Thursday, 19 October 2017

Heirloom Conspiracy

Hi guys

I know I haven't updated this blog in a while. I've moved from the UK back home to Australia and am working out what the next chapter in my life is.

As part of my sewing teaching and costume making past I've always been intrigued by the wonderful details of traditional detailed sewing techniques that are all but forgotten in this utilitarian age. I'm starting a project creating downloadable PDF sewing patterns that use heirloom techniques in new and creative ways. Its called Heirloom Conspiracy. The business is still a fair way off going live, but I do have a facebook page  which you can follow if you think this might be of interest to you.

I've also started a facebook group called Modern Heirloom Sewing which is basically a place for people who are interested in utilising heirloom sewing techniques in modern ways. From the curious newbie to the passionate expert I want this group to be a place people can come and openly discuss ideas and be inspired by the works of others. My specialist area is sewing machine techniques but I want this group to include, embroidery, smocking, lace, pintucks, patchwork, quilting and applique, and if your work is a little risque, so much the better. But

So its all in the very early baby step stages, but if this sounds like something you'd be interested in please take a look.
Canadian Smocking

Lace insertion blouse

Applique and embroidery

Zac Posen trousers

Close up detail of pintucks turning into pleats

lace insertion 60s style. I'd wear this today.

Sunday, 29 November 2015

Vintage Fancy Dress Dogs

I've certainly never got so much joy from a Daily Mail article before, but look at these beauties.

These are Vintage Dog Show Photos. And this picture doesn't just show any vintage Dog show, but dogs in fancy dress. Honestly, what is not to love??

Yes that does indeed appear to be an odd sort of Scotty dog, a couple of period dames and a clown.

And points for spotting the dogs in this photo

To read the full article, click this link here

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Guilty Pleasure Frock Flick No 4: The Slipper and The Rose

Many people raved about Kenneth Branaghs recent Cinderella story, but for me there really only is one true Cinderella film, and it's The Slipper and The Rose. Made in 1976, 4 years before I was born, it's like Star Wars or The Sound of Music, I simply cannot recall a time when I hadn't seen this film.

This film also marks a moment for me as a film professional. A few years ago I was fortunate enough to work on a short film with Tony Imi the cinematographer of this film of this film. Professional pride prevented me from geeking out and confessing to him that I was a massive fan of this film and begging him to tell me stories about working on it (it's very poor taste of fangirl on a colleague  with so we all wander around film sets pretending we're totally cool with working with movie stars, which we're usually not, at least for the first couple of hours before we realise they're just as, if not more, annoying as all the other actors we've worked with). Anyway Tony Imi died a few months after filming and it's a lifelong regret that I never asked him about the film.

No 4:

The Slipper and The Rose (1974)

Costume Design: Julie Harris

But what makes this film so good?

Apart from the fact it's set in my favourite period of the 18th Century, it's also very well written and bloody hilarious. Particularly Annette Crosby as the Fairy Godmother and Julian Orchard as the King's Cousin whose background in Carry On films puts him in good stead. 

And it seems I can't resist a powdered wig and a good pair of paniers.

This film, in true 1970s fashion has just as many failures as successes, but it's also so unashamedly lavish and unafraid to use synthetics that you can't resist it. 

And I promise to go with a different period for the number 3.

The Plot

Margaret Lockwood as the evil stepmother, with Sherrie Hewson and Rosalyn Ayres as the stepsisters
It's Cinderella, plain and simple. Our Prince Edward (Richard Chamberlain) is bored of being a prince and wonders 'Why can't I be two people?' but his wonderfully older parents wonder "What has love got to do with being married?" Our heroine is mistreated by a brilliantly pantomime villain Stepmother and ugly stepsisters and remembers that "Once I was loved" as she sees her mothers grave. The Prince is disgusted by the idea of "A Bride Finding Ball" but his wonderfully repulsive (in a totally endearing way) cousin is delighted at the prospect of getting his leftovers.

For those who haven't worked it out yet, have I mentioned that it's a musical. My personal proclivities aside, don't let that put you off. The songs are (for the most part) the comedy highlights of the film. The Sherman Brothers who composed the film won Oscars for best song and best score, the Golden Globe for best score and the BAFTA for film music. Naturally there's the token boring songs, but the fast forward button was invented for a reason.

