“The frequenters of drag balls had more in common with the Tudors than you would think. They both liked their clothes schmancy: they both liked to quench their thirsts; they both appreciated the finer things in life; and they both fought the Black Death.”
So said The Amy Grimehouse when advertising their recent event inspired by Paris Is Burning, the American documentary film chronicling the ball culture of New York City in the late 80s and the African-American, Latino, gay, and transgender communities involved in it.
And what better way to pay homage to this invaluable piece of film making than by hosting a drag ball at the grade II listed Tudor Manor, the National Trust’s Sutton House. The masses arrived in their corsets and codpieces to indulge in cocktails, voguing workshops, portraiture sessions and a club night that had them strutting their ruffs into the early hours of the morning.
For those wishing to enhance their already remarkable attire with an accessory or two, I was on hand to lead a Tudor arts and crafts session, where ruffs and crowns were fashioned out of paper, glitter and jewels. And, then in their newly adorned splendour, revellers teamed up to sashay down the catwalk to compete for the ultimate prestige of being true queens of the ball. Delighted to have been asked to join the judging panel, I assessed participants on the realness of their drag, the beauty of their costumes and their dancing ability, although no one disappointed and high scores were thrown all over the dance floor.
Hosted by John Sizzle with irrepressible energy and perfect putdowns, the evening brought out the inner Willie Ninja in even the most unexpected of characters and special mention should go to the magnificent Legs and Coq who astounded us with their daring dance moves and made us all wish we could pull off six-inch heels and waist-cinchers with the same aplomb.
In the words of The Amy Grimehouse themselves, it was just like 1535, but with more Cheryl Lynn. And who would have thought the 16th century would be so decadently fabulous.
When Sandy Powell asked me if I wanted to be part of her costume team on the new live-action Cinderella movie for Disney, I knew my two-year-old daughter would never forgive me if I said no. Directed by Kenneth Brannagh and with stars including Cate Blanchett, Helena Bonham Carter and Lily James, this was surely going to be something special. Combine this with the incredible creative talents of production designer Dante Ferretti and costume designer Sandy Powell herself, with six Academy Awards between the two of them, and add rousing, atmosphere-enhancing music composed by Patrick Doyle, and surely that’s a treat for the senses waiting to happen.
Since its release last month, the response to this film has been more overwhelming than I ever imagined. Young girls who were already caught up in the Frozen phenomenon, well, their inner princess was always going to be fired up once more but I was a little surprised by grown men telling me that it not only made them cry but also that they couldn’t take their eyes off Cate Blanchett’s astounding costumes. It would seem that this film brings out the child in all of us and, with mottos like “Have courage and be kind”, that’s not really a bad thing.
Being part of the costume department on a film of this nature is obviously a joy but it’s also incredibly hard work and a challenge on a different scale to the norm, particularly as one of my main roles was to “look after” Cinderella’s now infamous ball gown. In doing so, I became the person responsible for pulling actress Lily James into that controversial, waist-cinching corset every day, that has since stirred up so many a ridiculous Photoshop rumour! Sandy Powell has discussed the optical illusion of this dress in countless articles and I would like to stress this further – a very well-made and supportive corset combined with the huge proportions of the skirted section and the volume of the butterfly panels around the shoulders only exaggerate Lily’s small (but normal and healthy) waist all the more. It’s clever trickery for the eye created by a dress that had months of development to get it to the dazzling end result.
Definitely not an easy dress to be wearing on a regular basis either. Made up of layers and layers of fabric and thousands of Swarovski crystals, this gown was cumbersome, rather heavy and somewhat awkward to move around in and credit is definitely due to Ms. James for her continual enthusiasm even after hours of dancing or being asked to run up and down the palace steps over and over again. And let’s not go into too much information about toilet breaks!! Needless to say these were some what of a palaver, a little time-consuming and the two of us probably became closer than most people ever need to be!!! Additionally keeping the many variations of this costume in pristine condition while faced with the challenge of several weeks of night shoots in the cold and rain had its moments.
Not including the breathtaking ballgown, I think my favourite dresses in the film were worn by the stepsisters, played by the delightful Holliday Grainger and Sophie McShera. These quirky matching outfits were colourful and playful, perfectly matching their characters, and brought to life all the more by the hilarious personalities of the actresses themselves who brought never a dull moment to the set. It’s the little touches that make these costumes all the more successful in my opinion – large vibrant earrings, painted details on stockings, patterned knitwear, oversized accessories, unusual fabrics and wonderfully contrasting colours.
