“During the preparation of it I thought I’ll never work again. This is never ever going to happen, this is never going to be ready…” Costume director Michael O’Connor on his Oscar-winning work for The Duchess.
Hearing first-hand from award-winning costume designer Michael O’Connor about the level of detail that typifies his work – from opulent Regency ball scenes to Tudor family life and 90s war zones – has been eye-opening.
After starting his career as a dresser at the Old Vic, Michael moved into film and TV – winning an Oscar and a BAFTA for his work on The Duchess, starring Keira Knightley as Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire.
He was also Oscar-and BAFTA-nominated for Cary Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre, starring Michael Fassbender and Mia Wasikowska; and The Invisible Woman, directed by and starring Ralph Fiennes.
Recent films include All Is True, Kenneth Branagh’s witty take on Shakespeare’s last years with his family in Stratford; Tulip Fever, where the incredible costumes told a story of status, age and also fun among the tulip auctions and personal dramas of 17th century Amsterdam; and A Private War, about the journalist Marie Colvin. (Check out images from his films here.)
We talked enormous hats (and why some actors don’t like them), how to make a ruff, and whether London ever runs out of period costumes…
Sarah: I saw All Is True a couple of weeks ago and I really loved it. It’s very small scale compared to some of the films you worked on though, like Tulip Fever or The Duchess. Do you like swapping between these very big films and little intimate things? Because Kenneth Branagh really made it under the radar, didn’t he?
Michael O’Connor: It sort of came out of the blue. I’d worked with Ken many years ago and then suddenly I got a call saying would I go and see him, and he said, you know, if you’re interested… well of course I’m not going to say no. Yeah, very interested! And then we were up and running.
He was very clear. It was going to be very, very quick. We weren’t allowed to mention it at all. And it was going to be made, and edited and finished within three, four weeks of filming.
We only had four weeks to prepare. Our feet never touched the ground. It’s quite a strong period, and there’s lots of things going on in it. Lots of trims and buttons and braids and things like that, and lots of dyeing and ageing, and embroidery. So all that had to be done really, really quickly.
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How big of a team would you have on something like that?
There were makers in various parts of the country, because at short notice not many people are available. So you have to find the ones that are available, and a lot of them tend to be – weirdly – on the south coast: Hastings, St Leonards on Sea, Brighton and places like that. So there’s quite a lot of backwards and forwards on trains and bikes and cars.
The puritan hats in All Is True became a bit of obsession with me. Obviously these clothes, they’re telling a heightened story, even more than they would in real life, but the hats – it was almost like the more religious you were the bigger your Puritan hat had to be.
Yeah, they are real. They’re even taller than the ones we had. There are portraits: the famous one is Joan Alleyn, and there’s a picture of James I wearing a really tall hat. It’s practically two-foot tall. [James I from the National Portrait Gallery]
Are these ones that you had to make or did you hire them in?
No, we made them. All that stuff is made. And the good thing was that Kenneth Branagh – he’s not very keen on hats, you know, a lot of actors aren’t – when it came to [Sir Thomas] Lucy and his wife, he said, you know, you can go for it at that moment. Really go for it. And even when we were making that hat, we reduced it by about an inch and a half.
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Why don’t actors like hats? Is it because it gets in the way of their expression?
I suppose it gets in the way of their faces a bit and they like to be recognised.
I think sometimes they want programmes to be intimate and accessible. And because people don’t wear hats these days they think that that means that you can’t relate to it. Whereas I take a completely opposite view, and think, but you’re escaping. You’re going into another time. And the way to believe you’re in that time is by the culture and the paraphernalia of that time.
It’s one of those things, actors – once you put the wig on, and the cap on – go “oh actually are people even going to know who I am?” Which sorts of takes away the point of having a famous actor, if you’re going to cover them up.
I also got quite obsessed with the ruffs you did for Tulip Fever. I thought the outfits were sensational in that film, partly because they look beautiful, but also what they say about the status and freedom of the different characters. But the ruffs were amazing. Was that a new thing for you?