Cinderella is visited by the worlds most wonderfully cynical fairy godmother in the guise of Annette Crosbie, gets to go to the ball, meets the prince, falls in love, but before they can get together fate steps in, blah, blah, blah. You know the drill. It's fricken Cinderella. If you're watching this film to find out if the girl gets the Prince you're probably not the target audience

This film made me want a fairy godmother, but more for the wonderful sarcastic humour than the pumpkin coach

The Cast:

This is not an A-list cast. Richard Chamberlain is the most recognisable face of the bunch. He's the man I always think played James Bond but didn't, and epitomises Prince Charming, safe in the knowledge that nothing is more charming than a man who doesn't want a woman who desires him simply for his wealth and position. 
International ballet star Christopher Gable brings the dance element for the men as John, our princes trusty sidekick, who suffers from his own case of forbidden love and so can sympathise with our Prince's problems.
A relatively unknown Gemma Craven is our Cinderella, but in case I haven't mentioned it before, it's the humourous supporting cast that really make this film worth watching. It's a quintessentially B Grade (and that might be generous) English stars shine with people like Kenneth Moore as the Lord Chamberlain, Michael Hordon and Lally Bowers as the aging King and Queen and as I mentioned above, the show is totally stolen by Julian Orchard as the Kings cousin, the man who you don't want to love. And of course Margaret Lockwood and Annette Crosby. If you've not heard of any of these people, I can guarantee you're going to want to see more of them after watching this.

The Costumes:

The costume designer is Julie Harris who unfortunately died earlier this year. You've probably never heard of her but this won't be her only appearance on my list. Her most famous works include The Beatles film A Hard Days Night, The Great Muppet Caper and Bond film Live and Let Die, so she's definitely earned her stripes.

As I promised, there are some doosies here. The 70s flourescent candyfloss tones of the great ball cannot be ignored.

Neither can our heros weird 70s hairdo and upholstery velvet suit, or the  net cape and the pink wig that our heroine is transformed into by our fairy godmother. But as an example of the juxtaposition of the period a costume is set and the date it was made, this film absolutely nails it.

But where the costumes really shine is when Cinderella decides that she must escape for the good of the Prince and country. As an massive art lover the homage Fragonard's archetypal Rococo masterpiece The Swing just gets me every time I see this film. (my husband has zero time for Rococo art, which I appreciate, it's about as girly and fluffy as art gets.)

Her wedding dress is pretty damn lustworthy too.

Favourite Frock

I can't explain it, but something about this velvet travelling hood just makes me go weak at the knees.

Monday, 11 May 2015

An intriguing picture of Henri et Caroline

I just stumbled acrross this picture on my phone. This Christmas my husbands family decided that it would be fun to hire out a small Scottish Castle which was absolutely amazing. (For the curious it was Castle of Park with a link here and only cost us about £500 a couple for a weeks accommodation which is pretty damn cheap to be able to say, "oh yes, we spent Christmas in a castle last year).

Anyway this print was on the bathroom wall. Regular readers will know how obsessed I am with curious costumes, and a French castle in Scottish dress of an indeterminate (or perhaps non existing) period while she is in 1830s (or at a push late 1920s?) dress is more than I can resist.

Are they going to a fancy dress ball, and if so does that mean she's just wearing a surprisingly authentic different period. Are they on holiday from France or why else would they be French?

And don't even get me started on his clohting. I've NEVER seen anything like it. Is it 16th century(esque),  Is that a short kilt of some somrt of pantaloons. So many questions. If you have any theories please share them with the rest of the class.

Is he just a very confused Sir Walter Scott fanatic?

So many questions. If you have any theories please share them with the rest of the class.

Monday, 9 March 2015

Top 5 Guilty Pleasure Film Flicks

When I meet people I usually know within about 5 minutes how good a friend they will be. One of my very best friends and I met when she wanted to hire me to costume a period film (which is a pretty good start). While we can both wank on about arthouse films with the best of them and happily use the criticism "that is so mainstream" to discuss an Oscar winning film, we also have a shared deep dark secret: at our very first meeting we discovered a mutual love of historic romance novellist Georgette Heyer, and it turns out we share a love of film of a similar vein.

I just received the dvd for this film, which looks sumptuos and amazing, and has been specially selected for a movie night with said best friend. I'll review it once we've seen it, but it got me to thinking.