Over the years, there has been many an interpretation of this classic fairytale but I am incredibly proud to have been a part of this version of Cinderella, and not just because of the spectacular costumes. It’s a story with heart, emotion and comedy at times that, no matter what age you are, leaves you feeling uplifted. I’m sure it will stand the test of time and that the iconic ballgown will feature on many a Best Of Hollywood Costume list in years to come.
For those of you interested in seeing a few moments from behind the scenes, complete with fleeting appearances from one particularly familiar redhead, check out the YouTube link below:
The nature of my work means that I get to work on a whole variety of projects, from incredibly high budget studio films to smaller scale shoots, trekking through woodland in the middle of the night, or boiling in the heat in the middle of an exposed field, and everything in between. But that’s why I do it and love it, because you never know what’s going to come next.
Take the small shoot I did recently with the team at Roots and Shoots in South London. The film tells the story of gardeners in London at the start of World War I being called up to fight for their country and the effect it had on both their loved ones and the beautiful gardens they left behind. The film was made to accompany the garden created by Roots and Shoots currently being displayed at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show. Filmed in Lambeth in one of the most exquisite gardens I’ve seen for a long while, the production team (producer Marc Hankins, director Chris Cronin and DOP Alex Stone) did a fantastic job making this newsreel-style, sepia film feel authentic and atmospheric and the young adults in the film (students and staff from Roots and Shoots, with no previous acting experience, some of whom helped to create the garden exhibit at Chelsea) gave endearing performances and were a joy to work with.
These gorgeous photographs, taken by Marc Hankins, are only a taster of what the team managed to achieve with very little time and an incredibly small budget. I feel very proud to have worked on this project, with such an enthusiastic group of people, and truly am glad that opportunities like this come my way.
For more information about Roots and Shoots and to see the film itself visit:
The controversial Mitford sisters really were a rather extraordinary bunch of women and last night’s event at the National Trust’s Sutton House, organised by Amy Grimehouse, completely did justice to each individual’s wild, wacky and intriguing personality.
Those unknowingly about to become completely obsessed with the sisters mingled with Mitford enthusiasts and sashayed around the incredible East London location in all manner of period dress from wannabe Bright Young Things to tweed ensembles and twinsets and pearls. There was further opportunity for dress-up in the Cecil Beaton style studio where props were grabbed and poses perfected to create stunning portraits of our newly styled bohemian crowd.
I had the pleasure of being “Mistress of the Mitford Arts and Crafts Table” and found myself surrounded by a constant hive of 1930s creativity as people adorned themselves with velvet, feathers and beads and created striking headdresses in abundance.
The climax to the evening was a screening of “Nancy Mitford: A Portrait By Her Sisters”, a fascinating and surprisingly hilarious documentary, screened with permission from the BFI, that gave a wonderful insight into the lives and relationships of all the Mitford family. The film was all the more enhanced by the informative panel discussion that proceeded it, where the experts (listed below) talked on all manner of topics from debutantes to fascism to pocket money and pets.
Never will there be again a bunch of siblings quite like these. And how better to pay tribute to them than with a thoroughly splendid and somewhat educational evening of decadence and frivolity. Amy Grimehouse, you are to be saluted once again!
The Mitford Panellists:
Mary Joannou is Professor of Women’s Writing and Literary History at Anglia Ruskin University. Mary has published on the fiction of Nancy Mitford.
Oriole Cullen is Fashion Curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum and curated the exhibitions including British Ballgowns and Hats.
Deidre Murphy is Curator at Historic Royal Palaces and was curator of The Last Debutantes exhibition at Kensington Palace and is also responsible for the Royal Dress Collection at Ken Palace.
A huge thank you to everyone who came to my costume design talk at The Step last week. You were a wonderful audience and asked some very interesting questions.
From Anne Hathway’s shoes to Brad Pitt’s trousers to filming in the snow and dressing Princess Beatrice, the real world of costume design was well and truly dissected. I just hope I didn’t ruin the magic of filmmaking but giving away too many secrets!!
Queens, Urchins and Zombies: The Real World of Costume Design
Queen Victoria’s coronation. A rodeo in Texas. The barricade of the Paris Uprising of 1832. A post-apocalyptic street in Cardiff. I’ve really seen quite a lot over my career so far…
But what exactly does a costume designer do and what is involved in making a film come to life? And is the film industry quite as glamorous as one might think?
In my first talk at The Step, I will be giving an insight into the industry with unique behind-the-scenes stories and answers to everyone’s burning questions!
Wednesday 13th March, 7.30pm
101 Myddleton Road
London N22 8NE
Spaces are limited so book early to avoid disappointment! £5 per ticket.
Book online at this link http://costumedesign.eventbrite.co.uk/# or give The Step a call on 020 3302 2412.
