hour and also involved comparisons with Heather Firbank. Not heard of her? Me either. She was a very wealthy woman born in 1888 who lived a similar life to that of Lady Mary. But the main reason she was used as a comparison was that the V&A have a large number of her clothes either in store or on display. Some of her dresses are in such poor condition that they cannot be safely put on display but are currently being photographed for a new book about the V&A’s vast collection.

Heather Firbank (1888 – 1954) by Cecil Beaton.

As the talk was just that – a talk and not a lecture there is a fair amount of to-ing and fro-ing and my post will probably follow a similar tack as I’m following my slightly muddles notes, so I apologise in advance!

One of the first things that Buxton said was that costumes are intended to “engage the audience, introduce the characters and are aesthetically interesting and historically accurate.” (Or as close to that as I could write.) This is a very important statement and as I will probably write further posts on costume design I will discuss those opinions of other designers and possible even myself(!) But it is this statement that includes the word ‘characters’ that is so important in differentiating costume from fashion.

Some of the points that Buxton made I was already aware of but as a number of people are unsure of the relationship between costume design and film I’ll try to put in as many helpful notes as possible.

Buxton said that after an actor or actress is cast in a role the first person that they are likely to see is the costume designer. For the artist it is so important to be able to get a feel of their character – especially as pre-production time gets shorter and shorter. Buxton noted that she had about 7 weeks of pre-production and when you think of the casting and the size of the show you realise how short that time is.

There is a mixture of costume design practice from those designers that must draw designs first and those, like Buxton and Jenny Beavan (Gosford Park, Sherlock Holmes and The King’s Speech) who held a talk at my university a few years ago, who go to a costume house and pull a rail of costumes for the actors to try on. When I was in my final year and working on my final major project I was able to go to Cosprop (one of London’s biggest costume hire houses) to look at one of their costumes. When you sign in you can casually glance at other names. And back in 2011 I saw the name Dan Stevens written for the previous day. This was either whilst series 1 was still on the air or had just finished – fittings were starting for Series 2. ‘Pulling a rail’ means gathering together costumes of certain fabrics, patterns, shapes and styles so that you can see what works on an actor. You don’t want to have a beautiful dress made and then find that the cut is unflattering on the actress or that the colour doesn’t suit their skin tone/hair colour. Beavan showed us some sneaky photos of this process for Sherlock Holmes and stated that a lot of the feel of the character comes from those moments and that that was particularly true of Robert Downey Jr. So, my point was to mention costume houses. For any film or show nowadays unless you have an unlimited budget (and I mean that) you will have to hire costumes. A lot was made of this in the newspapers when it was “discovered” that Downton had done this – my favourite being the Daily Mail’s article of course. I stand by my opinion that if Downton had had the money available to make all the costumes there’d be more hoo-ha about that. And it would be led by the Daily Mail. But moving on from that.

Buxton then talked through various characters so I’ll try to do the same…

The Countess of Grantham (Cora) played by Elizabeth McGovern

Buxton was clear that where Cora was concerned she wanted to always design with the idea of an American woman living in the English aristocracy and being much more interested in fashion than her English equivalents – and wearing much more outlandish and colourful items.

This dress was mentioned as an example of how some costumes for the show were created. The panel for the bodice was found and loved and the rest of the dress was constructed around it. Buxton was happy to note (as I had previously commented to my Mum) that the dress had appeared in the previous night’s episode. Downton even recycles their own costumes. Do you hear that, Daily Mail?

The Earl of Grantham (Robert) played by Hugh Bonneville

All of Robert’s costumes were made to measure for Bonneville. All of them. But Buxton defends this because he is the Earl and such an important character that everything needs to fit perfectly. And, although he has numerous changes, he still has one black tie costume, one white tie, compared to at least ten evening gowns needed for each series for each female character.

Buxton also told a story of how Huntsmen in Savile Row were desperate to make for Downton and, in series 2, made one suit for Bonneville. However, they had problems adjusting their modern tailoring brains to the period tailoring techniques and positioning of things like shoulder seams. Bonneville’s other suits were made by tailors at Cosprop – trained in period tailoring.

Lady Mary Crawley played by Michelle Dockery

Numerous comparisons were made here between Mary’s clothes and those of Heather and there were striking similarities between them. Comparisons were also made between their personal lives and how that (mostly scandal) affected wardrobe choices:

Clothing is fundamental to and constitutive of both the woman and her biography

Sophie Woodward Why Women Wear What They Wear

The image of Mary’s ‘seduction’ dress is an example of costume leading the way for an important plot point – even if it is a little pre-emptive. The visual point is made, whether you consciously pick up on it or not.

Matthew Crawley played by Dan Stevens

(This image received a large number of gasps from the shockingly(!) largely female audience.)

Sadly, all my notes have on Matthew was that Stevens ‘wasn’t a hat man’. I think that most of his costumes were hired and one particular suit had been reused from a previous film.

