I’ve been excited since I first heard that HBO and the BBC were producing Gentleman Jack, a new miniseries about Anne Lister (1791-1840), a Yorkshire land-owner who kept extensive diaries of her daily life and same-sex affairs. Back in 2010, the Beeb did a quite nice biopic The Secret Diaries of Anne Lister, which I plan a full review of soon. But that was a mere 90-minute TV film, whereas this new production is an eight-part series. An in-depth historical costume drama about a queer woman is a rare treat!
Written and directed by Sally Wainwright, who most recently wrote and directed To Walk Invisible about the Brontë Sisters, it should be no surprise that she again teamed up with costume designer Tom Pye to outfit Lister’s life. I admired the fine historical detail he brought to Brontës, so I was thrilled to be able to talk with him about his latest work.
Frock Flicks: How did you get involved with this production?
Tom Pye: It was through To Walk Invisible, on the night before the first day of filming, Sally [Wainwright, the writer/director] had a drink with me and asked me if I’d do this project she’d been brewing for a very long time, which was thrilling because we hadn’t even started filming To Walk Invisible and she already knew that she liked what I was doing
The minute she told me the story [of Anne Lister] I was just completely hooked. It was great, Lister’s show got a bit delayed so it gave me loads of time to research. So I just kept on researching, and two years later, we actually started filming.
Frock Flicks: What kind of research were you doing? What were your sources?
Tom Pye: I started, obviously, with the diaries, and then a couple historians. There’s two historians, one called Anne Choma who was a specialist on Anne Lister, so she was really useful with specific questions. [Note: Choma wrote a movie tie-in biography of Lister to be published on April 30, 2019.]
When I did To Walk Invisible, I met a clothing historian called Eleanor Houghton, and she was a savior on To Walk Invisible because I had two weeks to become an expert on the Brontë Sisters. I asked her to come along with, and she got me into a bunch of museums so I went sort of backstage at the Bath Museum. Cosprop also has an archive. So I looked at a lot of original clothing, and I had a look inside to see how it was constructed. That was really invaluable to really get my head around such a weird period.
It’s sort of bonkers with the massive gigot sleeves and the pads they wore under the sleeves to hold them up. I wanted to really do that. I just thought the more bonkers I could make the straight society around Anne, the better. I wanted to fully go for it on the 1830s absurd fashion and really enjoy that.
Frock Flicks: Over the course of the eight-part series, what time period is covered?
Tom Pye: 1832 to 1834. It’s before all the changes in 1837 when Queen Victoria came in and suddenly all the sleeves change. It’s quite a romantic silhouette.
Frock Flicks: Was there an overall vision for the costumes that the director had?
Tom Pye: Not really. Sally was great. She’s very direct when she doesn’t like something. But she trusted me a lot to go ahead and show her things, and nine times out of ten, she loved it. I think she’s got a similar sense of humor to me, I think we both make each other laugh, and there’s a slight tongue-in-cheek and comic feel about the whole show.
Frock Flicks: Anne Lister is described historically as appearing rather masculine. How did you approach her costumes?
Tom Pye: I started with the diaries because actually there’s a lot of information there. I searched through the diaries and endlessly typed in words like ‘corset’ or ‘underskirt’ and things like that and found lots of references. So I know from the diaries that she wore waistcoats, she wore a corset, she had a greatcoat that she talked about sleeping in when she was traveling back from Denmark, I know she had a spencer, all those things that were mentioned, I made.
When Suranne [Jones who plays Anne Lister] came on board, I took her to Cosprop, and I got the head of the men’s department and the head of the women’s department together, and that was great fun. We dressed her in all kinds of things. We dressed her as a man, and we dressed her as a woman, and the men’s clothes just worked so much better.
So most of it’s from the diary. The only place I really misbehaved was on her hat. I know from her diary that she wore a small velvet black cap, probably an early Regency shape, and that just didn’t excite me. I was looking at other lesbians of the period, such as the ladies of Llangollen, and I was looking at George Sand, and they all wore top hats. That’s not too much of a stretch. There’s no mention of it in the diary, but it really worked on Suranne.
