Melanie Bell

Academic, historian, writer.

Costume Designers in British Cinema:

A case study of Jocelyn Rickards

Costume design and Costume Designers are one of Britain’s most successful international exports in the film industry. British born and trained Costume Designers have won six out of the last eleven Academy Awards (2004-15). Of those six awards, five have been won by women; Sandy Powell (The Aviator, The Young Victoria), Alexandra Byrne, (Elizabeth, The Golden Age), Jacqueline Durran (Anna Karenina) and Jenny Beaven (Mad Max: Fury Road) with Michael O’Connor (The Duchess) the odd man out in this narrative of women-dominated artistry. 

Despite their professional recognition, Costume Designers - as distinct from costume as an aspect of mise-en-scene - have received relatively little scholarly attention. Is it that women’s over-representation in a craft leads to the under-representation of that profession in film history? Miranda J Banks (2009) offers one of the few serious attempts to investigate the work of the Costume Designer, although her focus is contemporary Hollywood and television rather than historical. The history of British costume design for film, and women’s role within it, has yet to be written. I’m currently working on a project which begins to address this gap in scholarship and this essay on the Designer Jocelyn Rickards is a starting point in that reassessment.

Mortimer also worked on non-mainstream classics such as The Gold Diggers (Sally Potter, 1983), Caravaggio (Derek Jarman, 1986) and Welcome to Sarajevo (Michael Winterbottom, 1997).

Mortimer’s contribution to Foley Sound on Lawrence of Arabia (1962) was extensive. She was responsible for the sound of cloth movements (from stiff military uniforms to gossamer Arabian robes), armaments (including swords, guns and daggers), and animal sounds, principally camels.

She created the sound of the camel’s feet as it carried Omar Sharif across the desert and was recognised by the film’s director David Lean, who recalled;

One of the key roles I am focusing on as part of the History of Women in British Film and Television project is the Costume Designer and I am particularly interested in the period between the end of the Second World War and the early 1970s. It was during this 20+year period that a number of high-profile women designers came to dominate the profession including Elizabeth Haffenden, Margaret Furse, Beatrice (Bumble) Dawson, Julie Harris, Phyllis Dalton, Jocelyn Rickards and Shirley Russell. Between them they notched up 16 Academy Award nominations (and 5 wins) and created some of the most memorable costumes in British cinema history including The Wicked Lady (Haffenden), Dr Zhivago (Dalton), Darling (Harris), Blow Up (Rickards), The Servant (Dawson), Mary, Queen of Scots (Furse) and Tommy (Russell). Their creative contribution has gone largely unrecognised in the established histories of British cinema.

Jocelyn Rickards

She hit her creative stride in the 1960s. At this point the British film industry was buoyed up by an influx of American finance and British fashion, music and films were in demand. Rickards output was extraordinarily creative during this decade. She moved seamlessly from the realistic aesthetic of Woodfall Films (Look Back in Anger, The Entertainer) to the stylish costumes of Bond’s From Russia with Love (1963) and The Knack (1965) to the fashion-forward designs which characterised Blow Up (1966). At one point she was working simultaneously on three very different projects; dressing Vanessa Redgrave for Karel Reisz’s Morgan, designing clothes for Jeanne Moreau in Mademoiselle, which would be made by Pierre Cardin, and creating Donald McGill-style costumes for a Royal Court production (Meals on Wheels). This triple life saw the designer segue between the extreme refinement of Cardin’s couture house to, in her own words, ‘kneeling on a dusty floor hammering away on Coco-Cola bottle tops’ to create military medals for the modestly-budgeted theatre production (1987: 89). It was this adaptability and sense of adventure which saw her seek out directors and projects which stimulated her creatively.

She described working with Antonioni on Blow Up as ‘a real test of strength’ as the director wanted her to ‘predict fashion for two years ahead and create clothes which would be just verging on fashion when the film was released’ (1977). Rickards rose enthusiastically to the challenge, visiting the Paris fashion houses to research the latest developments in fabrics. The director was deeply impressed by the results. He ‘went into ecstasies about my clothes’ the designer recalled, and said ‘I should have got an Oscar’ (1977).

Jocelyn Rickards (b1924-d2005) is one Costume Designer I am currently researching. Rickards designed costumes for 17 films between 1958 and 1971 and was Oscar-nominated for her work on Morgan, A Suitable Case for Treatment (1966, dir. Karel Reisz). Australian born Rickards studied art at East Sydney Technical College and emigrated to London in 1949 which she described as ‘the real beginning of my life’. Her entry into the film industry came through theatre. In 1952 she helped the theatrical designer Loudon Sainthill produce a series of sketches for a proposed film version of The Tempest. The film was never made but it introduced Rickards to working collaboratively; a process she found exciting after what she described as the ‘lonelier business of pure painting’ (1987: 41). During the 1950s she extended her experience in costume design for film and theatre, working as Roger Furse’s assistant on The Prince and the Showgirl (1957), designing the costumes for the stage musical Expresso Bongo (1958) and recreating the designs of the legendary Irene Sharaff for the British premiere of West Side Story (1958).

Source: ABDG

Rickards was meticulous in her preparation without being slavishly wedded to verisimilitude. Her design process started with scribbles on sheets of semi-transparent paper which she would refine through multiple drafts into a final ink and watercolour drawing which was accompanied by extensive annotations and meticulous instructions about cut, finishing, and seams (1987: 88). Always adaptable, she found clothes for actors in theatrical skips and borrowed a cotton overall from her Irish housekeeper when dressing Irene Handl for her part in Morgan.

She was acutely aware of the power of costume design, describing the capacity of well-designed clothes to ‘carry within them a number of messages, like what kind of school the character went to, what newspapers he or she reads, what political affiliations he has, what his sexual inclinations are, whether or not his financial position is secure – and if insecure whether or not he cares’ (1987: 58). It was this highly-tuned degree of visual literacy and character analysis - developed initially through her training as a painter and then shaped by her many productive links with the intellectual avant-garde – which made Rickards a much sought-after talent in the industry.

The designer suffered a bout of serious ill-health in the 1970s and, coupled with a downturn in the fortunes of the British film industry, this saw her refocus her creative attention on painting. She published a memoir in 1987 and later taught costume design at the University of Southern California, exporting the experience she had gained in the British film industry to a new generation of American design students.

Bringing the Costume Designer into the historical picture is not a straightforward proposition. The work done by women can too often be invisible because archival collections prioritise directors, which privilege the work of men. Film costume seems especially difficult to fit within existing archival collections. In the British context the BFI’s costume collection transferred to the V&A museum in 2012-13, a move which suggests how costume design - and women’s creative work - can be seen as tangential to film history. As research on the ‘Women’s Work’ project progresses I’ll keep updating this resource on other materials and sources which help bring this neglected area of scholarship into view.

© Melanie Bell

Jocelyne Rickards winning the British Costume Design BAFTA Award for her work in Mademoiselle in 1968

Source: BAFTA

Carolyn Hutchings (right) and Jean Hunnisett (left) having a Costume fitting with Glenda Jackson for the BBC TV series Elizabeth R (1971).

© Elizabeth Waller, not to be reproduced without permission.