Costume design and costume designers are one of Britain’s most successful international exports in the film industry. British-born and -trained costume designers have won five out of the last ten Academy Awards (2004-14). Of those five awards, four have been won by women: Sandy Powell (The Aviator, The Young Victoria), Alexandra Byrne, (Elizabeth, The Golden Age) and Jacqueline Durran, (Anna Karenina); Michael O’Connor (The Duchess) is the odd man out in this narrative of women-dominated artistry.
Despite their professional recognition, costume designers – as distinct from costume as an aspect of mise en scène – have received relatively little scholarly attention. Is it that women’s over-representation in a craft leads to the under-representation of that profession in film history? Miranda J Banks (2009) offers one of the few serious attempts to investigate the work of the costume designer, although her focus is contemporary Hollywood and television rather than historical. The history of British costume design for film, and women’s role within it, has yet to be written. Addressing this gap in scholarship is less about patriotic fervour and more an attempt to question which materials are archived and how that shapes the histories we write.
I am currently working on an AHRC-funded research project on the history of women’s work in the British film and television industries (with Vicky Ball, Sue Bradley and Frances Galt). This revisionist project will be the first major assessment of women and their work in these industries during the sound period (1933-1989). One of the key roles I am focusing on is the costume designer, and I am particularly interested in the period between the end of the Second World War and the early 1970s. It was during this 20+year period that a number of high-profile women designers came to dominate the profession including Elizabeth Haffenden, Margaret Furse, Beatrice (Bumble) Dawson, Julie Harris, Phyllis Dalton, Jocelyn Rickards and Shirley Russell. Between them they notched up 16 Academy Award nominations (and 5 wins) and created some of the most memorable costumes in British cinema history, including The Wicked Lady (Haffenden), Dr Zhivago (Dalton), Darling (Harris), Blow Up (Rickards), The Servant (Dawson), Mary, Queen of Scots (Furse) and Tommy (Russell). Their creative contribution has gone largely unrecognised in the established histories of British cinema.
Jocelyn Rickards (1924-2005) is one costume designer I am currently researching. Rickards designed costumes for 17 films between 1958 and 1971 and was Oscar-nominated for her work on Morgan, A Suitable Case for Treatment (1966, dir. Karel Reisz). Australian-born Rickards studied art at East Sydney Technical College and emigrated to London in 1949, which she described as “the real beginning of my life”. Her entry into the film industry came through theatre. In 1952 she helped the theatrical designer Loudon Sainthill produce a series of sketches for a proposed film version of The Tempest. The film was never made but it introduced Rickards to working collaboratively; a process she found exciting after what she described as the “lonelier business of pure painting” (1987: 41). During the 1950s she extended her experience in costume design for film and theatre, working as Roger Furse’s assistant on The Prince and the Showgirl (1957), designing the costumes for the stage musical Expresso Bongo (1958) and recreating the designs of the legendary Irene Sharaff for the British premiere of West Side Story (1958).
She hit her creative stride in the 1960s. At this point the British film industry was buoyed up by an influx of American finance and British fashion, music and films were in demand. Rickards’s output was extraordinarily creative during this decade. She moved seamlessly from the realistic aesthetic of Woodfall Films (Look Back in Anger, The Entertainer) to the stylish costumes of Bond’s in From Russia with Love (1963) and The Knack (1965) to the fashion-forward designs which characterised Blow Up (1966). At one point she was working simultaneously on three very different projects: dressing Vanessa Redgrave for Karel Reisz’s Morgan, designing clothes for Jeanne Moreau in Mademoiselle, which would be made by Pierre Cardin, and creating Donald McGill-style costumes for a Royal Court production (Meals on Wheels). This triple life saw the designer segue from the extreme refinement of Cardin’s couture house to, in her own words, “kneeling on a dusty floor hammering away on Coca-Cola bottle tops” to create military medals for the modestly-budgeted theatre production (1987: 89). It was this adaptability and sense of adventure which saw her seek out directors and projects which stimulated her creatively.
She described working with Antonioni on Blow Up as “a real test of strength” as the director wanted her to “predict fashion for two years ahead and create clothes which would be just verging on fashion when the film was released” (1977). Rickards rose enthusiastically to the challenge, visiting the Paris fashion houses to research the latest developments in fabrics. The director was deeply impressed by the results. He “went into ecstasies about my clothes” the designer recalled, and said “I should have got an Oscar” (1977).
Rickards was meticulous in her preparation without being slavishly wedded to verisimilitude. Her design process started with scribbles on sheets of semi-transparent paper, which she would refine through multiple drafts into a final ink and watercolour drawing, accompanied by extensive annotations and meticulous instructions about cut, finishing, and seams (1987: 88). Always adaptable, she found clothes for actors in theatrical skips and borrowed a cotton overall from her Irish housekeeper when dressing Irene Handl for her part in Morgan.
The designer suffered a bout of serious ill-health in the 1970s and, coupled with a downturn in the fortunes of the British film industry, this saw her refocus her creative attention on painting. She published a memoir in 1987 and later taught costume design at the University of Southern California, exporting the experience she had gained in the British film industry to a new generation of American design students.
Bringing the costume designer into the historical picture is not a straightforward proposition. The work done by women can too often be invisible because archival collections prioritise directors, which privileges the work of men. Film costume seems especially difficult to fit within existing archival collections. In the British context, the BFI’s costume collection transferred to the V&A museum in 2012-13, a move which suggests how costume design – and women’s creative work – can be seen as tangential to film history. As research on the ‘Women’s Work’ project progresses, I’ll keep the Network updated on other materials and sources that help bring this neglected area of scholarship into view.
- Banks, Miranda (2009) ‘Gender Below-the-Line, Defining Feminist Production Studies’ in Mayer Banks and Caldwell (eds), Production Studies: Cultural Studies of Media
- Neustatter, Angela (1977), ‘Whip Hand: Jocelyn Rickards’, The Guardian, July 20, 1977
- Rickards, Jocelyn (1987), The Painted Banquet: My Life and Loves
Melanie Bell is the author of Femininity in the Frame: Gender and 1950s British Popular Film (2010) and co-editor of British Women’s Cinema (2009). Her research on gender and British film history has been published in the Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television; Feminist Media Studies; Women’s History Review and the Journal of British Cinema and Television. She has held posts at the Universities of Portsmouth and Newcastle-upon-Tyne and is currently Associate Professor in Film and Media at the University of Leeds (UK) where she leads a major study funded by the AHRC: ‘A History of Women’s Work in the British Film and Television Industries, 1933-1989’.