Esther Dean describes the different stages in designing costumes for a programme


It was my job to clothe the show. So I would start with the script, or sometimes I would actually start with the book. I certainly did with Jewel (in the Crown). I read the book before I read the scripts. Not always because sometimes it could be confusing. You’d work it out on two levels. There were the practicalities of what was needed when, where, and how. You’d also have to work out what the characters were and how you were going to show the character through the costumes. That was the bit that I found very interesting. And I used to enjoy doing the research into, you know, what mill workers wore, or when we were in India, you could tell by what everybody was wearing, especially the poorer people, you could tell what religion they were, what part of the country they’d come from. Working all that sort of thing out was very interesting.

So would you then design those costumes?

Yes. Often, of course, on the practical level you couldn’t afford to have everything made. When I first started there were a lot of costume houses in London that would supply costumes that were already made, so you’d have a mixture with stuff you’d designed and was specially made.

Sometimes I did not want to have stuff that was specially made and new. When I did Tolstoy with Peggy Ashcroft who was playing Tolstoy’s wife, I can remember getting terribly worried because she was such a big star and I thought she was going to want to have everything made. Because she was a fairly ordinary woman, I thought it would be much better if she just had clothes that had already been worn, so that everything wasn’t new. Any rate, I went up to her house and we talked it through and I was so relieved when she said that was what she wanted; she didn’t want stuff specially made. So I then had to find appropriate used, old clothes. I used to like finding old clothes and that sort of thing.

And at what stage would you meet the actors? Because presumably you would have these ideas for their clothes but you wouldn’t necessarily have the person in front of you and their measurements.

This would be a problem. One always had a problem with this, especially if you needed to have stuff made. Say, with military uniforms, and things like that, where you’d have to measure people and it would take two or three weeks for them to be made. So my deadline for casting would be three weeks before. However, the directors’ deadline was three minutes before the read-through! And it was perfectly understandable. I’ve got a theory about this – that a lot of the time you couldn’t make up your mind until there was no time and you had to make a decision. So I was always fighting time. I used to have to do quite a lot of pre-preparation to make sure, because sometimes you didn’t see people almost until they were going on the set. There were other times when I would be the first person to see them. Sometimes when you were doing a modern thing or something where they weren’t going to have a lot of rehearsal I would actually see the actor before they’d started rehearsals. They sometimes had very short rehearsal times. I remember one actor said, “Well, I can play the part now. I’d have been turning up, just going on and not knowing what was happening.” It was quite interesting.

And did you work closely with makeup?

Yes. I mean we obviously both had to get on with our own thing but yes. Especially with hats and things. I would often have to say, she’s got a certain hat. Especially Edwardian or Victorian hats, the wig or the way the hair is dressed, the hat can’t sit on a modern hairstyle. So you’d need to have it built up in a certain sort of way. You’d need to liaise in that sort of way.

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