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Costume Designers: The English Women

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When it comes to film costume, English designers have a certain pride of place. The prominence of costume designers from Great Britain is not a new phenomenon. It’s part of a long tradition. But in recent years especially, British costume designers have put their unique stamp on the craft. They’ve also received not just critical accolades, but recognition in the form of numerous prizes, especially when it comes to Academy Awards.Eight current costume designers from the British Isles (one is actually from Ireland) account for an astonishing 26 Oscar nominations and, of that total, 11 Academy Awards:• James Acheson – Won 3 Oscars: Restoration (1995); Dangerous Liaisons (1988); The Last Emperor (1987). Most recent film: Spider-Man 3 (2007).• Anthony Powell – Won 3 Oscars: Tess (1979); Death on the Nile (1978); Travels with My Aunt (1972). 3 other nominations: 102 Dalmatians (2000); Hook (1991); Pirates (1986). Most recent film: Miss Potter (2006).• Sandy Powell – Won 2 Oscars: The Aviator (2004); Shakespeare in Love (1998). 5 other nominations: Mrs. Henderson Presents (2005); Gangs of New York (2002); Velvet Goldmine (1998); Wings of the Dove (1997); Orlando (1992). Most recent film: The Departed (2006). • Jenny Beavan – Won 1 Oscar: A Room with a View (with John Bright) (1985). 7 other nominations: Gosford Park (2001); Anna and the King (1999); Sense and Sensibility (with James Bright) (1995); The Remains of the Day (with John Bright) (1993); Howard’s End (with John Bright) (1992); Maurice (with John Bright) (1987); The Bostonians, (with John Bright) (1984). Most recent film: Black Dahlia (2006).• Lindy Hemming – Won 1 Oscar: Topsy-Turvy (1999). Most recent film: Casino Royale (2006).• Janty Yates – Won 1 Oscar: Gladiator (2000). Most recent film: Miami Vice (2006).• Jacqueline Durran – 1 Oscar nomination: Pride and Prejudice (2005). Most recent film: Atonement (2007).• Consolata Boyle – 1 Oscar nomination: The Queen (2006). Most recent film: The Queen.The reason these English costume designers are in steady demand is more than a question of cachet. A few frequently mentioned elements that lie behind the ubiquitous presence of the Brits: There is the depth of experience that comes from an extensive apprenticeship, often in the theater but also in television, or both. English costume houses are legendary, and become very knowledgeable about the history and range of fabrics.Then there’s the seeming addiction Hollywood film and television producers have for English period pieces that are by nature heavy on costume. One thinks of the unending projects dealing with Queen Elizabeth I, in particular, but also related figures like Henry VIII and Mary Stuart. Then there are the numerous adaptations of Jane Austen novels. And the early 20th century has been a favorite epoch for producers such as Ismail Merchant and James Ivory with films like Room With a View and Maurice.None of this is meant to pigeonhole top English costume designers. They are as adept at cast-of-thousands epics like Gladiator and Alexander or contemporary dramas set in this country like The Departed.Nor does their prominence diminish the prodigious talent and popularity of top American costume designers like double Oscar-winner Colleen Atwood. By the same token, designers from this country don’t dominate the field the way Edith Head, Irene Sharaff, Helen Rose and Jean Louis did in the 1950s. And not just English costume designers but also Italians such as Milena Canonero and Gabriella Pescucci share room at the top. (Canonero won this year’s Academy Award for best costume design for Marie Antoinette, her third.)Below the Line talked to some of the leading English costume designers. Here’s what they had to say about their careers and the state of the profession.Sandy Powell”It’s getting harder to make films in England these days. There’s so much pressure on the budgets. In real terms the budgets are smaller than they were 15 years ago. The budget on my new film, The Other Boleyn Girl, was so small that it became one of the hardest things I’ve ever worked on. On top of that when I went to the houses to look for Tudor costumes, I found that for the production of the television series The Tudors, virtually everything was already rented.”The common background for many costume designers here is theater. But I started doing dance, for an English dance company in Spain. I still do costumes for a small dance company.”I never did any television. I thought it’s not worth the effort because everything looks so small on the tube. Of course now they have those sets that are much larger.”There’s a problem I have with some of the new postproduction technology. The attitude is, it doesn’t matter what color it is, we’ll fix it later. I’m not the only costume designer that feels threatened by the question of who is going to make these decisions later. We’d at least like to have some say in the matter.”Doing The Departed was a challenge. It’s hard to make costumes to deliberately make men look shabby. I ended up designing a lot of ill-fitting suits.”Janty Yates”I’m of the opinion we have more reality in our costume making; that it’s more authentic.”I came out of wholesale fashion. I trained in pattern cutting, dress design and dress making. I was making clothes since I was 11 with my sewing machine. It was my favorite thing to do.”I think a lot of costume designers now, the younger ones, just jump in and don’t have much formal training at all. A lot of them can get away with just sheer bold palettes and extraordinary innovations. I personally feel you have to know fabric and how to cut, and how things are put together—the warp and weft so to speak.”I cannot go to the first meeting on a new film without first going to bookshops and libraries for preliminary research. It’s all about research. I’m ravenous; I gorge on it. After the research, I go out and raid a few costume houses.”Why are there so many well-known English costume designers? I really don’t know. It may be something to do with the training. Within the different craft disciplines there’s a strong tradition in this country of absorbing the history.”Jenny Beavan”When I interview with American directors, they ask me, ‘how are you going to put your mark on this film?’ I’m not, I answer. I’m going to fulfill your vision, and try to keep as low a profile as possible doing the job to the best of my ability. I’ve got a feeling they ask that question because they expect an American designer to say, I’m going to do it all in pink and red. English costume designers don’t feel they need to put their mark on something—they feel they just need to do the job.”I do think straight theater gives you the most wonderful start. It’s so down to Earth. You can’t be a grand dame in theater. You’ve just got to get on with it; you’ve just got to wield a paint brush yourself and a sewing machine—particularly in the way we start in theater in this country in what you might call ‘off-off-off Broadway.'”Working with James Ivory and Ismail Merchant, they never had enough money. We did everything hand to mouth. We did everything ourselves. I wonder now how we were able to stay alive. It got quite intense and wasn’t easy. But there was this wonderful family feel and there was this amazing loyalty. Plus all the fun of the socializing and the impromptu dinner parties. I’m really proud I worked on those films—I sort of miss it.”It’s been a longtime beef of costume designers that contemporary gets completely ignored. The Costume Designers Guild awards are very good and very fair. They cover everything from different types of films through television to commercials. That range of awards is very important.”Consolata Boyle “The effects of theater on designers coming fro
m this part of the world is very profound. I trained in the Abbey Theater in Dublin, so theater is very much in my roots. That grounding and that training and that basic experience have stayed with me. There is an element of making something magical out of something quite simple; that use of the imagination informs a lot of what English designers can do. Theater, often with tiny budgets, also makes you very inventive and very quick on your feet.”When I went from theater and was going to move into film, I went out and first got a degree in textile design and historical textiles. What’s very important to me is the texture and the feel and the rightness of the color and the patterns and the way they work together. When I did The Queen, I had the material for the kilts custom-made to include the colors of the surrounding countryside.”More and more now I see that my peers and the designers I know and admire are moving between television and film—very fluidly. The standards of television are rising. So many have started in television and learned their trade and craft there. We’re allowed to experiment there: working with great directors and great writers.”

Written by Jack Egan

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