It was a new thing, and I’d never done that period before. So it was exciting to me, but people on my team had done it before.
There’s a company called the School of Historical Dress in London, they came out of the Globe Theatre with Mark Rylance. The designer Jenny Tiramani [the School’s principal] used to design for the Globe when it first opened, when everything was cut and made in the authentic way; and she had gained lots of experience about ruffs.
I went down to meet her with my team to talk about ruffs, and I read up on them. There’s a book that they’ve published about ruffs and how to make them, the types of linen they were made from.
It’s fascinating. People used to have ruffs made and obviously, as you say, it’s a status symbol because you have to to (a) buy the linen and (b) make it white, you have to bleach it out on the field in Amsterdam – and then you have to stitch it, then starch it and shape it.
And you used to shape it by getting a length of card and making all these squiggles. As you saw in Tulip Fever, you could do loads of different shapes and squiggles. And you used to work it all out in card on a piece of board, and then you would send it to the starcher.
The starcher would set it like that, then you could wash all the starch out the next day and have the same piece of material in a completely different shape if you wanted.
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Did you make one yourself?
I didn’t, no. But I was introduced to people who knew expertly how to do this thing. And the principal ruffs were all made by hand. Some of them are metres and metres long, all stitched by hand.
It must make people walk differently. They look like they must change your posture.
Yes they do.
If they’re heavy, do they kind of entrap you?
They’re not heavy at all; they’re supported by a wire frame. I don’t know if you noticed in All Is True, you see when Thomas Lucy turns around. Or in Tulip Fever you see it when they’re standing for their portrait, Christoph Waltz’s character has this metal frame at the back of his ruff – that’s called a rebato.
You used to have to put that around your neck and it sat on top of your doublet. And then in order for the ruff to stay at that angle, like a millstone, to be up at the back and down at the front, it would have to be supported by a little metal frame.
When you’re dressing actors and actresses, who haven’t worked in a period before, it must be quite an eye opener for them. Whenever I see a new Jane Austen adaptation I always feel sorry for these poor girls who are going to be freezing running around these rectories in these little muslin dresses.
Well apparently in that early Regency decade, winters were very mild. And the point of those dresses are that they’re so sheer – they used to wet them before they went out so they would cling to the body, so they would look like a Greek/Roman statue.
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What’s it like for these actresses when you first dress them in these cumbersome outfits?
Some of them really love it and embrace it. The actress who plays Susanna Hall in All Is True [Lydia Wilson], she’d never worked in period before and she said this is the most amazing thing ever, I love everything. So they loved them in All Is True.
It was a bit more complicated in Tulip Fever because they don’t want to be encumbered.
Some actors will embrace it. Some actors will use it, and it helps them find the character or it helps them feel part of it.
Ralph Fiennes is a perfect example – when we did The Invisible Woman, all of that aspect of it, bonnets, crinolines, lace, all that stuff, he loved to see it, because it made him feel like he was there. It makes you feel like you’re part of it.
Whereas a lot of actors go “oh it’s all unnecessary and it’s all costume talking too much”. Whereas I think it’s just clothes, but from a different era. That’s all it is to me. The real clothes from a different era.
When you read a story you want to go “where are we?” That’s the first thing you ask, “where are we?” And you go “you’re in London”. And when? And you go “1840”.
Do you have a favourite genre or period that you like to work in or is there any area where you think, I haven’t done that yet but I’d really like to get my teeth into it?
Well all the periods I haven’t done I’d like to do, basically. But I don’t have a favourite one. I did a modern film last year called A Private War, with Rosamund Pike, about the journalist [Marie Colvin] who was killed. Now that is as engrossing as doing a period film, because you’re recreating something, and you’re finding a character.
