Albert Nobbs is a film that has been in the making since Glenn Close starred in the 1982 off- Broadway stage production adapted from George Moore’s short story. Directed by Rodrigo Garcia, Close’s sensitive portrayal of a woman disguising herself as a man in order to find employment and survive in 19th century Ireland is both eccentric and poignant. Helping to bring the man’s world of 19th century Ireland to life is costume designer Pierre-Yves Gayraud. Gayraud has been splashing films with his costume design in France since the ’90s, where he received a nomination in 1993 for the Cesar Award for Indochine (1992). Stateside, he has worked on The Bourne Identity (2002) and the upcoming Cloud Atlas.
In researching Albert Nobbs, Gayraud found inspiration in the Kenyon and Mitchell films, two cinematographers who shot crowds in Ireland, Scotland and England from the end of the nineteenth century until 1905. “[The films are] an amazing witness of life for this period, full of details for costumes,” says Gayraud. French and Irish paintings also contributed to the world Gayraud helped shape for Albert Nobbs. “I particularly love Felix Valloton who had such an incredible sense to sketch the silhouettes with strong colors which was unusual for this time. From the beginning when we discussed the palette, we knew we didn’t want a brownish wardrobe. It is mostly a black-and-white theme for the hotel team but for the customers it was a great chance to play with color.”
Gayraud didn’t have long to prepare. “It was clear since the beginning that we would have to take care of a lot of things in a short time,” Gayraud explains. He collected authentic Victorian fabrics from antique markets and art dealers in Paris and London before arriving in Dublin to organize a workshop. “My focus was to [strive for] maximum authenticity and to give a second-hand look, even with the new pieces we made.”
Nobbs, of course, was Gayraud’s favorite character to dress. He knew immediately that Nobbs would not be a character who could afford the luxury of a tailor. The only chance Nobbs had to keep his secret safe would be to find something potentially suitable. From there, Gayrund explains, “in the secret shadow of his bedroom he makes his own alteration to find the best masculine silhouette he can. Of course it’s not the easiest thing to design this sort of costume because you have to find the balance between a imperfect costume and a good look.” The shoes were also an important element in finding the character. “At our first fitting, Glenn Close [who produced and co-wrote the film] looked at a pair that was too large, put it on and said, ‘that’s Albert’s shoes.’ She asked me to make the shoes heavier and after that she began to walk. And there was Albert.“
The painful journey of Albert Nobbs trapped in the life he carved out for himself is a wistfully somber story, illustrated by the way the soul of a woman is contained in the outward appearance of a man. “A very important point was to imagine the way the character could find himself by making his silhouette really masculine,” Gayraud says. The challenge was something Gayraud had fun undertaking. “This experience was very special because it was more the atmosphere of a theater troupe than an usual shoot.”