John Bright: The Frock Flicks Guide

7

John Bright should be a household name for you for two reasons: he’s the designer (or, more frequently co-designer along with Jenny Beavan) of most of the Merchant-Ivory films you love, like A Room With a View and Howards End. Beavan and Bright are known for going 1000% percent on historical accuracy, realism, and beauty:

They put authenticity and accuracy in clothes on the map. Their actors were not costumed — they were clothed, and meticulously so. Their clothes are literally the equivalent of museum pieces. They are central to bringing that period-piece genre alive for a new generation — costume designer Alexandra Byrne (Merchant-Ivory films prized for their accuracy without sacrificing beauty, Daily Variety, October 26, 1998).

And, he’s the founder/owner of Cosprop, one of the world’s leading film/TV/theater costume shops. If you’ve loved a costume from a historical film, likely John Bright has been involved in making it (while this post will focus on his design work, he should be credited for his contributions to many, many other productions like Out of AfricaEver AfterElizabeth, and Pride and Prejudice, plus current productions like Poldark).

Established in 1965 by its owner, John BrightCosprop is now one of the largest sources of costume in the film, theatre and television worlds. Its headquarters in Camden is jam-packed with just about every type of dress or suit worn during the Stuart, Georgian and Victorian periods, right through to the 1960s, all immaculately realised by Cosprop‘s expert cutters and costume makers … An actor who had also studied fashion at a Walthamstow college and period costume in his spare time, John Bright began his collection in the 1960s when period clothes were cheap and readily available. Adding to his collection gave him something to do while “resting” until it became his sole occupation. (The Firm, Evening Standard, Dec. 4, 2000)

While I initially thought about making this post about both Bright and frequent collaborator Jenny Beavan, the two of them have each done a number of films independently, so I thought each deserved their own post. So, look for one on Jenny Beavan soon!

 

The Bostonians (1984)

Co-designed with Jenny Beavan. Nominated for an Oscar.

The Bostonians (1984) The Bostonians (1984)

A Room With a View (1985)

Co-designed with Jenny Beavan. Won the Oscar.

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

 

Maurice (1987)

Co-designed with Jenny Beavan and William Pierce. Nominated for an Oscar.

Simon Callow in Maurice (1987) Maurice (1987) Maurice (1987) Maurice (1987)

 

The Deceivers (1988)

Co-designed with Jenny Beavan.

Many costumes were modified copies of romantic-period dresses in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. ‘The waist was beginning to come down a little from the Empire style, and the dresses are a little more decorated and flamboyant,’ said costume designer John Bright. For our big movie debut, we women were ordered not to wear makeup, which had most of us aghast. But Bright said it would not look “period” if we were made-up. (Cinderella & Script: In India, a Trip to the Ball as a Merchant-Ivory Movie Extra, Washington Post, Nov. 22, 1987)

The Deceivers (1988) The Deceivers

 

Mountains of the Moon (1990)

Co-designed with Jenny Beavan.

“I looked at what people wore at the time when they set forth,” said Bright … Bright didn’t set out to design adventure wear per se. He just wanted to re-create the clothing people wore at the time, in the middle 1800s. (Gearing up for a cinematic safari, Orange County Register, March 9, 1990)

mountains of the moon 1990 mountains of the moon 1990

 

White Fang (1991)

Co-designed with Jenny Beavan.

White Fang (1991)

 

Howards End (1992)

Co-designed with Jenny Beavan. Nominated for an Oscar.

According to Bright, everything he designs begins either as a period garment or as a vintage piece of cloth and trim. Much of it comes from Cosprop, the costume company the former actor founded in 1965 to fill time between acting jobs. The extensive collection covers everything from 16th-century gowns to Fifties suits. A tattered green lace dress found a costume sale, for example, when repaired and lengthened, became the striking frock Vanessa Redgrave wears at the opening of “Howards End.” (The Bright Side, Women’s Wear Daily, Feb. 28, 1992)

Howards End (1992) Howards End (1992) Howards End (1992) Howards End (1992)

 

The Remains of the Day (1993)

Co-designed with Jenny Beavan. Nominated for an Oscar.

The movie’s work is so unflamboyant. It’s astonishing that we were nominated [for an Oscar]. It’s such a restrained and laid-back look — co-designer Jenny Beavan (Emperor’s Clothers: How Oscar Costume Designers Sew Up Nominations, Associated Press, March 11, 1994)

The Remains of the Day (1993)

 

Jefferson in Paris (1995)

Co-designed with Jenny Beavan.

