Jenny Beavan: The Frock Flicks Guide

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Jenny Beavan should be royalty in your house. She certainly is in mine! The designer of a metric crap-ton of amazing period films; Oscar winner for Mad Max: Fury Road, A Room With a View, and The Bostonians; frequent collaborator with Merchant-Ivory and John Bright. Her work speaks for itself:

 

Treasure Island (1982)

The Robert Louis Stevenson classic.

Treasure Island (1982)

 

A Ton of Gilbert & Sullivan TV Movies, Including The Pirates of Penzance (1982)

Because I can’t find any pics, I instead present to you Kevin Kline in the 1983 production, as it’s the only thing that comes up and DAMN:

The Pirates of Penzance (1982)

Not the right movie. Who cares.

 

The Bostonians (1984)

Co-designed with John Bright. Early Merchant-Ivory. A young spiritualist is torn between an older female mentor (Vanessa Redgrave) and a hot young man.

[On working with Bright] She had only two weeks to outfit the film; he became very involved in the project, and they shared the wardrobe credit. (Reading the Signs in Competition for a Costume Oscar)

Beavan recalls the problems of corseting American extras during the filming of “The Bostonians” on Martha’s Vineyard. “Americans are hard to fit because they do a lot of sport and are athletically built. You can’t corset someone who’s developed her ribcage through exercise – it won’t cinch in.” (A Look Inside ‘A Room With A View’, WWD, Oct. 1, 1985)

The Bostonians (1984)

 

A Room With a View (1985)

Co-designed with John Bright. The first Merchant-Ivory E.M. Forster adaptation. Lucy Honeychurch (Helena Bonham Carter) is all proper Edwardian-isms til she goes to Italy and makes out with Julian Sands. With Daniel Day-Lewis, and Maggie Smith.

Some of the costumes they collaborated on for “Room With a View” were refurbished originals, refitted to the actors’ figures. Other outfits were made-from-scratch copies of clothes in Bright’s collection, Beavan explains. There were no clothes she styled on her own. “I’m not the least bit interested in designing,” she says. “My talent is more in knowing how to fit and cinch older clothes. The corset underneath is what really makes it.” (Reading the Signs in Competition for a Costume Oscar)

In “Room,” the clothes are all originals or painstaking reproductions garnished with original bits of lace and trim. For the women, the “look” begins with the whaleboned corset, which gives them the correct period shape: a slightly pigeon-fronted bosom and a shelf-like derriere. “When an actress wears a correct corset,” Beavan explains, “it helps her sit properly and walk properly. Some people really take to corsets and don’t want to get out of them. Helena has a wonderful body and really goes into the most extraordinary shape. Maggie [Smith], who wears quite tailored things as befits an elderly spinster, corsets well because she’s thin.” (A Look Inside ‘A Room With A View’, WWD, Oct. 1, 1985)

best costume oscar A Room with a View (1986) A Room With a View (1985): Cecil Vyse A Room with a View (1986)

 

Lord Mountbatten: The Last Viceroy (1986)

BBC bio-film about the last viceroy of India.

 

Maurice (1987)

Co-designed with John Bright and William Pierce. Another E.M. Forster novel, about a gay man in Edwardian England. Hugh Grant and Rupert Graves co-star.

Maurice (1987)

 

A Summer Story (1988)

A young lawyer falls in love with a small town girl in 1904 England. James Wilby plays the lead; he’s been in a lot of Merchant-Ivory films like Maurice (above) and Howards End.

A Summer Story (1988) A Summer Story (1988) A Summer Story (1988)

 

The Deceivers (1988)

Co-designed with John Bright. Pierce Brosnan, set in 1820s India.

The Deceivers The Deceivers (1988)

 

Back Home (1989)

Hayley Mills (!!) returns to England after five years away during World War II.

Back Home (1989)

 

Mountains of the Moon (1990)

Co-designed with John Bright. Mid-Victorian Brits in Africa. Yes Iain Glen is in this.

mountains of the moon 1990

 

White Fang (1991)

Co-designed with John Bright. A boy and his wolf in 19th-century Alaska. I think.

White Fang (1991)

 

Impromptu (1991)

George Sand (Judy Davis), Chopin, and other Romantics in 1830s France.

Not surprisingly, [George] Sand also posed a major challenge for the film’s designer, Jenny Beavan, who ransacked the holdings of eight British costumiers to come up with enough early Romantic apparel sufficiently modish to pass as French. Sand’s wardrobe was showy rather than refined, ranging from Turkish to coquettish, peasanty to gentlemanly. According to Miss Beavan, “She’d have things done up cheaply by a seamstress to suit a special occasion.” (In ‘Impromptu,’ It’s George Sand and Chopin Again)

Impromptu (1991) - Julian Sands IMPROMPTU, Judy Davis, 1991 Emma Thompson in Impromptu (1991)

 

The Bridge (1992)

A young woman falls in love with an artist in 1887 England.

