Costume Designer Phoebe de Gaye: The Frock Flicks Guide

17

Obviously Frock Flicks loves teasing and snarking, but I believe we try to be fair and balanced in the sense that we critique (and tease and snark) the WORK, not the artist. One costume designer who’s gotten some flack from us — for The White Princess and season 1 of The Spanish Princess — is Phoebe de Gaye. Now, de Gaye has a LONG resume with many impressive productions — specifically, modern-set Killing Eve, for which she was nominated for a BAFTA Craft award in costume design. With Snark Week coming up, I thought it would be nice to take a look at her full frock flick oeuvre to remind ourselves that sometimes we may deem a particular production to be unsuccessful, but the artist may have done other work that we quite loved.

As always, I’m including quotations from the designer about what her goals were for a particular production — when I can find them!

 

Theatre Night: Lady Windermere’s Fan (1985)

A British TV adaptation of the 1892 Oscar Wilde play. De Gaye was nominated for a CableACE Award in the category of Costume Design for a Dramatic or Theatrical Special/Movie or Miniseries for her work.

1985 Lady Windermere's Fan

That back-facing cream dress is right out of a fashion plate.

1985 Lady Windermere's Fan

That’s a LOT of look in a perfectly 1890s way!

1985 Lady Windermere's Fan

Excellent use of stripes, and great hat!

 

On the Black Hill (1988)

“Eighty years in the lives of a pair of Welsh identical twins with an unusual bond, as they go through war, love affairs, and land disputes,” per IMDB.

1988 On the Black Hill

Lovely Edwardian clothing on all four.

 

Chelmsford 123 (1990)

A British TV comedy sitcom set in the town of Chelmsford in AD 123.

1990 Chelmsford 123

I know diddly about Roman/Celtic attire, so you tell me?

 

Lorna Doone (1990)

A 17th century-set romance based on an 1869 novel, with Polly Walker, Sean Bean, and Clive Owen.

I wish I could see more of this dress, but I like what I can see!

Sean Bean historical costume movies

Sorry, too busy looking at SEAN BEAN!

1990 Lorna Doone

Unsure.

 

Carry on Columbus (1992)

One of many British slapstick historical “Carry On” comedy movies, this one set in the late 15th century and featuring Christopher Columbus.

1992 Carry on Columbus

Yes, that’s June Whitfield — mum from AbFab — as Queen Isabella of Castile.

1992 Carry on Columbus

The little I can see isn’t terrible!

1992 Carry on Columbus

Leopard print! Rowr!

 

Tom & Viv (1994)

The love affair between poet T.S. Eliot and Vivienne Haigh-Wood Eliot, spanning 1915-33.

Miranda Richardson in Tom & Viv (1994)

That’s a lovely 1920s look there.

1994 Tom & Viv

This is Edwardian perfection!

 

A Man of No Importance (1994)

Albert Finney as a closeted gay many in 1963 Dublin.

1994 A Man of No Importance

The character is obsessed with Oscar Wilde, which shows in this ensemble.

 

Feast of July (1995)

IMDB says: “After an abandoned young woman in late 19th Century England is taken in by a rural couple with three handsome sons, tragic consequences result.”

1995 Feast of July

I don’t know uniforms at all, but that’s a decent country look on the right.

1995 Feast of July 1995 Feast of July

 

The Haunting of Helen Walker (1995)

A TV movie based on Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, with Valerine Bertinelli (ha!) and Diana Rigg.

1995 The Haunting of Helen Walker
1995 The Haunting of Helen Walker

Lovely day cap!

 

The Forsyte Saga (season 1, 2002)

An adaptation of a series of novels telling the story of multiple generations of a British family. Season one is set in the 1870s (and goes into the 1880s or 1890s?). De Gaye also designed two mid-season episodes of season 2. Many people LOVE this; it irritated me!

“Costume designer Phoebe De Gaye wanted to be sure they didn’t repeat the BBC’s 1967 version which, she said, ‘looks incredibly Sixties to us, right down to the eye make-up'” (Rick Fulton. “Forsyte to Do It Again; Thirty Years After It First Fascinated Audiences, the Saga of A Family at War Returns to our Screens.” Daily Record, Apr 3, 2002).

Many of the costumes were very lovely, like this series of black and white ensembles.

This is right out of a portrait.

2002 The Forsyte Saga

The fam.

2002 The Forsyte Saga

One of my biggest problems was the character of Irene (right).

2002 The Forsyte Saga

She’s tragic and the fashion focus.

2002 The Forsyte Saga

But not only was her character annoying, some of her costumes were clunky.