Of course there are the usual frock flicks like Gone with the wind, Room with a view, The Princess Bride and The BBC Pride and Prejudice that are widely acknowledged as classics of the genre. But there are also the lesser known films, the slightly embarassingly corny, naff, raunchy, or even worse to some, not remotely historically accurate. *Gasp!* They're the Sunday-afternoon-in-your-pyjamas films that would never even be remotely considered for an award, yet I can recite them word for word and secretly prefer to their much better scripted, directed and acted counterparts.

So I'm going to do a series of posts on my top 5 costume films that I don't like to admit to being obsessed with.

Number 5:


Costume Design: Phyllis Dalton

Sink me. There have been many adaptations of Baroness Orczys novels but this made for TV film adaptation is by far my favourite. The strangest thing about this film is I started watching it because my very straight, then in his mid teens older brother, loved it. (He also had an unhealthy obsession with Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves when it came out, but lets not go into that).

The plot:

Set during the French Revolution, the thorn in Ropesbierre's side is the infamous Scarlet Pimpenel and his league, famed for snatching the (innocent *cough*) aristocrats from the horrors of Madame Guillotine in audacious and cunning escapades. The Scarlet Pimpernel is none other than Sir Percival Blakeney, who acts the society fop in order to protect his identity. Whilst in Paris he falls in love with and marries beautiful actress Margeurite St. Just, whom he whisks off to England. But Margeurite has ties with Percy's nemesis and fervent revolutionary Chauvelin, and nothing, not even his love for her, can endanger his plans to save the Dauphin, the heir to the French throne.

When Gandalf met Sebastian Flyte

The Cast:

The film is most notable today for having a young(er) Ian McKellan as Chauvelin, long before he became the hero of geeks everywhere, at a time when he was almost exclusively known as a highly respected Shakespearean actor. He is brilliantly uptight as the much thwarted villain of the piece, but also brings an almost sympathetic, softly comic side to what might otherwise be a fairly dull character It also stars an almost unrecognisably beautiful Jane Seymour as Marguerite St. Just, and Anthony Andrews (sans Aloysius) playing the titular fop-come-masquerading hero to perfection. The script is witty and fast paced and doesn't ask you to think too much, aware that it is firmly placed in the Rollicking Good Time genre, but by casting some of the England's finest, the characters become more than cardboard cutouts with complex relationships, lifting what could have been mellodrama into a love triangle between layered and three dimensional characters. Playing fast and loose with the source material (it's based on at least 2 of the Baroness' books, both the original Scarlet Pimpernel and Eldorado), it's as ridiculous as it is completely charming, escaping the self-congratulatory smugness or attempts to make serious commentary on the revultion, it allows as the laddish charm and romantic subplots of the league seduces you into their adventures.

Those hats, that collar, the hair

The Costumes:

And the costumes? It's designed by Phyllis Dalton. The name may not mean much, but when I tell you her extensively impressive list includes Doctor Zhivago and Laurence of Arabia before this film, but who also went on to costume two of the most beloved frock flicks (at least in my opinion) The Princess Bride and Kenneth Branaghs Much Ado About Nothing, you will appreciate that I don't need to wax lyrical about her talents. Unusually for this period of paniers, heaving bosoms and powdered hair, the costumes manage to be gorgeous without distracting from the characters wearing them. Margeurite's are particularly impressive from both a beautiful and character driven perspective, as she convincingly transforms from Republican sympathetic French actress to wealthy English Lady.

Margarite as on the stage...
vive la revolution ....
to English garden party

Favourite Frock:

This was genuinely a difficult one, simply because this is the one era where the mens clothes genuinely come close to outshining the ladies, and as an utter fop and friend of the Prince Regent, Sir Percival Blakeney has some of the most stylish togs around. However as this is a guilty pleasures post, and I'm confessing my deepest darkest secrets, it has to be the Margeurites wedding gown, It's not even the prettiest frock in the film, but its beautiful silhouette and simplicity has basically ruined every other wedding dress for me. Ever. In fact I want that whole wedding -  complete with a romantic dance with a man dressed in white satin.

Sexiest costume:

I'm not going to go into too much details - Spoilers! - but here it is. Watch it and tell me I'm wrong. But there is costume logic to it. In basically every other scene Percy is immaculately dressed or in disguise, whereas here this may be the closest you get to seeing him in his natural state.