 

Howards End (1992)

Co-designed with John BrightMerchant-Ivory, E.M. Forster. With Emma Thompson and Helena Bonham Carter.

Howards End (1992) Howards End (1992)

 

The Blackheath Poisonings (1992)

1890s murder mystery.

The Blackheath Poisonings (1992)

 

Swing Kids (1993)

Robert Sean Leonard and Christian Bale are into swing dance in Nazi Germany.

Swing Kids (1993) Swing Kids (1993)

 

The Remains of the Day (1993)

Co-designed with John Bright. Merchant-Ivory, Anthony Hopkins is an overly loyal butler during World War II.

“Cashmere is the kind of thing Americans wear. Good English Lords wear good English wool,” Beavan said, explaining the sartorial differences between Lord Darlington and Mr. Lewis. (Drab ‘Remains’)

The Remains of the Day (1993)

 

Black Beauty (1994)

With Sean Bean. You’re welcome.

Black Beauty (1994) Black Beauty (1994)

 

Jefferson in Paris (1995)

Co-designed with John Bright. Thomas Jefferson hangs out in 1780s Paris, gets involved with a married woman (Greta Sccachi) and, gross, with his slave (Thandie Newton).

When costume designer and frequent collaborator Jenny Beavan requested a budget for Jefferson in Paris that Merchant deemed too high, he made her fly to India and have the fabrics made up at a fraction of the cost. (Costume drama in crisis)

1995 Jefferson in Paris

 

Sense and Sensibility (1995)

Co-designed with John Bright. Jane Austen adaptation, with Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet, Alan Rickman, and Greg Wise.

The richer and sillier the character — particularly Fanny and gossipy Mrs. Jennings (Elizabeth Spriggs) — the less Greek their silhouette. For them, lace, fur, feathers, rich fabrics and mounds of jewelry enter the picture. “They couldn’t quite give up the frills,” Beavan says. By contrast, the utterly sensible Eleanor accessorizes only with a long gold chain and a straw hat… Colonel Brandon (Alan Rickman), in a magnificent red and shiny gold braid-trimmed army uniform. “We discussed this point with the National Army Museum in London. Even though Colonel Brandon had left the army by now, he would have worn a new uniform for his wedding made by his military tailor,” Beavan explains. (SCREEN STYLE : Grecian Formula)

Robert Hardy, Sense and Sensibility (1995)

 

Jane Eyre (1996)

The feature film version with Charlotte Gainsbourg and William Hurt.

Jane Eyre, 1996 Jane Eyre, 1996 Jane Eyre, 1996

 

Emma (1996)

The excellent BBC version of the Jane Austen classic, with Kate Beckinsale and Samantha Morton.

Actress Kate Beckinsale: “I knew straight away the costumes were going to be brilliant because the designer, Jenny Beavan … created a look that was character-led. We decided, for example, that I should wear no bonnets, only hats, which I thought was more true to Emma’s rebellious spirit. She is a match-maker par excellence, always trying to get her friends and acquaintances married off to each other.” (Sister does it for herself, The Herald Glasgow, Nov. 21, 1996)

Kate Beckinsale in Emma (1996)

 

Ever After (1998)

Medieval Cinderella!

 

Tea With Mussolini (1999)

Co-designed with Anna Anni and Alberto Spiazzi. A bunch of women (including Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, and CHER) living in 1930s-40s Italy.

She recalled how, when [Judi] Dench wore an outfit for her “wonderful, drifty, artistic character called Arabella”, the actress tried it on for the first time and said: “Now I know who this person is. (Gift to nation from King’s Speech costume designer)

Tea With Mussolini (1999) Tea With Mussolini (1999) Tea With Mussolini (1999)

 

Anna and the King (1999)

The non-musical story behind The King and I, with Jodie Foster.