The talk will last an hour with the opportunity to ask questions after the talk.
With the Oscars very, very fast approaching and Anne Hathaway pretty much guaranteed to walk away with the Best Supporting Actress gong, I find myself reminiscing back to ten months ago when I lived and breathed the songs of Les Misérables and Pinewood Studios became my second home.
I think even then we all knew we were creating something special and that groundbreaking filmmaking was taking place before our eyes. That’s not to say it was an easy shoot mind, but then the musical Les Misérables is far from a barrel of laughs so I guess it was to be expected! What with tales of poverty and prostitution, dying for what you believe in and unrequited love, it’s an emotionally draining piece, and not just for the actors who have to sing the same heartbreaking songs over and over again until that perfect take. I feel privileged to have been one of the very few who was allowed to be on set when we filmed I Dreamed I Dream and every time I heard it I found it devastatingly sad, with Hathaway bringing new meaning to a song I thought I knew so well.
I also have “fond” memories of night shoots in Winchester, watching Hugh Jackman and the delightful Isabelle Allen scale the walls on the run from Russell Crowe. Allen was remarkable – a fearless young girl who, barefoot and dressed in the rags of young Cosette, seemed oblivious to the freezing midnight chill and the fact that she was suspended in mid air dangling from a crane. Director Tom Hooper certainly made sure we were frequently subjected to all the elements and, if it wasn’t raining already, rest assured rain machines would appear! Ironically Samantha Barks and Eddie Redmayne, watched on by the students behind the barricade, became saturated as they sang Little Fall of Rain and it felt terribly mean having to repeatedly wet down all the cast for the purposes of rain continuity as filming progressed. In fact, what a myth it was the thought that it would be a relief returning to Pinewood after bitterly cold and wet filming on location, as we were confronted with the disgusting mud and dead fish that accompanied the filming of Lovely Ladies and powdery snow for the scene with Bamatabois. As you can see from some of my photos, the final product may have looked very dramatic but we looked far from stylish filming with our protective clothing!!!
Les Misérables is a musical I have adored since I was very young and so I was desperate to be part of the costume department as soon as I heard they were transforming it from stage to screen. It’s a tough challenge to try and recreate the costumes for characters that already have devoted fans throughout the world whilst simultaneously trying to give the story a new lease of life and I feel very proud to have gone on this journey with costume designer Paco Delgado. I still remember the goose pimples I felt the first time the cast and crew were shown the trailer for the film. I don’t think any of us imagined how powerful it would be – the haunting vocals, the striking visuals and the promise of something truly incredible to come.
Les Misérables has eight nominations at this weekend’s Academy Awards and I feel it a true testament to the hard work and dedication of the entire cast and crew that these nods fall across the board in both acting and technical departments. For together we braved the barricade and took on the challenge of creating something that I am sure will live on forever as a musical phenomenon.
Picture the scene: The desert, somewhere in New Mexico. 40 degree heat (something which I usually seriously struggle to deal with). Oscar winner Colin Firth and Oscar nominated Sir Tom Courtenay in a fancy car wearing suits. And one of the loveliest crews I have ever worked with following said car in a mini-bus…
I have very very fond memories of filming Gambit, the latest comedy caper written by the Coen brothers and directed by Michael Hoffman, and these were all the more enhanced upon seeing the film at this weekend’s screening. An off-the-wall, quirky little film with a stellar cast, the film centres around art curator Harry Deane (Colin Firth) and his plan to pull the wool over the eyes of his boss, business tycoon and millionaire Lionel Shabandar (Alan Rickman) with a fake Monet painting, a master forger (Tom Courtenay) and a rather attractive Texan rodeo queen (Cameron Diaz).
From a costume point of view, it was a pleasure to be working with designer Jenny Beavan (Sherlock Holmes, Gosford Park, A Room With A View…), and even more so on something other than a period drama! Never did I think we would all become so obsessed with cowboy boots and Stetsons. And there was a never-ending amount of hilarious moments during filming, from the Japanese contingent in their Kabuki masks at the Venetian ball to Cameron strutting around in her (purposefully tacky) animal-print knickers and non-matching bra in the Savoy scenes. There were challenging moments too, for example, when filming Colin and Tom sat in the pouring rain outside Shabandar’s office – familiar London showers combined with a rain machine is never going to be pleasant.
There are so many films that take themselves far too seriously and it was somewhat refreshing to work on this light hearted comedy, complete with live karaoke, monkeys riding dogs and Alan Rickman naked. Certainly made a change from all those corsets…
Gambit is released in the UK on 21st November 2012.