An interview with Academy Award-winning designer Jenny Beavan, who's nominated again this year for dressing Colin Firth, Helena Bonham Carter and others in "The King's Speech."
“The King’s Speech,” in the hunt for 12 Oscars, tells a story from more than seven decades ago — with the actors dressed, in many cases, in clothing just as old.
“A lot of them were vintage,” said costume designer Jenny Beavan of the movie’s outfits. Beavan, a nine-time Oscar nominee, is the go-to costumer for British period films, having worked on numerous Merchant-Ivory films as well as “Sense and Sensibility,” “Gosford Park,” “Anna and the King,” and most recently “Sherlock Holmes” and its upcoming sequel.
Speaking from Los Angeles in a phone interview — she’s based in London, but traveled west for the recent Academy Award nominees luncheon — Beavan said that she loves making vintage clothing live again. For the “King’s Speech” historical period (primarily the 1930s), much original clothing is available for rental, particularly sturdier items like topcoats and suits and less-worn accessories such as hats. Guy Pearce, for example, wore almost exclusively vintage clothing in the film as King Edward VIII — “they were incredibly moth-eaten, but we mended them.” (Pearce, Beavan said, “has a fantastically good ’30s shape — he’s got quite a waist.”)
Other actors wore a mixture of vintage and newly constructed clothing, with each character presenting a challenge. Though Beavan said she was guided by photographs and newsreel footage of the characters, she didn’t want to slavishly re-create a look. “I wanted the actors to look naturally like the real people … Sometimes, [wearing] absolutely what they wore doesn’t do it. [The actors] look like they’re wearing costumes or fancy dress.”
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For example, Beavan said, in real life Queen Elizabeth (later known as the Queen Mother, and played in the film by Helena Bonham Carter) seemed to favor bright colors, but for the movie her clothing was made more quiet. “We found it much better to darken the colors on her clothes. You believed in her more.”
Bonham Carter — who Beavan has been dressing on screen for a quarter-century, since “A Room with a View” — quite literally wears many hats in the film; some vintage, some designed for the film. “She does wear a hat extremely well,” noted Beavan, who also said that hats helped enormously with the film’s limited costume budget. “We couldn’t afford huge amounts of different outfits, but changing the hat changed the look. Every single one we put on her just looked wonderful.”
Geoffrey Rush, playing King George VI’s speech therapist, Lionel Logue, was given a “working wardrobe” of four suits: two tweed, one plain wool, one pinstripe. This, Beavan said, would be typical for a professional man of that era, explaining that even royalty at the time didn’t have vast wardrobes. “This whole thing now of having masses of clothing is completely modern, from the ’70s — people started to get lots of clothes and stuffing their wardrobes. In those days, you had a pretty regimented amount. You looked after them, you brushed them or your servant or your wife brushed them, and they lasted for years.”
And Colin Firth, as the king, had a specific worry: George VI, known as “Bertie” in his family, was unusually thin. “He wasn’t fed properly, he was very small and slight,” Beavan said. “Colin is such a slim man, not an ounce of flesh, but he’s a better-built male than George. He was terrifically concerned about looking as thin as possible.” Reluctantly, Beavan allowed him to not wear a jacket under a topcoat in certain scenes, for a slimmer line, but she’d like to second-guess that decision.
“I haven’t had time to chastise him about that,” she said, with a laugh. “I know it’s not right around the neck, and it still irritates me, but however! It’s important [the actors] feel as right as possible, so they don’t have to think about what they’re wearing.”
Most of the vintage clothing in the film — and in Beavan’s other films — comes from Cosprop, a British costume-rental house run by designer John Bright. Beavan, who began her career as a theatrical set designer in the ’70s, credits Bright with teaching her much about costume early in her career — “just listening to him and learning from him, learning the history and the politics of clothing.”
The two teamed up for 12 films together, sharing six Oscar nominations (for “A Room with a View” — which they won — along with “The Bostonians,” “Maurice,” “Howards End,” “The Remains of the Day” and “Sense and Sensibility”). “We were so lucky to be part of it,” she said of the Merchant-Ivory era.
Beavan and her crew are allowed to alter vintage costumes to fit her actors, with Bright’s assistance — the items are, as Beavan says, real clothing and not museum pieces, better to be used than “hanging moth-eaten on a hanger!” But she’s all too aware of the perils of working with fragile, aging garments. She recalled, from “Gosford Park,” a green evening dress worn by Mabel Nesbitt (Claudie Blakley), a character at whom the housemaids scoff for only bringing one evening gown for an extended visit.
“They shot three different evenings over about six weeks. She had to wear this dress every day, and it really truly began to fall to pieces.”
The costume crew, Beavan said, was “almost gluing it together on a daily basis — and it just held.” She hasn’t seen the dress at Cosprop lately, and thinks what remained of it might have been transformed into something else.
While Beavan’s clearly delighted to be spending her days immersed in costumes, she cares little for fashion in her real life. For the Oscars, a friend is making her a “very, very simple black trouser suit.” She hopes it will look smart but be “completely noneventful.”
“I have no interest in my own clothes or in clothes in general,” she said. “My love is creating character through clothes.”
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org