Spotlight on Costumes

The UK has long been the premier destination for filmmakers looking for authentic period costumes and the experts to provide them. Yet the country’s costume designers are increasingly being recognised for their work across all manner of genres, from epic fantasy dramas such as Game of Thrones to sleek modern thrillers like Ex Machina.

And when London-born designer Jenny Beavan stepped up to collect her Oscar for best costume design in February 2016, it was for her dazzlingly original costumes on George Miller’s post-apocalyptic action epic Mad Max: Fury Road. “It is so different to the films I’m perceived for, and I’d always hankered after something futuristic so I was thrilled to be given the chance to work on it,” explains Beavan, who previously won an Oscar for her period creations on A Room With a View, and has been nominated for The King’s Speech and Gosford Park, among others.

When it came to creating the far-out costumes required for Mad Max, Beavan immersed herself in everything from African art to outfi ts worn by Pina Bausch’s ballet company. She made everything from scratch for the film, using an unusual combination of materials, including metal, vellum and rawhide, to create the hundreds of costumes required to accommodate the huge cast. The biggest challenge, however, was designing costumes that could stand up to the harsh conditions in the Namibian desert.

“You don’t know what the sand is going to whip up, and we had to build in safety elements without compromising the look,” says Beavan, who prides herself on her sense of realism when it comes to creating costumes. “I want to be able to justify why everything is there, so it has to be vaguely grounded, even if it’s in a post-apocalyptic way.”

Beavan also recently worked on Gore Verbinski’s A Cure for Wellness, a modern-day supernatural thriller set in a Swiss sanatorium, which shot at Studio Babelsberg in Berlin. “Gore is incredibly specific and had a fantastic amount of references,” says Beavan, who set out to create a timeless, desaturated look for the film.

She recently returned to her comfort zone, however, for Amma Asante’s A United Kingdom. Based on true events in the late 1940s, the film is the story of how the King of Botswana (David Oyelowo) controversially fell in love with and married a white London office worker (Rosamund Pike). “It reminded me of my parents who got married in the same registry office, so it was familiar,” says Beavan, who is nevertheless keen to take on new challenges. “After Mad Max I feel equipped to do strange and weird,” she laughs.

Fairy-tale collaboration

Also in the running for an Oscar in 2016 was veteran UK costume designer Sandy Powell, nominated for her work on two very different films: Kenneth Branagh’s lavish fairy tale Cinderella and Todd Haynes’ 1950s New York-set romantic drama Carol, which was her third collaboration with US director Haynes following Velvet Goldmine and Far From Heaven. The latter was also set in the 1950s but had a very different look. “[Far From Heaven] was the end of the ’50s and very heightened and stylised, while Carol is set in 1952 and is based on reality,” says Powell, who trawled through photos and paintings as well as magazines such as Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar to build a sense of the era. She made about 80% of the outfits worn in the film by Carol (Cate Blanchett), while sourcing most of the other characters’ clothes from costume houses, vintage fairs and dealers.

In contrast, the costume designer started completely from scratch when it came to Disney’s big-budget fairy tale Cinderella. “Usually the biggest challenge on any film is not enough time or money, but I was given the resources to explore different things and come up with a whole new world,” explains Powell, who took influence from 19th-century clothing, while adding individual touches such as the fairy lights sewn into Helena Bonham Carter’s godmother costume.

A designer of great versatility, Powell won Oscars for The Young Victoria, The Aviator and Shakespeare in Love, and most recently worked on John Cameron Mitchell’s low-budget UK comedy How to Talk to Girls at Parties, which is set in the 1970s punk era and stars Elle Fanning. “It was the craziest script involving aliens, on a crazily low budget, but I took the challenge and had a ball,” she says.

Finding original punk clothing was more difficult – and expensive – than Powell anticipated, however, so she improvised by adapting 1970s clothes. “This was where [London-based costume house] Angels stepped in,” she says. “I rented their 1970s stock, destroyed it, put it back together, painted all over it and turned it into punk. But in return they got a collection of punk clothing.”

