Philomena tells the true story of the title character (Judi Dench and Sophie Kennedy Clark) on a quest to find her long-lost son and the journalist (Steve Coogan) who joins her along the way. The story unfolds in two time periods, the 1950s and the early 2000s and across three countries – England, Ireland and the United States. To dress the characters, director Stephen Frears enlisted the help of his longtime collaborator, costume designer Consolata Boyle. This is their seventh film together, including The Queen, for which Boyle received an Academy Award nomination.
The research for the film was intensive. Boyle looked at photographs and archival footage of Catholic mother and baby homes, convents and religious orders. A particularly helpful source of information was Philomena Lee herself and her daughter, Jane, both of whom Boyle found to be absolutely invaluable. The research also posed a massive challenge. “it was difficult at times to get some of those involved to speak openly about what happened, especially the religious orders,” said Boyle. “I suppose it is understandable that there was a sense of denial and of course that meant their archives and libraries were closed to us.” The costume designer was nonetheless determined not to let the limitations get in the way of what she was trying to accomplish. “However, there are many sources in the public domain and careful research unearthed many rare and valuable images, whether still or moving.”
Boyle’s collaboration with Frears was an open and trusting one that allowed room for creativity to thrive. “As I’ve worked with Stephen often before, we know and trust each other. He always lets his team get on with their jobs. Nevertheless, he carefully notices every detail and has an unerring sense of the ‘rightness’ of every element,” she explained. An particular aspect of the film that had to be visually portrayed with care was the comedic element. Visually balancing the character of Philomena against the backdrop of the gentle comedy meant giving her strength somehow. This was translated by using definition of silhouette and color. “For example, her coats, used in all the exterior scenes are characterized by their classic simplicity of cut, the lack of surface detail and sober hues.”
Philomena, both the younger, played by Clark and the older, played by Dench were Boyle’s favorite characters in the film to dress. Contrasting color palettes identified the characters and their distinct circumstances. For the flashback sequences featuring the young Philimena set in the 1950s, Boyle used somber browns and greens to highlight the repressive mood of the period. But she still found a way to connect the characters. “The only flash of color in these Irish period sequences appears in the fair ground scene, which is full of magical imagery and innocence. Young Philomena wears a pretty blue homemade dress, which echoes the love of beauty which is indicated in later sequences where I used delicately colored printed scarves on the older Philomena in both interior and exterior scenes as worn by the real Philomena Lee herself.”