You’re looking at pictures from 15 years ago. So we would have knitwear reproduced that this woman wore. You’re having uniform camouflage printed to match the country she was in, because you can’t buy it.
So it’s still the same level of detail and it’s as rewarding as the period film.
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Things change so quickly now with modern fashion. You can really set an era with a very small period of time now through what people were wearing, can’t you?
The thing is, fashion is changing: it’s sort of gradual, then you look back and you say “God did I really look like that?”
But the same happens in the past in a way. In the Victorian era, every decade something changed radically about fashion and costume. I mean, it changes gradually but when you look back, you take 10 years, you go “oh it’s quite different. I see the difference now”.
Funnily enough hair is the thing that gives time its essence almost more than clothing; because hair does change. Sometimes the disappointing thing is that you do period costume and people want to do modern hair and you go “that is never going to work”.
You look back at pictures of your parents and you think “god, your hair like that…” and at the time people don’t think of it. They just think it’s part of the way we look now, and it dates.
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I watched The Duchess again this morning, and the hair, the wigs, they balanced out the massive wide dresses, don’t they?
Absolutely. And then when you get to just before the revolution and it starts becoming frizzy and then it has these ringlets – whereas before it’s all high up and Georgian, with the hats just resting on top of the front of it. It balances out the back of the dress and the polonaise.
With that film the fashions change a lot. They start off so elaborate with the satins and the panniers. And then by the end it’s almost like they’re moving towards, still expensive but a plainer, more milkmaid-y type look, with the little sprigged flowers…
It’s called robe a la chemise, it’s supposed to be like a slave’s dress. That was the fashion. I mean, the actual Queen of France was dressing in a fashionable way, like a Caribbean slave.
Or playing being a country maid – that’s why you get all those lovely little floral prints, when in The Duchess [Georgiana] goes to have her baby and wears those beautiful linen floral prints.
That dress she’s wearing, that scene absolutely broke me when she gives the baby away and she’s wearing this beautiful, quite simple dress, maternal almost, because it’s not all frothy.
It’s supposed to be a simple country moment. The theme for me in The Duchess was to make those two women very sisterly. [Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, played by Keira Knightley, and Bess Foster, played by Hayley Attwell]
So at the beginning you see Bess in brown and you see the Duchess in blue, and by the end they’ve reversed colours.
But in the middle at one point, when they’re playing cards, they’re wearing exactly the same – so they cross over gradually, and that was the plan.
I’ve seen that film a number of times and my advice is never go and see it with a new mother. Because it’s happened twice to me where we’ve come out of the screening and she’s been in tears.
You can’t watch that film when that baby is being handed over.
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It’s brutal! The Duchess was so massive in terms of the scale, the ball scenes, things like that. Was there ever a point where you thought “what have I taken on?”
Yes all the way through! During the preparation of it I thought I’ll never work again. This is never ever going to happen. This is never going to be ready. Everything was ready the night before, sometimes at 2 o’clock in the morning.
It started off with an empty truck with a few dresses and by the end of the film you couldn’t even move in there. Because we just didn’t have enough preparation time. But Keira [Knightley] was so trusting and such a great collaborator that it worked.
At the end was it euphoria or was it a bit deflating?
There’s always a slight come-down at the end. Because you think “well, what do I do now?” You’ve not stopped for four months. We went from a very hot summer to a cold November and from a very full busy thing to an empty room.
And you never know when a film that you are working on is [going to be] a very successful film and look great or not. The elements: the music, the editing, the lighting, the production design, the acting, direction, you’re just one small part of it.
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I really liked that The Duchess had a maternity dress in, which is something you don’t really see much. Which is odd when you think of how much of life then was about about producing the right baby.
Yes there’s one when she’s playing cards at night, when she goes into labour. And she has a fur stole. And there’s one when she’s introduced to the duke’s daughter and she’s got a maternity dress on there.
I guess you’re hiring a lot of costumes in for ball scenes etc. Does London ever run out of costumes? What do you do if another film is being made at the same time?
