Phyllis Dalton has retired from designing costumes for movies and TV, and she leaves a long, varied resume that features plenty of frock flicks you may remember. In 2002, she was awarded the Member of the Order of the British Empire for her services to the film industry, and in 2012, BAFTA held a tribute evening for her contributions to British cinema. The British Entertainment History Project has a lengthy interview with Dalton from 2000 that you can listen to or read online, where she talks about everything from her school days to behind-the-scenes anecdotes working with David Lean and Kenneth Branagh. Her interest in clothing started early and had a comprehensive, historical bent, as she said in the interview: “I think the sort of social side of history was what I was interested in. What people … how they dressed and what they used and how they lived more than the dates probably. That was always there.” So let’s take a look at some of her work in historical costume!
Rob Roy: The Highland Rogue (1953)
John Paul Jones (1959)
Fury at Smugglers’ Bay (1961)
Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
“One of the things was we did actually dress absolutely every last single person you see on that screen, and lots of people think the Arabs all wore their own clothes, but that was another case of being ten identical outfits for everybody, for all the Arabs, all in Lawrence’s gang anyway.” — Phyllis Dalton, British Entertainment History Project, February 2000
Lord Jim (1965)
Doctor Zhivago (1965)
“It’s usually the women’s hair that sort of gives it away, even old Julie Christie in Zhivago, you know, with her little bits of traily bits down the side, it’s terribly sixties. There’s always something, especially with the hairdressers. It just gives it away. I think we’ve got better, but there’s always something about period costume. It must be something so instinctive, because after all over the years all the people designing period costume think they’re doing it absolutely authentically, but there’s always a little ghost in there that’s contemporary, I reckon.” — Phyllis Dalton, British Entertainment History Project, February 2000
“That scene where Geraldine Chaplin arrives on the train, which most people remember, and she’s in pink fluffy marabou, I originally did a much more sophisticated design because I thought she’d been at finishing school in Paris. She had lovely big black sort of fluffy hat and very tight, very, very pale pearl grey outfit. But David [Lean, the director] was … and I was being too practical in that when David said he wanted her white or pink or something, I said she can’t sit in the train all that time, and you know, that was me being boring, really. And in the end, you know, obviously you give in and I did the pink outfit and he loved it. And being Geraldine she didn’t get dirty.” — Phyllis Dalton, British Entertainment History Project, February 2000
The Message (1976)
Voyage of the Damned (1976)
Unidentified Flying Oddball (1979)
The Mirror Crack’d (1980)
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1982)
The Scarlet Pimpernel (1982)
Arthur the King (1983)
A Private Function (1984)
The Last Days of Patton (1986)
The Princess Bride (1987)
Stealing Heaven (1988)
Henry V (1989)
“Kenneth was so young and it was his first picture, I’m either going to be an old fuddy-duddy that’s done too much medieval stuff so he won’t want me, or maybe because I have done lots of medieval stuff perhaps he’ll … Anyway, he said I could do it, so that was great. And that was a lovely working partnership, it really was, he was marvellous to work with.” — Phyllis Dalton, British Entertainment History Project, February 2000
The Plot to Kill Hitler (1990)
Dead Again (1991)
“In the end, although it had all been done in colour originally, they then made the flashbacks into black and white, which ruined all my lovely forties costumes. At least they weren’t shown in colour anyway.” — Phyllis Dalton, British Entertainment History Project, February 2000
Much Ado About Nothing (1993)
“That again was very much what Ken wanted to do. Those girls’ costumes; he wanted them pale, he wanted them to look as if they worked, he wanted them earthy, he didn’t want jewellery, and he didn’t want corsets, he wanted their bosoms nearly hanging out but no corsets, which is quite a problem to do, you know, when you haven’t got any construction. No, he had quite an input.” — Phyllis Dalton, British Entertainment History Project, February 2000
What’s your favorite historical costume design by Phillis Dalton?
I see that she did code-breaking at Bletchley Circle during WWll. Said it was boring.
I loved what she did with ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ and the costumes worked fine for me as the play happens in an indeterminate place at an indeterminate time. I like the way she can weave real history with fantasy. Perhaps that is why I will choose ‘The Princess Bride’ as my favourite and particularly Prince Humperdink’s houppelande. Still, Anthony Andrew’s Sir Percy Blakeney makes a determined challenge. ‘Sink me!’
Sink me! I loved the Scarlet Pimpernel and Princess Bride. They are my favourites. But I also loved her costumes for Angela in The Mirror Cracked, Ken’s Henry V and Omar Shariff in Lawrence of Arabia. Dr. Zhivago is an honorable mention.
I would vote for “Henry V”. The costumes and hair are very harmonious while “The Scarlett Pimpernel” has some weak points such as the hairstyle of some male roles and some weapons (although these are not her fault).
Much Ado About Nothing!!!!!!!
The shape and style of uniform coats in Much Ado are more-or-less based on the Napoleonic-period British flank company or light infantry officer’s coat (centre company officers’ coat tails were longer), except for having no cuffs and a slit up the sleeve. The lapels, like the collar and cuffs, would always be of a contrasting regimental colour to the body of the coat. The coat could be buttoned right over so that the lapels didn’t show at all; or the lapels could be buttoned back so the contrasting colour was visible right down to the waist, and the coat fastened by hooks; or just the top corners of the lapels could be ‘triangled’ back, as in all but one picture here.
Short uniforms in white are a lot looking like the uniform coats of Prussian cuirassiers during the period after the Prussian defeat at Auerstedt and Jena and the treaty of Tilsit (1807). I loved that my of imaginary nations uniforms with a link to Napoleonic uniforms and fantasy-like female clothes. It’s somehow better than historical clothes mixed with not historical clothing such as in the new “Cyrano”-version.
Now I want a monocle.