The Crawley Sisters

Here they’re seen wearing purple shortly after the announcement of the sinking of the Titanic. This was to symbolise half-mourning. After death they would be expected to wear black but then move into purple. This was a lesson for me. (I think it’s also interesting to note that Edith is wearing more black as she is the one who mourns the death of their cousin the most.)

Lady Edith Crawley played by Laura Carmichael

In the script Edith is written as a plain Jane but Buxton didn’t want that to carry through quite so much in the costume (except for specific scenes such as the garden party in Series 1) as that is too much of a cliché. Carmichael’s performance gives across the ‘overlooked’ middle sister and dowdy costumes would make her look too out of place within her aristocratic family.

Lady Sybil Crawley played by Jessica Brown Findlay

Sybil has always been my favourite of the Crawley sisters and a lot of that is to do with her more bohemian style costumes.

Sybil’s most famous costume is her pantaloons from Series 1. They were shocking at the time and came about because of the Ballet Russes – who were also responsible for bringing more vibrant colours to the wardrobes of the aristocracy before World War One.

There was also discussion of this costume from Series 1 when Sybil attended a political rally. Due to the nature of the scene doubles needed to be made of the costume, just in case of any external damage to the costume – especially as eggs were being thrown in the scene.

The Dowager Countess of Grantham (Violet) played by Maggie Smith

Everyone loves the Dowager. Everyone. One moment from the last episode had my entire family in hysterics. I still find it hilarious. And always will I feel. All I can give you is this picture because I can’t find a YouTube clip. 😦

The costumes for the Dowager are intended to reflect a strong personality and the colours are probably a little stronger than historically accurate but could you imagine Smith in pastel colours?

The Dowager’s costumes were based on those of Queen Mary – a woman who stuck to pretty much the same shape regardless of fashions. This was true of a lot of older women who don’t instantly follow changes in fashion.

ALL of the costumes were made for Smith. ALL OF THEM. Would you try to put Smith in clothes made for and worn by someone else? If so you’re a braver person than I am.

Mr Carson played by Jim Carter

Carson’s jackets were all made for Carter mostly due to the actor’s size but also to help with his performance as Carson. As the butler he is the head of the servants (along with Mrs Hughes) so he would have a more expensive uniform and the jacket would help with his stature and posture.

(Sarah) O’Brien played by Siobhan Finneran

As a lady’s maid O’Brien’s uniform is one of the most expensive – and this marks out how importance particularly compared to the other maids. Her dress is made from silk fabric and, I presume, Anna’s uniform will be similarly “upgraded” following her new role as lady’s maid for Mary (now that she’s married).

Anna Bates played Joanne Froggatt

The aprons worn by the maids were all original aprons from a costume house. The little hats they wear were based on original hats but with the most flattering shape for modern audiences. The hats were then made for the maids.

Thomas Barrow played by Rob James-Collier (and William Mason played by Thomas Howes)

The suits for the footmen were hired from costume houses, fitted to the actors and refitted with Grantham buttons. The biggest problems came from the evening shirts. The starched fronts were very difficult to get dry cleaned. They ended up being cared for by the Queen’s dry cleaners. Obviously.

Mrs Patmore played by Lesley Nicol

The clichéd cook is fussy but the costume for Mrs Patmore is much simpler.

Daisy Mason played by Sophie McShera

Daisy’s main dress was an original cotton dress bought for the show. Although it was expensive, the purchase cost sort of evened out with hiring costs – and the dress lasted for at least two series’.


The servants generally have a day uniform, an evening uniform and one “civilian” outfit and outer coat.

Isobel Crawley played by Penelope Wilton

Isobel’s costumes at the beginning were intended to show her more working-class background and to emphasise the feeling of being out of place at Downton. Later on her costumes moved more towards the aristocracy so that she could hold her place more against the Dowager – particularly as they are always at loggerheads.

Lavinia Swire played by Zoe Boyle

When Lavinia made her first entrance it was a very important costume point. She needed to make a big impression as she is essentially competing with Mary.

We ended with the image of the cast at the declaration of World War One. Buxton wanted to drain all the colour so the cast are all dressed in white, cream and black.

The talk ended with some questions but the most interesting one was related to the budget of the show – which I was surprised that Buxton even answered. The budget that Buxton was given was £19,000 per episode while she worked towards £25,000. She thinks that she managed somewhere between the two. A lot of people were shocked but, to me, I can really see the difficulties of this size budget with the cast size of the show and the number of costumes needed for each character for each episode.

I hope this “little” post has been interesting to you and please let me know if I need to be clearer about things or answer some questions – I’d love any feedback!

And, in October, I will (finally!) be attending the V&A’s Ballgowns: British Glamour since the 1950s exhibition, a talk with Deborah Nadoolman Landis about the Hollywood Costume exhibition (I’ll try not to swoon or get too excited and actually take sensible notes) and then a one day advance visit to the Hollywood Costume exhibition – I WISH it was earlier! So hopefully if you’ve enjoyed this post you’ll enjoy those.

S x