2002 The Forsyte Saga

That being said, this is stunning!

 

Marple (2004-05)

De Gaye did several episodes of Marple, getting the 1950s costumes spot on.

The Body in the Library (2004)

2004 Marple The Body in the Library 2004 Marple The Body in the Library

The Murder at the Vicarage (2004)

2004 Agatha Christie's Marple- The Murder at the Vicarage
2004 Marple The Murder at the Vicarage

There’s a lot of great detail in this outfit!

What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw (2004)

2004 Marple What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw

A Murder Is Announced (2005)

Agatha Christie's Marple- a Murder Is Announced (2005)

 

Lark Rise to Candleford (2008)

De Gaye designed season one of this TV series that IMDB describes as, “Set in 19th century Oxfordshire, in which a young girl moves to the local market town to begin an apprenticeship as a postmistress.” Many of y’all LOVE this! Trystan found it snoozy, and I admit it sounds twee enough to not inspire me. That being said, all the costumes I’ve seen look stunning!

That’s some GREAT lace placement!

Lark Rise to Candleford (2008-2011)

Nice and realistic.

2008 Lark Rise to Candleford

OTT to “country.”

2008 Lark Rise to Candleford

Great use of color.

2008 Lark Rise to Candleford

Having fun with bold 1890s looks.

2008 Lark Rise to Candleford

And, lots of realism.

 

Sinbad (2012)

De Gaye designed the pilot only for this adventure/fantasy TV series, and I have no idea whether any of these images are from that episode.

2012 Sinbad

Looks like your standard faux-Middle Eastern mishmash?

2012 Sinbad

These fabrics are beautiful!

 

The Musketeers (2014-15)

De Gaye designed the first two seasons of this TV series that tried to bring a modern twist to the early 17th century “Three Musketeers” story. I tried to watch a few episodes but the costumes made my brain hurt, and the plots bored me.

“I enjoy being able to combine period things with a contemporary twist, and that was the brief for this show” (Jenny Hirschkorn. “‘Now You can See Every Stitch’: Ever-Sharper TV Pictures Mean the People Who make the Best-Loved Programmes are having to Work Even Harder. in the Third of a Four-Part Series, Jenny Hirschkorn Talks to a Leading Costume Designer in Association with Panasonic.” Telegraph Magazine, Dec 06, 2014).

“For the musketeers, costume designer Phoebe de Gaye was anxious to avoid the flouncy plumes-and-feathers look of previous adaptations. ‘Too much of that and you’re looking at a New Romantic video'” (Blades of Glory).

“The women wear bold shapes and vibrant silks, with colour and volume; costume designer Phoebe de Gaye borrowed from Alexander McQueen to give them a subtly modern flair” (The Musketeers: on set with Peter Capaldi and Vinnie Jones).

“This time, the challenge has been to invite the audience to experience The Musketeers as if seeing it for the first time. There have been so many versions made featuring these enduring characters. It felt important to present them, and their world, in a fresh and original way … Character is all-important in costume design. Although the Musketeers form an elite and tightly knit group and therefore require an element of ‘uniform,’ they also need to be strongly delineated as individuals. I would say that was the first and main requirement of the design brief. For me, the process begins with the color and texture of the fabrics and leathers, and how I feel they express something about the character. That leads me further into the design process. Form and decoration follow. The silhouette is tremendously important, as well as the flow and movement of the fabric and the textures that can be picked up by sensitive lighting. These are what give a sense of physicality to the imaginary world we’re trying to create. … My view is that the past is always an invention, seen through the prism of our own time. However, I find the study of the paintings, engravings, and photographs of the various historical times we’re portraying to be absolutely fascinating. I have a large library that I turn to again and again for inspiration. The fascination in design is to bring the two elements of past and present together to form an imaginary world that, if successful, feels utterly convincing.” (Clothing Makes the Musketeer: Talking with BBC’s The Musketeers Costume Designer Phoebe De Gaye).

Tara Fitzgerald, The Musketeers (2014)

I mean, this is fabulously goth, but it’s not 1630s France.

2014-15 The Musketeers

Why do we need this many straps and buckles?

2014-15 The Musketeers

Insert “ehhhhh” sound.

2014-15 The Musketeers

Ok this is fab from a fantasy perspective.

2014-15 The Musketeers

I quite like these! Regal and definitely of the period.

2014-15 The Musketeers

The middle-class wear, however, was just CLUNKY. Too many weird layers.

 

The Living and the Dead (2016)

A supernatural story set in rural 1894 England.

2016 The Living and the Dead

Give her some hairpins, but otherwise, this is lovely.