Why this film is a Guilty Pleausre:

It's a 1982 made for tv movie (lets be honest, they don't have the best reputation) based on a series of books that have never quite worked out which side of the Classic/Trashy Romantic Fiction line they walk. Originally a play in 1903, it was released as a novel in 1905 to great success, with many sequels. This is one of many adaptions for stage and screen (both big and small), most notably the 1950 David Niven film, the 1999 Richard E. Grant miniseries and Don't Lose Your Head, a Carry On Film starring Sid James as The Black Fingernail. While this film ads nothing profound or great to the collection, it is unashamedly good fun.

Why you should watch this film:

The grand finale at Mont St-Michel, the island castle reached by causeway is brilliant (your belief should be well and truely suspended by this point), but actually the greatest thing about this film is the language. Witty banter combined, old world phrasing and idiosyncratic catch phrases make this film entirely quotable. Sink me, watch it and see if I'm not right!

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Black tea, grey hairs and the art of breaking down

I'm starting to go grey. Recently I've progressed from the "a couple of odd hairs" stage to the "oh my God I'm actually getting old phase". I'm a bit of a tree-hugger at heart so when I stumbled across a mention in a blog about black tea as a chemical free alternative to hair dye I was intrigued. I gave it a go and the results were promising enough to make me think this is something that needs further investigation.

But of course tea as dye it makes sense in my profession. As an avid coffee and herbal tea drinker I have literally used black tea as dye more times than I have drunk it. Almost one of the first things you learn as a costume newbie is how to "take down" whites by dip-dying them with tea. The theory is that too much white under the light causes flares for the camera so if you make all your white clothes slightly off white they will appear white on camera but not piss off the Director of Photography. It's particularly important for men's white dress shirts and nurses uniforms. I've also used it to dye stark white laces and trims for a more sympathetic colour for period costumes.

You simply make a really strong tea (soaking five or six tea bags in boiling water in a small Pyrex jug until it starts to look viscous is my standard but there's no rules), add it to warm water in a bath or bucket and soak the offending whites for a while. Then rinse (but not too enthusiastically ) and dry. Then scrub your bath to get rid of the brown marks left by the tea.

It's worth noting that
a) pre washing the items ensure the removal of any protecting coating they might have, but you won't always have time
b) like most dying natural fibres take colour better than synthetics so dying time is completely dependant on fabric and the colour you desire
c) make sure you take the tea bags out before adding the tea to the fabric and stir the items regularly to ensure an even dye.

In the age of digital whites are not as big a problem as they were and less and less DOPs insist on tea dyed clothes. But on certain digital cameras bright red can be a bit of a problem. But there's not much you can do about that except not use bright red or ignore the DOP and use it anyway. You also have to be aware of patterns that strobe. Long a problem of tv it is again less a problem than it was, but small stripes, particularly in contrasting colours can do that "make your eyes go funny" on screen.

So in much the same way that my mother trying to make tablets more palatable by crushing them into a spoon of honey, now means that all honey tastes vaguely of tablets to me, so black tea makes me think of dye and wet calico (a very distinct smell half way between floor cleaner and wet dog). I find the idea of drinking it quite revolting which can be a problem when living in the UK where it is literally a way of life. But sticking it on my hair, that makes much more sense.

NB: for those who are interested in the idea of a cheap, all natural, chemical free dark brown hair dye to cover their greys, I will experiment further and keep you posted .

Monday, 28 April 2014

Cinna and the Costume Design of the Hunger Games

Warning: if you have been living under a hole for the past few years and still wish to be ignorant of the storyline of The Hunger Games and Catching Fire, this post contains major spoilers.

I have a confession. I'm 33 and I think The Hunger Games books are the best books I've read in years. There I've said it. After jumping on the 'must read' train and obligatorily reading and watching the Harry Potter and Twilight series, with varying amounts of enjoyment and frustration (not going to critique them here because it's irrelevant) and steadfastly refusing to read 50 Shades of Grey, I've gone and got completely obsessed with popular teen fiction. I read the books, then watched the films, then repeated the whole process again in the past few months. I wasn't a huge fan of the first film when I saw it (probably a case of too much expectation combined with fairly lacklustre directing). But I saw Catching Fire at Christmas and the romance rekindled. I loved it. I re-read the books and then this weekend I introduced my husband to the two films (he read the books when I did), watching them back to back. And I had a break through. I realised why the story resonates so strongly with me personally.