Frock Flicks: Were there any challenges in designing or making the costumes for this production?
Tom Pye: The quantity was surprising. After To Walk Invisible, we were going into it expecting lots of agricultural workers and that kind of thing. But the scripts came through, and I realized how much Anne was kind of a chameleon — she had her life on the estate, but she also hobnobbed around with a lot of aristocracy and court. So there were a lot of ex-girlfriends and friends that were all very, very highly dressed.
We just ran out of costumes. We used everything at Cosprop and Angels and ended up going to Paris and Madrid, and I had to go to Rome to Tirelli. I went everywhere in Europe just to get the quantity to get everyone dressed. Because it’s not done very often, 1830s, it’s after Austen and before Dickens, so you kind of get that much in any one costume house. And, of course, Victoria was building as well — that didn’t help!
That was one big challenge. The other was I was worried about Anne looking a bit normal to a contemporary audience. Just wearing black and sort of men’s clothes isn’t that surprising for us.
I came across a cartoon of 1830s fashion, a satirical cartoon of how absurd the fashion was, and I thought ‘that’s what I want to do,’ that’s how I want to make the straight people look daft, make them look as ridiculous and extreme as possible to show what was normal then. That gives context to show how Anne, in quite simple clothes, was extraordinary. It was so daring to wear what she wore because what most women were wearing was absurd. They were dressed up like Christmas trees. It’s about context really.
Frock Flicks: Are there any specific character’s costumes that stood out for you?
Tom Pye: There’s a character played by Amelia Bullmore called Mrs. Priestley. I think both me and Amelia had a bit of a ball dressing Mrs. Priestly. When I first met Amelia, she just thought ‘oh she’s a nosy neighbor,’ but I thought it would be fun to make her quite a fashionable nosy neighbor who really enjoys her clothes. The feeling was that Mrs. Priestly had nothing better to do than make outfits for herself for whatever she was doing. So whenever she visited someone who was in mourning, she’d add black lace to her bonnet, and things like that. We had fun with that character.
There were something like 100 characters, and the most fun part was working with the actors and having to be really direct and going ‘who is this person?’ and how can we get the audience to understand very quickly their status amongst all the different statuses of people in this town. That was good fun, the immediacy of it, and the variety from really poor workers and beggars up to the Queen of Denmark.
One of the most outrageous costumes Anne wears is based on a painting by Ingres of the Queen of Naples where she’s all in black with an extraordinary hat, which has ostrich plumes. It’s a fantastic portrait, and I copied that. When Anne goes to the wedding of one of her ex-girlfriends in episode two or three, she rather ostentatiously dresses like that, as a kind of ‘fuck you, if I’m going to come to this wedding, I’m going to look amazing.’ And then she wears that same outfit to meet the Queen of Denmark in the last episode.
That hat was made by a fantastic milliner Sean Barrett, who I’ve known for a million years. He did the hats for Anna Karenina [2012 — also The Crown, Downton Abbey, Wings of the Dove, and tons more!].
Frock Flicks: Speaking of hats, can you talk about your direction on the millinery and hair?
Tom Pye: All the hats were designed by me and made by Sean, in collaboration with Sean, really. I’d phone Sean up and say ‘I need a new bonnet for Anne, I want it to be really girly and pretty.’
For the hair and makeup, I was just really lucky to work with a brilliant department. Lynn Davey and her hair crew were just brilliant and were really up for the absurd yet keeping it true to period.
[On Lister’s hair] There was a lot of discussion, I think everyone had a bit of an opinion on that. I had some early sketches, and then a lot came down to practicality about wearing a top hat and what would work with that and looking at the curls. There are portraits of Anne, and in some of them she’s got the sort of vertical curls and in some, horizontal. We ended up going with that horizontal look. I think that was Lynn and Sue [Newbould], and all of us having a go.
Frock Flicks: Are we going to see more historical costume work from you?
Tom Pye: I just finished costuming a ballet for the Joffrey, and I really enjoyed it. I am finding, rather late in design life, that I enjoy costume more than I ever had been. I do hope to do more.
Watch for Gentleman Jack on HBO starting April 22, 2019!