Colin Morgan, The Living and the Dead (2016)

Sure, fine?

2016 The Living and the Dead2

A nice range of classes.

2016 The Living and the Dead2

Holy crap she’s wearing an actual chemise under her corset!

2016 The Living and the Dead2

I strongly dislike this dress, but I admit I’ve seen things like it.

 

The White Princess (2017)

An adaptation of the Philippa Fucking Gregory book about Elizabeth of York (1466-1503), wife to King Henry VII.

“You want to create a a window into the past for today’s audience, so you give it complexity and conviction, but you don’t want it to feel like a history lesson” (Costume Designers Bend Period Rules for Today’s TV Audiences).

“The goal was to make it feel like it’s an authentic and coherent world” (‘The White Princess’ Costumes, Production Design Capture Look of Historical Courts).

“It’s a chance to look at a period that’s so rarely done,” says the British costumer. “This is an interesting period, it’s very much a transition period. There are a lot of paintings of the period; the Flemish school. They put so much detail into some of their works that you can see where the seams are, you can see where long sleeves were pinned and unpinned so you could change it for different sleeves. I went through paintings and engravings and things, and read books on construction of the clothes of the period, and all that. Then, it was a matter of interpreting it for contemporary [viewers].” “The idea was to approach this in a slightly different way,” she explains of how this season differs; she hadn’t been involved with the previous series. “I was trying to make an authentic feel. The feel of authenticity, really, even though it’s a world that we’re inventing and learning from paintings and things. The idea was to make it a visceral, approachable world that drew the audience in.” (Meet the Woman Behind the Regal Costumes in ‘The White Princess’).

“The challenge was finding equivalents for all these things. We also had to translate the style of dress for a contemporary audience so it doesn’t seem too bizarre and outlandish but keep the richness. We try to give it an authentic feel but we did play around a little bit. For instance, they wore these extraordinary headdresses at that time and we toned that down a bit. It’s quite tricky because it can start looking theatrical if you’re not careful.” (The White Princess Is Television’s Most Opulent New Show).

2017 The White Princess

So much weird, all in one outfit.

2017 The White Princess

I always think “why is she wearing a doily?”

Essie Davis, The White Princess (2017)

Standard faux-medieval wear?

White Princess (2017)

I can’t handle the puffy sleeves.

The White Princess (2017)

Ok for about 50 years later.

The White Princess (2017)

The problem is most of the costumes have nothing to do with the 15th century.

The White Princess (2017)

 

The Spanish Princess (season 1, 2019)

Yet another Philippa Fucking Gregory adaptation, this time about Catherine of Aragon and so set in the first decade of the 1500s.

“It was slightly more difficult because any information about the Moorish [people] was harder to find. I had to put a couple of things together and hope that it looked right. It was very interesting—the mixtures culturally with the Moorish Islamic style and the Christian styles, to go into that and try and get some of that into Catherine’s wedding dress.” (In The Spanish Princess, Catherine of Aragon’s Wedding Dress May Be All the Bridal Inspiration You Really Need).

The Spanish Princess (2019)

It’s not de Gaye’s fault they made Catherine overly physically badass.

2019 The Spanish Princess

But I shall never recover from the debacle that is the windmill dress.

The Spanish Princess 2019 ep1

So many weird layers and fabrics!

SO MUCH BAD HEADWEAR.

The Spanish Princess 2019 ep1

Catherine’s wedding dress was actually relatively successful.

The Spanish Princess episode 2

As was Elizabeth of York’s (center) maternity gown, but Margaret Beaufort’s (right) welding apron/kicky shrug, not so much.

2019 The Spanish Princess episode 6

Queen Juana of Castile, dressed about 50 years out of date.

2019 The Spanish Princess episode 8 finale

The shapes are there, it’s the colors I hate here. Is it Easter?

 

Which of Phoebe de Gaye’s works do you like, and which bug you? And remember, let’s keep it focused on the work, not the artist!

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.

17 Responses

  1. Shashwat

    Keep P*G away from PDG,and we get great costumes.
    I really like the 1890s-Edwardian stuff here.

    Reply
  2. Michael McQuown

    Apparently, the 17th century is Not Her Thing. Sean Bean’s out fit seems to have lots of odd bits of lace that make no sense; as for the Musketeers — barf! The clothes are ridiculous and half the weapons are the wrong period. As for the 19th uniform, pretty good, but the trousers, referred at at the time as “cherry pickers,” should be tighter.