In eight months, Beavan and her staff of 60 whipped up a mind-boggling 6,000 outfits from nine miles of silks, cottons and brocades, most of which she bought for cash at wholesale fabric shops in the Far East … To figure out how to make convincing duds for a 19th-century Siamese royal family, Beavan spent weeks buried in old books and photographs at the British Library in London and historic costumes at a museum in Thailand. (Costume designer Jenny Beavan sews up an Oscar nomination for Anna and the King’s fabulous frocks, People, March 6, 2000)

“For a costume designer, you don’t get much better than 1860 Siam. Especially when there’s enough money to outfit twenty-seven hundred extras … I think we bought fifteen kilometers of fabric in Chiang Mai,” Jenny says of the Thai city where she did most of her shopping. She traveled with a Thai textile expert who also took her through the National Museum in Bangkok and let her photocopy documents from his collection depicting gods and royal motifs. She had the patterns reproduced in England for the noblemen’s outfits, which had the same silhouette as the peasants’ but were made with richer fabrics and more elaborate belts and ornaments. Even when dressing Anna, Jenny used Thai fabrics or shopped in London’s Indian stores. “Anna lived in India before coming to Siam,” she explains, “so I had her wear lightweight muslins and cottons and linens, dresses an Indian tailor would have made up, copying pictures in English magazines.” (Bravo to Anna, Victoria, Nov. 1999)

“The main research was in Thailand,” says Beavan. “We were helped by one of King Mongkut’s great-grandsons, a man called Pan. He is a textiles and antiques expert, and generally an authority on and enthusiast about Thai and Siamese history. He took us around the museums and through his fantastic library of books, showing us original textiles. He let us color photocopy them, and then have them printed in England. We weren’t always doing a recreation, but to know what it really should be like is always the best way to start.” (Fit for a King, Entertainment Design – The Art and Technology of Show Business, Feb. 2000)

Anna and the King (1999) Anna and the King (1999) Anna and the King (1999)

 

Gosford Park (2001)

1930s murder mystery fabulousity! With Kirsten Scott Thomas, Clive Owen, and Helen Mirren.

For the servants’ outfits, she referred to “Lady Troubridge’s Book of Etiquette,” a favorite of cast members that painstakingly details what each servant should wear… Beavan prefers using original (vintage) costumes whenever possible because the fabric and finishing techniques provide the most authentic look. “It is extraordinary that with all our modern techniques, we don’t have the finesse of how they used to make things. Evening gloves, the thickness of the suede, the fineness of the stitchery. You’d have thought we could do it easily now, but we just don’t seem to be able to do it,” she says. Vintage costumes do provide challenges, however. Claudie Blakley’s green dress partially disintegrated. “It was lovingly held together with various bonding substances,” says Beavan. (Beavan takes walk in the ‘Park’, Variety, Feb. 22, 2002)

Gosford Park (2001)

 

The Gathering Storm (2002)

The love story of Winston and Clementine Churchill (Vanessa Redgrave).

 

Possession (2002)

Modern-day literature profs track down Victorian poets (Jeremy Northam and Jennifer Ehle) having an affair.

2002 Possession Possession (2002) Possession (2002)

 

Byron (2003)

Jonny Lee Miller as the Romantic poet.

Byron (2003) Byron (2003) Byron (2003)

 

Timeline (2003)

Gerard Butler and a Scooby Doo gang go back in time to medieval France.

“The work I normally do is based on a historical truth, although adapted for film purposes because we’re not making a documentary, we are making a story; but in this particular case, [the director] did ask for it to look real, so we’ve researched as far as we can the period — which is the 1350’s — but a lot of the so-called research is actually later, and it’s the 16th century interpretation of the 13th [sic]. We’ve tried to be as careful as possible; it makes it more interesting. We’ve looked at lots of pictures of soldiers and archers and knights; that’s what we’ve based our costumes [on]” (Arms and the Man: The Curious Inaccuracy of Medieval Arms and Armor in Contemporary Film, Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies, Fall 2006)

Timeline (2003) Timeline (2003) Timeline (2003)

 

Alexander (2004)

Colin Farrell is Alexander the Great with mullet.

“It was like giving birth this film. In all, I spent nine months working on it. Four months of prep and five months of shooting in Morocco … It’s amazing how clothing reflects the politics of the time. When we see women corsetted, we know it’s a time when women were genuinely trapped — without any freedoms of their own. There’s the rigidity of Tudor England, and by contrast, the fluid, revealling clothes of the ancient Greeks — who were, sexually, rather liberated.” (Costume designer cuts a fine form, The Vancouver Sun, Nov. 27, 2004)

Alexander (2004) Alexander (2004) Alexander (2004)

 

Casanova (2005)

With Heath Ledger, Jeremy Irons, and a baby Natalie Dormer.

“The men wore coats which had an enormous amount of fabric in them. With Heath, the coat fits the body at the top, and as it comes down below the waist, you get these incredible skirts. It was just one of those periods where it went very exaggerated, which was very helpful to us because obviously it made him swagger like a peacock.” (Timely Fashion, Variety, Dec. 13, 2005)

Natalie Dormer, Casanova (2005) Jeremy Irons, Casanova (2005) Casanova (2005)

 

The Black Dahlia (2006)

The 1940s Hollywood murder mystery. With Scarlett Johansson.

