Costume Designer Phyllis Dalton: The Frock Flicks Guide


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)

Phyllis Dalton, Rob Roy: The Highland Rogue (1953)

Richard Todd stars as the Scots hero, dressed in tartan cliches. I don’t blame the designer much because this is a Disney production.



John Paul Jones (1959)

Phyllis Dalton, John Paul Jones (1959)

The life of this naval hero doesn’t look too shabby costume-wise.

Phyllis Dalton, John Paul Jones (1959)

One of Phyllis Dalton’s sketches for the movie.

1959 John Paul Jones

Bette Davis as Catherine the Great appears elaborate & shiny.



Fury at Smugglers’ Bay (1961)

Phyllis Dalton, Fury at Smugglers' Bay (1961)

A pirate flick with a range of costumes, like this elegant 1780s suit featuring a beautifully embroidered waistcoat.

Phyllis Dalton, Fury at Smugglers' Bay (1961)

But then the rest is lackluster, especially the women’s dresses.



Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

Phyllis Dalton, Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

The first sweeping epic Dalton designed costumes for, & there were plenty of photos of T.E. Lawrence to reference.

Phyllis Dalton, Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

Costume sketches for Lawrence’s iconic white outfit.

“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

Phyllis Dalton, Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

Dalton created both traditional Bedouin garb.

Phyllis Dalton, Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

And the British uniforms & civilian wear.



Lord Jim (1965)

Peter O'Toole, Lord Jim (1965)

19th-c. sailing adventure based on the novel by Joseph Conrad.



Doctor Zhivago (1965)

Here comes Phyllis Dalton’s next sweeping epic, beginning in 1910s Russia, right before the Revolution & first World War.

Phyllis Dalton won an Oscar for this movie.

Doctor Zhivago (1965)

The sketch looks better, because I don’t see this as best 1910s evening look.

“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

Doctor Zhivago (1965)

How can we forget Tonya’s Barbie-goes-Russian style at the train station?

“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

Phyllis Dalton, Doctor Zhivago (1965)

However, Dalton’s design was a bit more elegant & subdued.



Oliver! (1968)

Phyllis Dalton, Oliver! (1968)

For this musical version of Oliver Twist, Dalton made sure the orphaned boys looked raggedy but still colorfully Victorian.

Phyllis Dalton, Oliver! (1968)

Phyllis Dalton was nominated for an Oscar for this movie.

Phyllis Dalton, Oliver! (1968)

I won’t blame the costume designer for the hair, but wow, that’s a very 1960s shag cut.



The Message (1976)

Phyllis Dalton, The Message (1976)

This film version of the life of the Prophet Muhammad was made in both English & Arabic.

Phyllis Dalton, The Message (1976)

And the filmmakers tried to honor the Muslim tradition of not depicting Mohammad, so the story was told through other characters.



Voyage of the Damned (1976)

Phyllis Dalton, Voyage of the Damned (1976)

About a 1939 ship carrying German Jewish refugees. Apparently some posh folks by the costumes.

Phyllis Dalton, Voyage of the Damned (1976)



Unidentified Flying Oddball (1979)

Phyllis Dalton, Unidentified Flying Oddball (1979)

OK, it’s fantasy with an astronaut traveling to King Arthur’s time, but does this photo not amuse you?



The Mirror Crack’d (1980)

Fun murder-mystery set in the 1950s.

About a 16th-century film, so costumes for both eras!



The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1982)

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1982)

Yeah, the costumes are Not Good here.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1982)

Sometimes, ya just do the work! After all, Dalton did this around the same time as Pimpernel.



The Scarlet Pimpernel (1982)

Anthony Andrews, Scarlet Pimpernel (1982)

While the 1934 version is classic, this one is my fave, both for the actors (Anthony Andrews! Jane Seymour! Ian McKellen!) & the costumes.

The Scarlet Pimpernel (1982)

Phyllis Dalton won an Emmy for these costumes.

The Scarlet Pimpernel (1982)


The Scarlet Pimpernel (1982)

Lace! Embroidery! Satin! Sparkle!

Jane Seymour, The Scarlet Pimpernel (1982)

Even a goth gown for Trystan!



Arthur the King (1983)

Phyllis Dalton, Arthur the King (1983)

Random TV movie with random costumes.



A Private Function (1984)

Phyllis Dalton, A Private Function (1984)

A comedy set in post-World War II Britain, where Maggie Smith gets a smart suit & hat.



The Last Days of Patton (1986)

Phyllis Dalton, The Last Days of Patton (1986)

War stuff, uniforms.



The Princess Bride (1987)

The Princess Bride (1987)

Fantasy, but make it historically medieval!

The Princess Bride (1987)

Buttercup’s gown on display, with Inigo Montoya & the Dread Pirate Robert’s garb.

Phyllis Dalton, The Princess Bride (1987)

Phyllis Dalton’s sketch for the gown.

The Princess Bride (1987)

She may be in a fairy tale, but she’s wearing a 14th-c. houppelande.

The Princess Bride (1987)

Her dream-sequence wedding gown has more of an Italian renaissance feel.

The Princess Bride (1987)

Prince Humperdinck’s blue damask houppelande is also properly 14th century.



Stealing Heaven (1988)

Phyllis Dalton, Stealing Heaven (1988)

Basic 12th-c. France (though I believe this movie is better known for the non-costumed scenes, ehem).



Henry V (1989)

Henry V (1989)

Phyllis Dalton collaborated with Kenneth Branagh on his directorial debut, & she won an Oscar for this film.

Phyllis Dalton, Henry V (1989)

The iconic costume Branagh wore, on display.

“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

Henry V (1989)

Most of the film is set on the battlefield, & at the very end, fine courtly costumes are seen on Emma Thompson as Catherine of Valois.

Phyllis Dalton, Henry V (1989)

Dalton’s sketches for these costumes.



The Plot to Kill Hitler (1990)

Phyllis Dalton, The Plot to Kill Hitler (1990)

Uniforms, WWII.



Dead Again (1991)

Emma Thompson

This stylish murder-mystery flips between the modern day & the late 1940s. Dalton designed all the costumes, but I’m focusing on the ’40s ones for our frock flicking purposes.

“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

Phyllis Dalton, Dead Again (1991)

FAB hat & wild tie!



Much Ado About Nothing (1993)

1993 Much Ado About Nothing

I love the crap out of this movie, even though (or because of?) the costumes are a wacky hodgepodge of historical references from the 16th through 19th centuries! This would be Phyllis Dalton’s final film work, & it’s a joyous note to go out on.

Much Ado About Nothing (1993)

Tied-on sleeves, buttoned-up bodice.

Much Ado About Nothing (1993)

Little pleated tails in the back.

“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

Leather pants.

Much Ado About Nothing (1993)

Uniforms of undetermined origin.




What’s your favorite historical costume design by Phillis Dalton?

9 Responses

  1. susan l eiffert

    I see that she did code-breaking at Bletchley Circle during WWll. Said it was boring.

  2. Orian Hutton

    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!’

  3. Susan Pola Staples

    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.

  4. Damnitz

    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).

  5. Aleko

    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.

    • Damnitz

      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.