    Reply
    • Kathleen Norvell

      I could watch only 2 episodes of the Musketeers, the costumes were so bad, the lighting was terrible, and the “plot” was incomprehensible. As a big fan of the 1973 version of the three Musketeers, I cringed a lot.

      Reply
    • Amanda J Shirk

      I find it b so weird how designers like Phoebe de Gaye and Alexandra Byrne can go 20 years designing perfectly gorgeous and/or appropriate period costumes and then ALL OF A SUDDEN pull absolute crap like MQoS and The White/Spanish Princess and talk about how they were so clever. Perhaps De Gaye was purely beholden to the directors before and then someone (Shekar Kapur/Emma Frost) said “go off, run wild” and now we can’t get the lid on the damn box again.
      It’s kind of like how for 30 years Andrew Davies fooled Austen fans into thinking he respected Austen and then Sanditon happened and we saw what he would do if he didn’t have pesky things like source material pinning him down and preventing him from turning everything into incest porn.

      Reply
  3. susan l eiffert

    All those outfits in the 3 Muskateers are silly and so self indulgent, but i actually exclaimed out loud at the sight of those ridiculous, totally impractical belted and buckled leather get ups the Muskateers are wearing. Imagine if they were filmed getting dressed – it would take half the movie as they fastened all those unnecessary straps and belts!

    Reply
  4. Stella

    I do love it when designers say ‘we don’t want anything too weird’ and then decide to…make something weirder than the original?? Maybe it wasn’t her fault but she just had to spin it that way, but still. Sometimes the ‘modernization’ trend leads to sad brown costumes and sometimes you wonder why they didn’t just give everyone a plain dress with large sleeves if simplicity is what they’re after. That being said, I love all the late 19th century stuff she’s done!

    Reply
  5. opusanglicanum

    chelmsford 123 was hilarious, and the costumes weren’t bad, but it was very low budget and I don’t think it was ever meant to be totalaly authentic – the tardis turned up in one scene, and I don’t think anyone thought badvoks “dopey the frog” posing pouch was based on anything particulalry roman

    Reply
  6. Kelly

    That production of Lady Windermere’s Fan is the gold standard. The gown you mention as out of a fashion plate is Lady W herself, and the gown is even more beautiful from the front. As the wicked lady, Mrs. Erlynne wears a black/burgundy taffeta number that looks like an early draft of Irene’s red velvet frock in The Forsyte Saga. And her stripey outfit (even her gloves harmonize!) is the epitome of cool.

    Reply
  7. Kathleen Norvell

    I’m not sure why she went from nicely done historical stuff to WTF weird, but I find the attitude that one has to reinterpret the clothing of a certain period so the plebes will “get it” incredibly condescending. We “get it” just fine when you honor the time period with a real attempt to get it right. That was my biggest bitch about “Mary Queen of Scots.” Five minutes of research would have resulted in much better costumes without patronizing the audience.

    Reply
  8. Janet Nickerson

    I know what irritated me – she went around with such a sour look on her face I though she overdosed on Beecham’s Pills.

    Reply
  9. M.E. Lawrence

    I liked Irene–although that red dress probably played a part in my emotions. Interesting mix of cultured semi-Bohemian and the learned helplessness befitting a young lady of the time

    Reply
  10. Laura

    The Musketeers is full of WTF (the costume of course, and french history also suffers a lot during the show) buuuut, i love it. It’s so much fun to watch. This serie has become one of my comfort objects ! Quel panache !

    Reply
    • Lily Lotus Rose

      Here, here, Laura! I ate up The Musketeers once I realized what attitude they were going with it. The cast was awesome and show was fun. And for my taste “fun romp” is what I aim to get out of a Musketeers tale. Even a non-expert like me realized they went crazy with the costumes, but as I said, I really leaned into because it spoke to me. The king’s costumes were lovely. And Kendra, you asked, “Why do we need this many straps and buckles?” To imagine the sweet, laborious task of undoing them! The biggest annoying distraction for me was the queen was a brunette in the first season and a blonde in the second. Overall, I’d say audience attitude goes a long way regarding receptivity to costuming irregularities and anachronisms. The show I absolutely hated in that (and every other regard) was TNT’s Will. (Why oh why didn’t I stop watching when Shakespeare pulled a ballpoint pen out of his skinny jeans to write a poem?!#$)

      The only other one I’ve seen is The Living and the Dead. The costumes looked right-ish to me except there was at least one scene in every episode in which Colin Morgan looked like he walked straight out of a contemporary magazine ad, mostly when he was wearing coats and sweaters.

      Reply
  11. Roxana

    She seems to go all to pieces when designing anything before the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

    Reply

Feel the love

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