Costume Drama. June 2015.

Dear Rowley,

How many times were you asked as a boy what you wanted to be when you grew up? Having visited the Crown Jewels before most boys had varnished their first conker I always said I wanted to be the Queen’s Jeweller. Perhaps that’s what I enjoyed most about commentating for the BBC on fashion at Royal Ascot. At the top of the show I had to stand next to Dame Clare Balding (it’s only a matter of time) and – on her cue – discuss what HM The Queen was wearing that day in the carriage.

Now bearing in mind you’ve got at least five minutes from the Golden Gates to the Parade Ring and material inevitably wore thin. So I made it my business to learn as many of The Queen’s brooches and their history by sight and tell the tales as and when the Cullinan V or the Albert Sapphire honed into view.

Much as I appreciate jewels – particularly antique pieces – making them was never going to be a career. Writing about them and photographing them will suffice. No, if I had my druthers I think there would be no more satisfying a career than a film costume designer.

I mention this because of late I’ve been researching the work of the great Anthony Powell, who won the Oscar for Death on the Nile in 1978, while working on the Turnbull & Asser book. Mr Powell defined glamour for me in various scenes from the movies he dressed such as Travels With My Aunt, Tess, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and 101 Dalmatians. 

Who can forget the murderous couple played by Nicholas Clay and Jane Birkin in Evil Under the Sun? For most of the film Birkin is shrouded in kaftans and as pale as whey. When she makes her exit from a Balkan island retreat owned by Maggie Smith, Mrs Redfern (Birkin) is revealed on the stairwell in a devastatingly chic black and white skirt suit with Joan Crawford shoulder pads, a peplum jacket and a picture hat reminiscent of Bette Davis in Now Voyager. Powell’s costume described the true character of Mrs Redfern perfectly.

I was always in awe of the great Hollywood costume designers Adrian, Travis Banton, Orry Kelly, Irene, Edith Head and Billy Travilla. Watching films they dressed on television in the 1970s had an awful lot to do with my decision to work in fashion publishing. Of course then I was far too young to recognise that it was costume that fascinated me and that great film costume glamorised and amplified whatever period it was describing.

I genuinely believe that until the early 1990s fashion was about flattering the female form. After that the ideas ran out – hence minimalism – and designers became more and more desperate: recycling several decades, fabrics, finishes and colours in one outfit. Ugly was pretty (a contradiction and a con trick salve Prada) and vulgar was considered cool.

I wonder whether fashion designers today who seem to pay much more attention to red carpet appearances than to catwalk collections realise that they have become costume designers or rather costumiers for the Folies Bergère. All the red carpet needs to do is show enough haunch and buttock to ‘break the Internet’. The rest is just net, beading and feathers.

Costume design was foremost in my mind when I tore a crab claw with Mrs T at Sheekey’s Oyster Bar the other day. A dear friend of hers, Julie Harris, had recently died. Julie Harris had what I’d call a fascinating career by any standards culminating in her Best Costume Academy Award for the 1965 Julie Christie/Dirk Bogarde film Darling.

Darling is a fascinating film because Harris dressed Christie in the highest fashions of 1965. She dressed The Beatles for Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Help! (1965) and it was Harris’s costumes for the rogue Bond film Casino Royale (1967) starring David Niven that inspired the Austin Powers movies.

What I appreciate about costume designers such as Julie Harris is the knowledge and the flair it takes to turn one’s hand to any project:  Carry On Cleo (1964),  Live and Let Die (1973) and The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970) to name but three extremes. Harris’s magnum opus was the rather underrated but sumptuously costumed 1976 retelling of the Cinderella story The Slipper and the Rose.

The Slipper and the Rose is an unabashed fairytale musical with the requisite thigh slapping, crinoline twirling and patent buckled shoes tapping across acres of black and white marble. That said it is Citizen Kane compared to Kenneth Brannagh’s execrable 2015 Cinderella film in which even Sandy Powell’s costumes couldn’t disguise a truly dreadful script as cloying as a kitten in a ribbon-tied basket.

In Casino Royale Harris worked with the great 60s Futurist Paco Rabanne whose imagination was allowed to go truly wild in the Jane Fonda Scifi madness that was Barbarella (1968). Of all the trippy, psychedelic 60s caper movies Casino Royale is ironically the least comedic compared to Barbarella and the Monica Vitti/Dirk Bogarde/Terence Stamp  acid trip Modesty Blaise (1965).

Modesty Blaise is important because of the men’s wear costume designer Beatrice ‘Bumble’ Dawson commissioned from Turnbull & Asser. Dawson was a legend in British films who had dressed Asquith’s The Importance of Being Ernest and Marilyn’s only film made in England The Prince & The Showgirl (1957). It is that broad knowledge of fashion history that I admire. Those who live only for fashion will always be unsatisfied because the next is always the now. Scholars of costume enjoy a study for life that only intensifies as it deepens.