“I would say 90 percent of what we used was original” (Back to Old School, Entertainment Weekly, Aug. 25, 2006)

The Black Dahlia (2006) The Black Dahlia (2006)

 

Amazing Grace (2006)

William Wilberforce’s (Ioan Gruffudd) work to pass the anti-slave trading law in 1790s Britain; with Romola Garai.

Amazing Grace (2006) Amazing Grace (2006)

 

Cranford (2007-08)

English biddies (including Judi Dench) hang out in 1830s Biddytown, England.

Judi Dench, Cranford and Return to Cranford (2007-2009) Cranford (2008)

Defiance (2008)

Jewish resistance fighters during World War II.

“In this film, the characters live with nothing, so their costumes have to show how they cope with that. You have to have a certain amount done up front, but things evolve during the course of shooting because you become inspired by something, so we were still tweaking everything until it was just right” (Creating the Look: Defiance)

Defiance (2008)

 

Sherlock Holmes (2009)

Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law.

“I thought he would be a romantic,” says costume designer Jenny Beavan, who turned to Gustave Dore’s 19th century engravings of London and the famous London costume shop CosProp for inspiration to make over the detective. “I thought about where a guy like Holmes gets his clothes. He steals them from Watson, of course, but he also would go to vintage stores.” (Film’s new romantics)

Sherlock Holmes (2009)

The King’s Speech (2010)

Colin Firth as King George VI and Helena Bonham Carter as Queen Elizabeth. With my favorite, Geoffrey Rush.

Director Tom Hooper: “The reason Helena looks like the Queen Mother is in no small part a result of Jenny’s work. She made Colin’s suits from the original materials and worked out a way to fit him so that he would lose some confidence in the way he stands” (How designer Jenny Beavan re-created royal-worthy costumes on a near-pauper budget)

“The biggest challenges on The King’s Speech were time and the lack of money. The uniforms were a massive challenge because you can’t just go and rent them. Colin wears the Admiral Of The Fleet uniform and a costume house had a jacket, but it had the wrong collar so we made our own. And then I found the epaulets in an antiques market in London. The medals were borrowed from various places and we made his Order of the Garter blue sash, so it was a conglomeration. I’m always on the lookout for things wherever I can find them: Helena was wearing original Thirties coats and some hats from Cosprop [a London costume house]. One of Helena’s necklaces – a double row of pearls that she wears in a lot of the scenes – cost precisely £1.50 from an Oxfam shop and they were perfect. And the Queen Mother always wore her pearls…” (The King’s Speech: The making of a very British smash hit)

You can get some really beautiful gloves from Italy now. I had Helena’s [Bonham Carter] made because she has got the smallest hands. Collars you can get. There’s the Vintage Shirt Co. and the Costume Store, who do vintage collars and shirts, and actually some of the old-fashioned shirtmakers in Jermyn Street, which services the top business community, you can still get a good detached collar. People still wear them? People still do a bit, I think. My grandfather would never be seen without. He just never wore a shirt without the proper detached collar on it, made in the same fabric. But it’s getting more difficult to get good vintage stuff as it’s just getting more and more distant, I suppose. On the whole, we have to remake them, just to get the fit, or the fabric was actually rotting. Helena wore several vintage coats. (Costume designer Jenny Beavan has a royal time on ‘The King’s Speech’)

Colin Firth in The King's Speech (2010) The King's Speech (2010)

 

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011)

Sequel time!

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011) Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011) Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011)

 

Child 44 (2015)

Tom Hardy, Kristin Scott Thomas, Soviets during World War II.

Child 44 (2015)

 

A United Kingdom (2016)

Co-designed with Anushia Nieradzik. King Seretse Khama of Botswana and his marriage to a British white woman.

A United Kingdom (2016) A United Kingdom (2016)

 

What’s Coming Next:

Christopher Robin (2018)

Per IMDB: “Working-class family man Christopher Robin encounters his childhood friend Winnie-the-Pooh, who helps him to rediscover the joys of life.” With Ewan MacGregor and Hayley Atwell.

Christopher Robin (2018) Christopher Robin (2018)

 

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms (2018)

Okay so it’s clearly fantasy … Keira Knightley is the Sugar Plum Fairy.

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms (2018)

 

The Voyage of Doctor Dolittle (2019)

Robert Downey Jr. to star.

 

 

What’s your favorite Jenny Beavan film?

