Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Designing for Downton

Designing for DowntonWe caught up with Susannah Buxton, the costume designer on ITV smash hit Downton Abbey...

The main thing I try to achieve in my job is that the actors don’t look like they’re in costume. If it looks like dress up, you’ve lost it.

My starting point for Downton was France; at the time a lot of the influences in the period of 1912-1914 came from a Parisian designer called Paul Poiret. He was trying to pull away from the very highly corseted shape of the era and was influenced by Russian ballet company the Ballet Russes.

L’Après-midi d’un faune costumes by Leon Bakst 1912

The Ballets Russes had a base in peasant costumes and when it came to London the audiences hated them, but the critics raved. They brought colour back into clothing; before then it was all very pale and lacy and s-shaped.

What’s so exciting about researching the Downton period is that it’s the dawn of modern fashion. The clothes are becoming so much more accessible. The only thing that hasn’t continued are the very large hats; everything else has it’s place today – the long, slim skirts, the little jackets.

On Downton, about a third of everything the actors wear is made from scratch. There was press criticism that some of the wardrobe was hired, but it would be insanely expensive to make every item, as some fabrics don’t even exist anymore – but you can find them in an original dress. I refashioned a £5,000 gown made for Nicole Kidman in a feature film 10 years ago to fit Michelle Dockery [Mary]. I couldn’t possibly have made that dress – we couldn’t afford the jet beading.

Mary spends some of her time in London because she is the oldest daughter; she’s a determined, positive person, not flimsy or lacy, so we were very definite with her clothes. Sybil, the youngest daughter, still has a girlish quality but as she grows up she becomes interested in politics and the Suffragettes, which I tried to reflect in her costume.

The middle girl, Edith, is less confident because she’s in the shadow of this rather beautiful older sister. I have avoided making her costume reflect this as I felt it would be a cliché.

On my first sitting with an actress or actor, I have a rail of colours and shapes that we work through. And from that point, I learn what will suit them. I don’t really do drawings ­­– the idea looks lovely on the page, but sometimes it doesn’t translate.

I did a degree in Graphic Design and Illustration at Birmingham Art College and then a post graduate degree in Film and Television at Bristol University. I was lucky enough to be offered a job as a costume assistant on a BBC drama series about Mary, Queen of Scots. From there I went on eventually, to work as freelance costume designer.

The graphic training has definitely influenced my designs, I am always concerned with using a strong silhouette, as the shapes are very important within the frame of the picture, in film or television, and provide a lot of the information about a period of time, contemporary or historical.

You have to consider so many things as a costume designer – the script, the season, the era, the budget and what actually suits the actor or actress. It’s always challenging but I enjoy the work.

Susannah was talking to Hattie Hawksworth. ( in

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