The Costumes

And I'm not talking about the films costume design. I think Trish Summerville, costume designer for Catching Fire, particularly did a wonderful job. To come into a world where there was already a 'look', and then take that look and improve it exponentially, while still keeping it faithful to the original, is quite a feat. And there are some stunningly beautiful pieces of clothing in the film. But more importantly costume is used in the film constantly to define character and class. The people of the capitol dress elaborately in stark contrast to those in the districts just struggling to survive.

But that's not what I mean. I mean the role of costume design within the story. Because the majority of the decisions that a film costume designer and director would make to help the clothes define the story are already well entrenched in every part of the book. I'm talking about what Suzanne Collins added to the story. I mean the Costume Design in the book.

I mean Cinna.

I've been mulling it over, and I cannot for the life of me think of another time in fiction when the role of the costume designer is so perfectly understood. All through the series costume is of vital importance. It's NEVER 'And then Katniss wore a pretty dress'. Every single item of clothing she makes a statement, clothing always has a purpose. Katniss is almost always in costume, we very rarely see her in her own clothes. From the minute she puts on her mother's old dress to go to the reaping, she is putting away any choice she has. But that is only the first hint of what is to come.

For it is only when Katniss meets Cinna that we really start to understand the importance of clothing. Cinna uses costume design to pique the crowds interest in an otherwise fairly boring District 12 tribute, both in the chariot and the interview. Particularly in the 2 chariot scenes we are shown how superior Cinna is compared to the tired old choices of other tributes stylists. He is a visionary.
For the record, I don't personally like the interpretation of this dress as seen in the film. I think more could have been done with the design of the dress (I'm sure it's described as having crystals in the book), and less of the CGI. I think the second film chariot costume combines fire and clothing much more effectively. But either way it's the costume that defines Katniss in this scene. She's not good at the PR side of things. Not for the last time does her clothing tell a story that she is incapable of voicing.

I don't think it's underestimating the story to say that costume is used within the story as a matter of life and death. Cinna dresses her as a young, innocent girl when she exits the arena with Peta, to help back up the story of young love, and deflect the anger of the capitol.

But more importantly he gets to make the ultimate heroic act in the wedding dress in Catching Fire. By designing an ingenious costume of political significance, fully knowing what the repercussions will be. The Costume Designer gets to make a heroic act and ultimate sacrifice. He knows that by making a statement with this dress, by thwarting the capital, he will die. And that's why his death scene is so moving. Katniss is too naive to realise it but Cinna is fully aware that this dress signed his death warrant, it was just the timing that took him by surprise.

Of course his work also appears with equal significance in Mockinjay, but for those who have only seen the films and not read the books I won't spoil that.

Of course it's not just Cinna. The clothes worn in the arena are important hints of what is to come. They are infinitely practical to their surroundings. And other characters too. The Peacekeepers are always mentioned in reference to their white uniforms. it is impossible to picture a citizen of the capitol without their styling coming into play. This is a book drenched in the significance of how things look.

But it's not just the clothing, it's the personality of the costume designer. I was REALLY worried when I saw that they had cast Lenny Kravitz as Cinna. My previous knowledge of him was some shirtless glam rock star who dated Nicole Kidman. Surely he couldn't play the role of Cinna with the subtlety and empathy he deserved? But I've been converted. Because that is the important flip side. Suzanne Collins understands more than just the clothes, she also appreciates the relationship of stylist and client. It is somewhere between trusted ladies maid and artistic salesmanship. To get the best out of your clothing you need the person wearing it to believe in it. You have to sell your art to them so that they believe in it (and themselves) too. Sometimes that requires obsequiousness, flattery is very useful, and at other times you need to be bossy, but it is a relationship based on trust. The costume requires both the designer and the model to exist, and so it's a relationship that relies essentially on mutual trust and respect. And when that's not there, believe me, you can tell.

Anything that is as popular as The Hunger Games is by definition going to get as much negative as positive attention. Is the idea really original? Is Katniss really a hero? I don't really care. I like the story of Katniss and her world. It's bloody good storytelling. But even so, what I think is truly great about this world is that is gives costume a platform. Hopefully people will begin to understand that good costume design is almost never about who has the prettiest dress .

Just a personal addendum: this is my favourite costume from the films, The beautiful Cleopatra-esque design and use of colour is stunning. But we're also not allowed to forget that she is the Mocking Jay