Questions asked by Atlanta Shannon:
1. How did you get started sewing/costuming?
I think sewing may have begun at school. I remember being taught to thread a needle (with a limited length of thread so as not to stab the child sitting next to us). At about the same time I recall my mother warning me not to cut a hole in my dress as I sat on the floor sewing – I had in fact sewn the fabric piece to my dress. I was probably no older than five years. I gradually learned the technique of cutting by making dolls clothes. I can recall my excitement when, at the age of eight, I discovered how to cut and set in a sleeve!
2. Did you ever dream of being a professional costume designer when you were a little girl?
Interestingly no, I was much more interested in art, history and archaeology etc. but I did draw a lot, including designing clothes. However, my need to be creative and my love of history came together in a passion for researching and carefully re-creating period clothing. My career took me in one direction and my passion for costume in another.
3. Please describe your process when beginning to recreate a dress inspired by a particular source. (such as the Lady of Shallot dresses)
For the Lady of Shalott’s dresses we were using two of the John William Waterhouse paintings: The Lady of Shalott (1888) and Half Sick of Shadows (1894). My process was the same as always: thorough research, attention to detail, and being faithful to the period – even though this was a mythological world. The Pre-Raphaelite artists and their followers drew their inspiration from a wide swathe of history – from Anglo-Saxon through to the Renaissance. I looked at this world through their Victorian eyes, and treated their paintings as my primary source. I wanted the work to have the same authenticity as any real period of history and so I made the dresses for the Lady of Shalott true to the paintings and to reflect the cut and construction of both medieval and Victorian clothes.
4. Of all the costumes and historical clothing you have designed, do you have a favorite?
Now that is a hard one to answer! My favourite period is probably the late 18th century and probably my favourite garment/s would be the 18th century stays.
5. I loved your costume creations for the films “Lady of Shallot” and “Luttrell Psalter”. Is it hard work costuming for a movie production? Please describe the process a bit.
There are different issues to consider and it is a completely different approach to creating clothing for the theatre. The clothes have to be real clothes and they have to be completely persuasive close-to. Before I cut a garment we frequently do camera tests to check the fabric doesn’t look odd – some blacks can look red and some patterns can create optical illusions. I also need to know what will happen to the garment on screen – sometimes clothing will be made to be destroyed during a special effect. High Definition also means that in some shots every stitch will show – so attention to detail is essential. Indeed, because the camera can get in very close, and you can never be sure which bit of a costume will be in a close-up shot, every detail (inside and out) has to be perfect!
6. Do you draft your own patterns?
Yes, I draft by the traditional toile method – which is creating a cloth pattern on a tailor’s dummy (padded up to the measurements of the actor). I occasionally flat draft as well, and I always keep paper copies of all the patterns I have created.
7. What are your favorite fabrics?
All the natural ones – silk, linen cotton and wool, though silk velvet can be a bit tricky.
8. Do you have any advice for beginning seamstresses?
Learn to handle making mistakes – they are how you progress! It is easy to feel foolish or be put off when you make a mistake, but you generally don’t do them again and you may have inadvertently discovered a new technique. However, once you have made a mistake don’t throw the garment down and flounce off – you probably won’t pick it up again – just unpick the error and then put it down. You can get back to it later when you are feeling more in the mood. The more mistakes you have made the better a seamstress you can become!
When reproducing period clothing learn to really look – so often we look without seeing. Really take something in, ask questions of it (whether it is a garment, painting or sculpture): what is the garment made from, where do the seams lie, how is it fitted, fastened, etc.? A great way to really ‘look’ at something is to draw it – you will be surprised what you learn.
9. Did you attend college for or have any type of formal education/classes for designing/sewing/costuming? Do you recommend any of these for aspiring designers?
No, I did not attend college to study designing/sewing/costuming as such. Years ago I attended a one day course by Suzi Clarke on making toiles, which was brilliant – it liberated me from patterns and I never looked back. Suzi has remained a mentor ever since. I have also attended courses run by Ian Chipperfield, Staymaker, on making corsets and stays. He too has remained a mentor.
I do very much recommend education and courses – we have much to learn from one another and it is not possible to know all there is to know. I frequently visit museums to study garments and I have a library of over 1,000 books. I also attend courses and lectures whenever I can.
10. When creating a particular costume, do you place more emphasis on historical accuracy, the character who will be wearing the costume, or creativity?
Historical accuracy doesn’t always matter – it depends on the production, but being informed and knowing exactly what you are doing, and why, does. I have no patience with idle inaccuracy – it can be as easy to get it right, but there may be a style decision to play with the past. A good example of playful period costuming is that of a recent BBC production of Casanova (2005 with David Tennant and Peter O’Toole). The designer, Jenny Beavan, understood the period perfectly and played with it – and the costumes were brilliant.
If historical accuracy is paramount, then you begin with the character: who they are, what they do, where they come from, where and when they live, their status, gender, age and condition and their function in the plot etc. The creativity just follows on from whatever decisions are made.
I have to mention the elephant in the room though: budgets! I am afraid that we all need to be forgiven for not getting things as accurate as we would like – rarely do budgets allow such perfection!
11. What are your best sources of inspiration?
My sources include original garments or fragments thereof, textiles, sculptures and effigies, paintings and murals, photographs and film, vintage patterns, and written sources from books to accounts, inventories and diaries. As to what inspires me … hmm, maybe something I haven’t done before. I am currently quite absorbed by late Bronze Age, Mycenaean dress.