James Keast isn’t a name you hear regularly mentioned, but he’s got a lengthy body of work that’s really quite impressive. He seems to emphasize historical accuracy, which makes me happy, and some of his work are real standouts (Aristocrats, Mr Selfridge, The Scandalous Lady W). Let’s take a tour through this fabulous costume designer’s work, with quotes and sources on his inspiration/process/etc.!
The House of Eliott (Season 2, 1992)
TV series about two British sisters who become fashion designers in the 1920s.
“For the second series, James Keast took over as costume designer basing Beatrice’s wardrobe on designs by Coco Chanel and explained that Evie’s younger and artier look was inspired by the painter Sonia Delauney.” (Television Heaven)
A Merry War (1997)
Helena Bonham Carter and Richard E. Grant in a 1930s-set adaptation of an Orwell novel.
The Moonstone (1997)
Keeley Hawes and Greg Wise in an adaptation of an 1860s Wilkie Collins novel.
Amazeballs TV miniseries about the four real-life Lennox sisters, who were a big deal in 1750s aristocratic British society and went on to have fascinating lives.
The Hound of the Baskervilles (2002)
An adaptation of the Sherlock Holmes story.
Churchill: The Hollywood Years (2004)
A satirical movie in which all goes topsy turvy in the 1940s, including Hitler marrying into the British royal family. Don’t ask me.
The Queen’s Sister (2005)
“I’m renowned for working to tight budgets. We couldn’t copy specific outfits she wore, because it would have cost too much, but she had to look glamorous. She had amazing taste and even at the end, she was hardly shopping at Bhs.” (The mystique that came before Mustique)
The Ruby in the Smoke (2006)
An adaptation of an 1870s-set female detective series called The Sally Lockhart Mysteries; Billie Piper plays the lead role.
The Shadow in the North (2007)
Another Sally Lockhart mystery.
Tess of the D’Urbervilles (2008)
Another adaptation of the famous Thomas Hardy novel. A fire ruined all the costumes halfway through filming:
“I had carefully sourced and hired dozens of authentic Victorian outfits from a costumier in London. I then sourced some vintage material to make the remaining outfits. The accessories were fantastic – original paisley shawls, which were worth £200 each, beautiful parasols, belt buckles, walking canes and hats from my own collection. I also brought along my special silver Victorian cufflinks for Hans to wear. They were given to me 20 years ago by a theatrical costume designer, upon her retirement. They had once been worn by Laurence Olivier and Ralph Richardson, and she wanted me to carry on the tradition. They were my pride and joy … I couldn’t believe that all our costumes could be gone, but as soon as I arrived on the set, I saw the fire crew hosing down what was left of the enormous costume trailer … My real nightmare was that many of the dresses and shirts that had been filmed for incomplete scenes were actually vintage Victorian and so irreplaceable. The only option was to find similar material, dye it, then make up replacement outfits that would look the same.” (That’s what I call a costume drama! After the Tess Of The D’Urbervilles wardrobe went up in smoke, one man’s mission to save the day)
The 39 Steps (2008)
A British TV adaptation of the just-pre-World War I novel.
“I had to rely on Angels making the suits for me because I was off doing other things. The fabric I had chosen wasn’t available so they choose something that looked like it but was a different weight – it was light and flimsy – so we had these period suits that looked modern because of the fabric and that was across the board.” (Costuming the everyday: Interview with James Keast)
Desperate Romantics (2009)
A TV miniseries about the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood of artists, including Dante Gabriel Rosetti (played by Aidan Turner).
“My mantra was don’t let the period get in the way of telling the story. I did try and keep to the period as much as possible so people watching still got a feeling of the era and why the Pre-Raphaelites were so important in the history of art but I pushed it as much as possible. I used a lot of colour which would never normally have been used in that period to get that contrast between the old school and the new school. It was a bit like in my era when punk rock came along and suddenly changed the way you had to look.” (Costume guru James Keast on small-screen star’s dressing-room secrets)
The Mystery of Edwin Drood (2012)
A BBC TV movie adaptation of the Charles Dickens novel.
A TV miniseries (written by Julian Fellowes, writer of Downton Abbey) about, you guessed it, the sinking of the Titanic.
“I’ve given the younger First Class passengers a more modern look. In contrast to, say, Lady Manton. She’s very wealthy and fashionable but it’s old-fashioned fashionable. There’s something about her that is still Victorian looking. But then we have Lady Duff Gordon, who was involved in fashion. I’ve pushed her costume to be the next year’s fashion, as it were. So by comparison it looks like two different periods. One is backwards-looking and one is forward-thinking. When you put them together you see how modern Lady Duff Gordon is by comparison. The skirts are four inches shorter. It makes a big difference.” (Production Notes)
Mr. Selfridge (Seasons 2-4, 2014-16)
The story of the famous British department store owner.
