- Start date: 1 August 2023
- End date: 31 July 2026
- Funder: AHRC/UKRI
- Primary investigator: Professor Melanie Bell, University of Leeds
- Co-investigators: Dr Alice Sage, University of Leeds; Dr Claire Smith, British Film Institute; Professor Sarah Street, University of Bristol
Partners and collaborators
AHRC/UKRI, University of Bristol, British Film Institute, University of Leeds
Film Costumes in Action
A project to investigate how costumes have been designed, made and used in British film from the 1960s onwards
Costume plays a central role in film imagery and is fundamental to understandings of character, atmosphere and setting. Yet little is known outside the industry about how costumes are designed and constructed, and how the profession of costume has changed over the last six decades.
We want to raise the profile and appreciation of British-led costume design and making, nationally and internationally, and champion expanded notions of screen heritage, past, present and future.
The British film industry has developed a distinctive model for costuming film. Small costume and wardrobe teams attached to studios or production companies are led by costume designers who liaise with costume houses (who also supply television and theatre) and freelance specialists in diverse crafts from corsetry to millinery. Britain has developed a reputation for expertise in period film, and British-trained designers, especially women, have become increasingly prominent internationally.
Above image: Costumes for Shakespeare in Love (1998) designed by three-time Academy Award winner Sandy Powell, on display in the exhibition Dressed by Angels (2015), which marked 175 years of Angels costume house.
Top image: Wardrobe Mistress Jackie Cummins making sure that Ursula Andress is free of wrinkles for her starring role in She (1965).
The costume journey
Film Costumes in Action will use costumes, archival materials (including design sketches and paper records) and interviews with practitioners to record the whole ‘costume journey’. We will trace how costumes develop from the script to the designs, to making in the workshop and fitting on actors, through to filming and marketing. Along this journey, we will examine the roles of a huge range of professionals – designers, illustrators, cutters, costumiers, textile artists, supervisors, stand-bys and more – to document the skill and labour involved in film costume.
Wardrobe Supervisor Rosemary Burrows dressing Charlie Chaplin on the set of A Countess from Hong Kong (1966). Burrows ensured that costumes were ship-shape on over 100 films, from Dracula (1958) to V for Vendetta (2005).
Sharing our research
Throughout the project we will host a series of ‘Costume Conversations’ for academics and practitioners. These workshops will explore different methods for researching costume history, e.g. object analysis, reconstruction, film screenings and interviews.
The research team will also develop publications for academic and public audiences, including a book (provisionally titled Dressing British Films), blog posts, zines, and articles for journals and magazines.
This project will also inform programming at the British Film Institute, with a season of screenings centred on costume design and manufacture.
If you would like to talk to us about contributing an oral history interview or have any questions about the project, please contact Research Fellow Alice Sage (firstname.lastname@example.org). We will be delighted to hear from you.
Follow our research on Twitter @film_costume