Costume Designer Mike O’Neill: The Frock Flicks Guide

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Sometimes you don’t realize how many of your favorite gorgeously costumed productions were designed by the same person. Such is the case with Michael O’Neill, who passed away in 2018. He worked primarily in British TV, after studying theatre design at Nottingham University and working for 12 years in costume design at the Royal Shakespeare Company. Looking through his CV, I’m impressed at how well he captured different periods with a sense of depth and detail that feels true.

Those he worked with on these productions expressed their great appreciation for O’Neill’s designs in his obituary that ran in The Independent. Alex Fordham was costume assistant to Mike O’Neill for both The Last King and Elizabeth I, and said:

“Although his taste was refined, his choices of fabric lustrous and in jewel-like colours, Mike’s costumes were there to serve the drama, nothing else. He was completely unsentimental about them. As pretty things on mannequins, they were uninteresting. On an actor, inhabiting their character — that is what they were for.”

O’Neill met Samantha Horn while they were working at the costume supplier Angels, they married in 1999, and they continued to work together in costuming. Horn was the assistant costume designer on Elizabeth I, and the couple won an Emmy award for the show.

He may be gone, but he’s left a fine body of work for us to continue to admire onscreen.

 

 

 

Maigret (1993)

Mike O'Neill - Maigret (1993)

Early TV work on this mystery series set in 1950s Paris.

 

 

Our Mutual Friend (1998)

1998 Our Mutual Friend

So yes, mid-Victorian is not our favorite fashion around here, & that’s what you get in this Charles Dickens adaptation.

Mike O'Neill - Our Mutual Friend (1998)

But OMG look at this gown! Those petals! That’s a TON of work, beautifully executed, & the effect is both elaborate & elegant due to the limited colors.

Mike O'Neill - Our Mutual Friend (1998)

This is sweet without being cloying.

Mike O'Neill - Our Mutual Friend (1998)

Wonderful use of stripes, which is accurate for the period, & flattering to this actor.

 

 

David Copperfield (1999)

Mike O'Neill - David Copperfield (1999)

This version of the Dickens tale is most notable for starring a young Daniel Radcliffe.

Mike O'Neill - David Copperfield (1999)

 

 

Love in a Cold Climate (2001)

Love in a Cold Climate (2001)

One of those British miniseries set between the wars, full of elegant clothes.

Love in a Cold Climate (2001) Love in a Cold Climate (2001)

 

 

Daniel Deronda (2002)

Romola Garai admired “Mike’s artistry, ambition, use of colour and attention to detail,” and said of O’Neill’s work on this miniseries:

“The intense weight, stifling tightness of the dresses, the feeling of being strangled by the most beautiful flowering shrub, taught me more about that character and her impossible prison than hours of rehearsals could have achieved. The extraordinary beauty and complexity of his vision for Gwendolen left a powerful impression on me: young and a bit lost in the industry and in need of inspiring and kind teachers.”

Don’t miss our fourpart in-depth review of this miniseries’ costumes!

It’s just so much bustle-y goodness.

Daniel Deronda (2002)

Every dress in the archery scene is exquisite!

Daniel Deronda (2002) Mike O'Neill - Daniel Deronda (2002)

 

 

The Last King aka Charles II: The Power & the Passion (2003)

The Last King - Charles II: The Power & the Passion (2003)

This is one of those eras when the boys look as yummy in costumes as the girls do!

Mike O'Neill - The Last King (2003)
The Last King - Charles II: The Power & the Passion (2003)

Mike O’Neill won the BAFTA for Best Costume Design for this miniseries.

Mike O'Neill - The Last King (2003)

Just check out all the cartridge-pleating in that skirt. Whew!

 

 

North and South (2004)

Screenwriter Sandy Welch said of Mike O’Neill’s costume designs:

“On two TV miniseries, Our Mutual Friend (1998) and North and South (2004), on which I was screenwriter, I was impressed with the care Mike took with the poorest and smallest characters and the relish with which he dressed the armies of “poor”: those inhabiting the shadows of Dickens’ Thames and the northern industrial textile workers, their costumes tinged with blue and terracotta dyes.”