“1909 was our frame of reference for the main characters, but for the working and middle classes, including Agnes [Towler, the poor, aspirational shopgirl], the clothing has to look older — from the 1890s. Those classes mended and altered their frocks, so there is a ‘made-ness’ to them.” (‘Mr. Selfridge’ Series Puts Spotlight on Legendary Retailer)
“I concentrated on the details to show the differences between the classes — the wealthier the character the finer the detail. The use of lace flowers and beading — obviously the fabric I selected for each character also suggested the class of the person — using silks and satins on the wealthy, and wools, cottons and linen on others. Most of the principle characters costumes were made.” (Mr. Selfridge: 5 questions with the costume designer behind the opulent new period miniseries starring Jeremy Piven)
The Scandalous Lady W (2015)
“Yes, the budget was very small, in fact the smallest budget I have worked on for years, I did my best. Very pleased with all the positive comments and pleased people have recognised the research that has gone into my work…” (from a comment left by designer James Keast on our review!)
Victoria (first three episodes, 2016)
Keast designed the first three episodes of the Queen Victoria (Jenna Coleman) bio-series, but things did not go well, and he resigned from the production:
“We had a crowd AD and we would not even get a list of names on the day we were filming, and I would say – who are we fitting? So these people would turn up and we would have to try to fit them to the sizes of the costumes we had. We had to recreate the coronation or the opening of parliament without any information so I didn’t even know what I was trying to supply. So I did my research, I did what I thought was right. Then on the day I would get told, there are these six soldiers, you think what six solders? I said you cannot come to me and ask for this stuff when I didn’t know I was supposed to have it and I haven’t got it… They did that with principles as well – you would get the name the night before… They wouldn’t get a crowd AD that was any good so you were fire-fighting all the time. Dealing with last minute principle casting and extras that did not look right. It was a complete nightmare…
“We did the opening of parliament and I think I maybe just got away with that, but they will have to do some CGI, and then we were doing the coronation and suddenly this advisor appears who knew everything about everything and was pointing out to the set and art department everything that was wrong. So suddenly they were coming to me and saying we need four of these and four of these and another two bishops and I’m saying but I’ve only got what you asked me for yesterday – did you not know yesterday?– No we didn’t, it’s the advisor that’s telling us what we need to have. So you say to the director that you cannot shoot it that way because we do not have what’s needed because I was told we needed that that and that, and this this and this, and that’s what I’ve done. And then the advisor would get involved and start saying well, that’s the wrong uniform, he shouldn’t be dressed like that, he should be dressed like this and you are made to look a fool… When it actually came to the coronation bit, she goes in to a room and she is disrobed and then she puts that thing on – they all have names – then she goes back and is crowned blah blah blah. Then she goes backstage takes the cloak off and puts another one on and walks out. I did all that because I’d done my research, and we had the cloak all made, the cloth of gold thing and it looked very good, but you think please don’t focus on anybody else because it looks terrible…
“I went and did a lot of research and in the Museum of London there is the actual dress that she wore as Queen the day after she was told her uncle had died. It was black but it’s all faded so much it has gone a reddy-brown colour. I made it in black silk moire and it looks very beautiful on camera – except on Day 1, the director decided to get her to lean against the wall and slide down the wall in a very modern fashion – but the wall had just been painted white so all down the back of her black frock is white paint…
“There was an actress who played the queen’s mother – who collected lace – so I made everything for this character from lace. Then the actress tells me just before filming, that she is allergic to lace – which is not the case – but she won’t wear it, unless you then spend the time with her to be with her as she dresses – in which case there is nothing wrong with the lace, but if you are running around between five other principles, then that’s when there is something wrong. For example, she can’t act properly because her petticoat is too heavy or something. And you explain, well actually that is because they used to wear a minimum of three petticoats and the problem was these petticoats were so heavy they could hardly move, so somebody came along and thought I’ll invent the crinoline, and that means you don’t have all that weight and that’s good. And she’s really interested in this, but then she still says ‘yeah but I can’t act in that because it’s too heavy – have you got a crinoline?’ And you have to say – no, because it is only 1846 and crinolines weren’t around until 1851–ish. And I’m thinking, ‘arrrrgggghhhhhhhh.’” (Costuming the everyday: Interview with James Keast)
Which is your favorite historical film or TV series that James Keast has designed?