Powell is reteaming with Todd Haynes on Wonderstruck, set in the 1920s US midwest and 1970s New York, and based on the book by Brian Selznick. It is a return to Selznick territory for the designer, who worked on Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of the author’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret – released as Hugo – one of six films on which she has collaborated with Scorsese, including Gangs of New York in 2002 and, most recently, The Wolf of Wall Street.

Design across the decades

Fellow UK designer Steven Noble, meanwhile, has carved out a reputation for his fresh and eclectic approach to costumes. “I immerse myself in the period to get as much reference as possible, but I don’t stick to the period itself, I mix it up slightly,” says Noble, who was nominated for a BAFTA in 2015 for The Theory of Everything, which saw him create costumes that span four decades. Yorkshire-born Noble is preparing for Danny Boyle’s highly anticipated Trainspotting sequel (he was assistant costume designer on the original 1996 film) and he also took on another national treasure last year when he designed the costumes, and a range of baby bumps, for Bridget Jones’s Baby.

It was the “quite incredible script”, meanwhile, that attracted Noble to Benedict Andrews’ Una, starring Rooney Mara and Ben Mendelsohn. Based on David Harrower’s controversial play Blackbird, the film centres on a young woman meeting a middle-aged man 15 years after being sexually abused by him. Set in the modern day, the film also features flashbacks to the 1990s. “You can tell the difference between the periods but I tried to make it feel timeless as well, so it looks right for the time but won’t date too much,” says Noble, who took a degree in fashion before going on to style magazine shoots.

The Thrones effect

Alongside their lauded work on global features, the UK’s costume designers are also making waves in high-end TV drama. Michele Clapton, for example, has won two Emmys for her ground-breaking costume design on seasons one to five of Game of Thrones, in which she created a series of breathtaking looks across the show’s different worlds. “Fantasy costume used to be held in very little regard, but Game of Thrones has taken it to a new level and had a huge impact on the way all series are now designed,” says Clapton, who spent seven years designing for the show before deciding she was ready for a new challenge.

That came in the form of Stephen Daldry and Peter Morgan’s The Crown, a lavish series focusing on the reign of Queen Elizabeth II being produced for Netflix. “It’s interesting to get back to a period piece. In some ways it’s more restrictive, but at the same time I love the ’50s,” says Clapton who has made almost every costume worn by the Queen and Princess Margaret for the ambitious show.

“We had to be really precise when it came to matching things with the public footage of events like the coronation, in order to buy ourselves some artistic licence as to what we thought their looks in private would be,” continues Clapton, whose main aim is to “tell a story” with the costumes rather than steal the limelight. “When the Queen is in the countryside with the dogs, the costumes almost disappear, whereas at a dinner the costumes stand out because they are actually discussed.”

Clapton credits her reputation as a colourist and cutter to her training at the London College of Fashion. But she is hugely impressed by the next wave of talented young British costume designers. “More than ever there is so much talent there, thanks to the UK’s great courses and schemes,” says Clapton, whose other recent projects include Asif Kapadia’s 1920-set feature Ali and Nino Werner Herzog’s Queen of the Desert.

When it comes to sourcing costumes, however, designers turn regularly to UK costume houses such as Cosprop, Sands Films and Angels, the world’s biggest costume house that was honoured this year with a BAFTA for outstanding British contribution to cinema. Angels has provided the costumes for more than 30 Academy Award-winning titles, including The Great Gatsby and The Grand Budapest Hotel, as well as launching the careers of renowned designers such as Jacqueline Durran and Julian Day.

Angels chairman Tim Angel believes the UK punches above its weight in the world of costumes. “When Americans come to work over here, they’re amazed at the quality of the people, the training, our heritage of theatre and the skill base. It’s an infrastructure that you don’t get anywhere else.”

Dressed for Success, words by Sarah Cooper, was originally published in UK in Focus 2016 in association with Screen International.

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