Mike O'Neill - North and South (2004)

Lower-class costumes.

Mike O'Neill - North and South (2004)

Terracotta.

Richard Armitage, North and South (2004)

Also, Richard Armitage in white tie, to liven things up.

Mike O'Neill - North and South (2004)

 

 

Elizabeth I (2005)

Costume embroiderer Michele Carragher got her start working with Mike O’Neill, as she told Enchanted Living Magazine:

“My first venture into the professional world of filmmaking was when I worked as a costume assistant on a low-budget feature film, which was unpaid of course, working every hour under the sun … But most important for me on this job, I was very fortunate to meet and work for Mike O’Neill, the costume designer on this film. Mike was a very experienced designer who had worked on many award-winning period dramas, and after this initial job I was able to work with him on many other future projects. He became a great mentor, imparting onto me his vast knowledge of the costume-design process.”

Carragher embroidered many of the costumes for Elizabeth I and more recently embroidered the Game of Thrones costumes.

Helen Mirren, Elizabeth I

Some of the embroidery & surface decorations are shown up-close in the title scenes.

This show is one of our ‘best costume’ examples in our 16th-Century Costume in TV & Film: Worst & Best video.

Jeremy Irons, Elizabeth I (2005)
Mike O'Neill - Elizabeth I (2005)

Mike O’Neill & Samantha Horn won the Emmy for Outstanding Costumes for a Miniseries, Movie, or a Special for this production.

Mike O'Neill - Elizabeth I (2005)

 

 

Mansfield Park (2007)

Mike O'Neill - Mansfield Park (2007)

Not one of the best Jane Austen adaptions by far & the costumes haphazardly jump around the decades, but it’s hard to blame that on the designer.

Mike O'Neill - Mansfield Park (2007)

This is still pretty.

Mike O'Neill - Mansfield Park (2007)

And this is ridiculous fun!

 

 

 

What’s your favorite historical costume production designed by Mike O’Neill?

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About the author

Trystan L. Bass

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A self-described ElderGoth, Trystan has been haunting the internet since the early 1990s. Always passionate about costume, from everyday office wear to outrageous twisted historical creations, she has maintained some of the earliest online costuming-focused resources on the web. Her costuming adventures are chronicled on her website, TrystanCraft. She also ran a popular fashion blog, This Is CorpGoth, dedicated to her “office drag.”

6 Responses

  1. Susan Pola Staples

    Daniel Deronda and Charles II top my list, but I also enjoyed watching North and South not only bc of Armitage but the costumes were top notched.

    Reply
  2. Melanie

    Our Mutual Friend, Daniel Deronda, and North and South are some of my favorites–I had no idea they were by the same designer!

    Question: the beautiful green striped dress at the end of N&S has been used in many many productions since. Does anyone know if that dress is original to N&S, or was it borrowed from an earlier production as well?

    Reply
  3. Lily Lotus Rose

    Wow…all of these costumes look great. My default answer to your question has to be North and South because that’s the only one I’ve seen, though I’ve been meaning to watch Daniel Deronda forever. What I love about these posts is that they display–beyond the costumes–just how much mileage a working actor gets in Britain. In every picture I was like, “Oh, that’s so-and-so from X, Y, Z productions.” Also, I’ll of the men in the pics made me want to be naughty–especially Richard Armitage (yum!) and Rufus Sewell. Plus, you made my day by quoting from Enchanted Living Magazine; it’s such a sweet publication!

    Reply
  4. 992234177

    I’ve never heard of the 2007 Mansfield park, my favourite of her books, can’t wait to watch it

    Reply
    • Melanie

      Just be warned that it’s one of the most universally panned Austen adaptations. The problem with Mansfield Park adaptations is that the book doesn’t translate easily to modern sensibilities, so they always feel like they have to change Fanny.

      Reply
  5. Natasha Rubin

    I’m so glad you did this post! His work is an absolute favorite of mine. Elizabeth I and Daniel Deronda are especially amazing.

    Reply

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