A few weeks ago, a good friend and I treated ourselves to a V and A study day on costume design for costume drama. I wasn’t sure what to expect and as the date drew nearer I did have some forebodings, fearing I might actually have signed myself up for something like hard work during my precious free time. However, what followed was actually a thoroughly pleasant way to spend a Saturday – a chance to be talked at by some real experts about something I adore. If you’re reading this, then I’m assuming you may adore it too and so here are a few gems I’d like to share:
- The day began with an introduction to the costume house, COSPROP. This was set up by John Bright 50 years ago and is widely used by costume designers. It also includes a number of real costumes which date, I believe, back to the Georgian era.
- Several costume dramas use pieces that are actually from the era being portrayed. This is more common in earlier costume dramas due to the garments becoming more fragile with age. In Merchant Ivory’s A Room with a View, Helena Bonham Carter is wearing a real Edwardian gown in the famous fainting scene.
3. One of the most interesting talks of the day was given by John Bloomfield, who amongst other things, designed the costumes for the 1970s BBC production of The Six Wives of Henry VIII. This is often held up as a hugely successful television show, which paved the way for other successful costume dramas to follow (Elizabeth R, Poldark, The Onedin Line). I’ve watched this series time and time again and never noticed how each important family had its own colour palette for their costumes – oranges, warm browns and reds for the Boleyns/Howards, Green for the Seymours and everyone else in either black and silver or black and gold.
4. Each episode of The Six Wives had a budget of only £2000 for costumes. Therefore, many of the jewels that sparkle so magnificently on the costumes are actually painted bits of cardboard, screws, curtain rings, name plates and lots of PVA.
5. The costumes were designed to reflect the Tudor portraits of Hans Holbein.
6. Almost all historical costume that you see on screen begins with the underwear. The actors and actresses do tend to wear full replica historical underwear to give their clothes the desired shape and structure.
7. Most actors and actresses are very involved in the costume design process. Their preferences and ideas about the characters they are playing are often taken largely into consideration. Jenny Beavan regaled us with stories about Vanessa Redgrave’s input on her character’s costume in Howard’s End, and how, in the end, her decisions worked for the best
8. During the final part of the day, the stage was filled with some of the designers and makers who worked on the costumes for Downton Abbey. Like many other productions, this too uses real pieces from the Edwardian era, mainly for the maids’ aprons.
9. Each Crawley sister has her own colour palette, meant to reflect the ways in which real people dress, i.e. we tend to find two or three colours that suit us and own several garments in these hues.
10. For the last year, COSPROP has been working on conserving and consolidating its vast and wonderful collection of authentic historical costumes so that each one could be photographed and enjoyed by the likes of you and me on a website, which is currently underway. In the meantime, you can visit https://www.facebook.com/CostumeHeritage/ to see the updates and glimpses of what is to come.