Costume designer John Bright has collaborated with Jenny Beavan to create elaborate French gowns and two-feet wigs and hairpieces. The designers outfitted more than 1,500 extras and, to keep costs down, had the fabrics manufactured in India. (Life and Loves of Thomas Jefferson, India Abroad, April 7, 1995)

A King Louis XVI costume made for the 1995 film “Jefferson in Paris” is based on an original suit from the 1780s. [Nancy] Lawson [a U.S. representative for Cosprop] says while the original mauve velvet frock coat and embroidered green leaves on the front, cuffs and pockets is now in shreds, Cosprop‘s Bright used the remaining pieces for inspiration in his design. (Stitched in Time, The News Journal, Oct. 3, 2006)

1995 Jefferson in Paris

 

Sense and Sensibility (1995)

Co-designed with Jenny Beavan. Nominated for an Oscar.

Alan Rickman, Sense and Sensibility Hugh Grant historical movies

 

Twelfth Night or What You Will (1996)

historical costume movies about cross-dressing

 

The Last September (1999)

The Last September (1999)

 

Onegin (1999)

Co-designed with Chloé Obolensky

Onegin (1999) Onegin (1999) Onegin (1999)

 

The Golden Bowl (2000)

John Bright creates an authentic look through a building process that relies heavily on each actor’s input. “If you just superimpose something on someone it often looks that way; it looks just like a designed costume and that’s really not the point,” explains Bright. The designer strives to “draw out what the actor brings to a part, only couched in terms of the period.” Uma Thurman’s stature and model beauty give her character, Charlotte Stant, a fashion plate look, while Anjelica Huston’s wealth of experience informs the well-traveled Fanny Assingham’s exotic sense of style. (Summer movie catwalk, Daily Variety, April 25, 2001)

2000 The Golden Bowl The Golden Bowl (2000) Uma Thurman in "The Golden Bowl" (2000).

 

The Magnificent Ambersons (2002)

The Magnificent Ambersons (2002) The Magnificent Ambersons

 

The White Countess (2005)

John Bright did The Golden Bowl and The White Countess, which I thought were absolutely amazing. It’s not that the costumes stand out: they are part of the whole. As well as being a very fine cutter and sewer, he probably knows more about period than anyone else. He’s able to show you, using examples, the roundness of crinoline or how a waistline changes. He imparts his interest in costume with incredible enthusiasm, as well as a sense of how to make it work as storytelling. — costume designer Jenny Beavan (The artists’ artist: costume designers)

the White Countess (2005) the White Countess (2005) the White Countess (2005) the White Countess (2005)

 

Jane Eyre (2006)

Co-designed with Andrea Galer.

Jane Eyre, 2006 Jane Eyre, 2006

 

Which is your favorite of John Bright’s historical costume designs?

Tags

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.

7 Responses

  1. Susan Pola Staples

    There are so many great John Bright movie clothes that I find it hard to choose a favourite from Room With A View, Jefferson in Paris, Sense and Sensibility, Onegin, Golden Bowl, Howard’s End, Remains of the Day and Maurice and others that I’m going to have to ruminate on it.

    Reply
  2. Knitms

    I have just found out :
    A.) The creator of some of my favorite movie costumes has a costume shop.
    B.) That costume shop is within the borough in which I live.

    Conclusions:
    A.) I must go there.
    B.) I have no event in which I need a costume. (i.e. No Reason to Actually be There).
    C.) I don’t know if they allow random people off the street to come in and ooh and ahh and touch stuff.
    D.) I really want to touch stuff.
    E.) I will go there anyway.
    F.) I’m a horrible braggart.

    Reply
  3. Chris Garlick

    Hi there,

    First of all I’d like to thank you for your post about John. He has seen it and enjoyed your selection of photos. Particularly liked the first picture of Natasha Richardson in The White Countess. That dress was a labour love but then wasn’t shown much in the film.
    One thing that isn’t right is John being credited as co-designing the 2006 Jane Eyre with Andrea Galer. I realised only now that IMDB lists it so (and we’ve just asked them to remove this), but the reality was that it’s all Andrea’s work, albeit created mostly at Cosprop. Maybe you could take this section off the blog.

    Many thanks again.

    Reply

Feel the love

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.