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About the author

Kendra

Website

Kendra has been a fixture in the online costuming world since the late 1990s. Her website, Démodé Couture, is one of the most well-known online resources for historical costumers. In the summer of 2014, she published a book on 18th-century wig and hair styling. Kendra is a librarian at a university, specializing in history and fashion. She’s also an academic, with several articles on fashion history published in research journals.

13 Responses

  1. Kate D

    What a lovely blog post! Good researching to bring together all the interview clips and photos! Thank you!

    I love Room With a View, Howard’s End, and Sense and Sensibility- oh, and Ever After, of course! Some movies on this list I haven’t seen, they’ll have to go on my watch list!

    Reply
  2. Bronwyn M Benson

    I love the Merchant-Ivory ones. And Amazing Grace is such a wonderful, gorgeous film.

    Reply
  3. Saraquill

    I’m rather miffed at the Alexander (2004) quote, equating corsets with oppression and loose ancient Greek clothes with empowerment. It’s not like all corset wearers were powerless or ancient Greece was a bastion of women’s rights.

    Reply
    • Janette

      Annoyed me too. From what I have read women had no rights at all in Ancient Greece whereas during the nineteenth century corset wearing women were standing up and fighting for their rights, hence where we are today. They began the fight for equality.

      Reply
  4. Molly Pitzer Smith

    She’s the best of the best for me! From Cranford to Mad Max, I love it all! I loved her even more when she wore boots and a leather jacket for her first standalone Oscar win. :)

    Reply
  5. Ginny

    Ever after and sense and sensibility.. this lost though is it’s own much watch list… I’m going to make a must see lost out of this to binge watch

    Reply
  6. Susan Pola Staples

    I really cannot choose a favourite. The costumes she had a part in designing are brilliant, breathtakingly beautiful and are appropriate to each character down to the least crowd member.

    I will admit that The Bostonians is my least favourite movie of the lot. But the costumes are the best thing about it.

    Reply
  7. Janette

    Wow what a filmography. A few films there I don’t care for, ie that version of Jane Eyre, though the costumes do look stunning in nearly all of them, but there are also quite a few favourites, Howard’s End, Room with a View, Sense and Sensibility – naturally – and A United Kingdom (which I really recommend) I was interested to see “The Bridge” there. I have vague memories of watching that years ago. I recall the costumes made more of an impression than the story. I do like the look of that red dress in the second Sherlock Holmes movie.

    Reply
  8. Charity

    Wow, I had no idea she’d done so many!

    I think The Nutcracker and the Four Realms looks amazing; I saw the trailer over Christmas and squealed, it looks like a visual delight. (And Helen Murren is the villain. What more could I ask?)

    Reply
  9. Mr Elton

    Great post! Jenny Beavan is one of the best in the trade. Had the time of my life handling several of her Austen-costumes in 2017 so I know how remarkable her work is. Favourite film? Sense and Sensibility, Room with a view and Jefferson in Paris.

    Reply
  10. Aleko

    The National Army Museum said that “Even though Colonel Brandon had left the army by now, he would have worn a new uniform for his wedding made by his military tailor”? WTF? Even for the NAM, which has for decades avoided employing anyone who knows anything about the history of the British Army, that’s a stunningly dumb statement. When you resigned the King’s commission, you ceased to wear the King’s uniform.

    OK, I totally get that the production needed Brandon to look dashing and festive at his wedding. So, OK, let’s handwave that although he had left the army he was colonel of the local volunteers (the Napoleonic equivalent of the Territorials); as an important local landowner that’s perfectly credible. Sadly, the uniform Jenny Beavan designed for him is so craptastic it had everyone who knows anything about Napoleonic British uniforms rolling around laughing like hyenas as the credits rolled.

    What’s wrong with it, you ask? Well:

    The shoulders are cut at least 2 inches too wide. Though that’s also true of just about every Napoleonic British army uniform in just about every movie or TV production, so I wouldn’t carp too much if that were the only thing wrong with it.
    There’s only one epaulette. This was the distinguishing mark of a company officer – i.e. captain, lieutenant or ensign. A colonel or a major ALWAYS had two epaulettes – so Rickman in this coat CANNOT be a colonel!
    The lace loops outlining the buttonholes on the collar and lapels of the coat are silver, but the epaulette is gold. This is a total impossibility. In the British Army (and the volunteers and the East India Company forces too) the lace and the buttons were always the same metal: a gold-laced regiment had gold buttons and a silver-laced regiment had silver buttons. So However, Rickman in this coat CANNOT be British! (He could be Swiss, perhaps. Swiss regiments in the French service wore red coats, and mixed-metals were a thing in some Continental armies.)
    He has no sword-belt or sword, unlike the other officers in that scene. Sorry: an officer without his sword is not fully dressed.

    Reply

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