A lot of those costumes weren’t even hired in London, they were hired in Rome, for the extras.
There’s not enough stuff. And there’s always people doing the same period so you always end up with limited stock.
When all the second world war films came out a couple of years ago, the Churchill films and Their Finest, I did wonder if London was going to run out of starched collars. And vintage typewriters.
Exactly. It is like that. At the moment we’re doing an 1840s film and someone’s doing a film in America set in the same date. And we’re now waiting for [costume stock] to come back so we can rifle through it for crowd costumes.
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You started off as a theatre dresser at the Old Vic. Is that a common route in?
I think mostly people go to art college and do a fashion design degree or a costume design degree. I’ve got two trainees working with me now. They are in their early 20s and they’ve not long graduated. On every job you get trainees and they normally come from that route.
If you’re watching a film, just for enjoyment, can you really sink in to it? Or are you always thinking is that brocade right, what about that trim…
It does tend to cloud your view. You watch something like Mary Queen of Scots and you are really focusing on what it looks like because it is so amazing. You can’t help but notice it. And then someone changes into something else, then something else. You think, I’ve got 45 minutes into this film and I’m not too sure what anyone’s said.
It’s very hard to separate your view out of it. I do it because it’s in my business – but I’m a believer that the costume shouldn’t be the thing that takes you away from the story, it should enhance the story.
I read that the Mary Queen of Scots costumes [by costume designer Alexandra Byrne] deliberately aren’t all historically accurate. They’re saying something, but they’re not necessarily using materials that would have been used at the time.
You know, it’s not nice to watch things where there are too many inaccuracies and it’s just because people haven’t really looked at it or understood it.
It’s different when you stylise something like Mary Queen of Scots and you say I’m looking at that period, but I’m deciding to do it all in denims and cottons, and I’ve taken aspects of the embroidery and I’ve placed it there for a reason. And if seamlessly it’s like that from the start to the finish, and it’s beautifully executed, then it’s design. Which makes it great.
But if it’s all haphazard, and one minute it looks real and next minute it looks modern, and all the laces are from different dates and the shapes of the dresses are all different because nobody knew, that’s not very pleasurable.
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The Academy got themselves into a real pickle with the Oscars this year, announcing they were going to take some craft categories out in the telecast, and then putting them back in.
Apparently the craft branches were asked themselves if they agreed to it and they did, which I was surprised by.
Because it takes away from the importance of those elements that make the film great, especially, I mean cinematography, and hair and make-up, and editing. They’re crucial to making the film. So why would you not allow them?
If you’re at the Oscars, it goes on for a long time. It’s an odd situation so I suppose they just wanted to make it snappier.
The thing is, it’s so nice to be nominated because you’re nominated by your peers. It’s not like it’s people who don’t know, it’s people who appreciate it or respect it. Even though it’s very nerve-wracking having to go up because you’re not a public person like an actor, and you realise that there’s a billion people watching, you’re very, very grateful and happy to be called.
Though it’s very glamorous, it’s also quite serious – I never ever thought it would happen to me and then it did and it changed my career.
I got so many opportunities and you just think “I could’ve just been doing these small television things and never ever be asked to do anything of significance”.
I was a judge last year, at a short film festival – but it really does change how you look at film. And the responsibility is actually really big, isn’t it?
You know, I take it very seriously, because it’s very important to people – that could be a career-changing moment for someone there. So you must watch all the contenders and you must judge honestly.
I had to narrow down foreign language films for the Oscars one year. And that took a whole weekend, with a big panel with famous actors and directors. We all had to watch them together; we weren’t allowed to view them separately.
And I’ve taken part in a European film award which was 50 films. It’s very difficult, and also you feel, this is someone’s chance, this is really important to them; and I found that too much responsibility! But then you realise how important it is.
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Some of Michael O’Connor’s finest (cinema) hours
Some of Michael O’Connor’s finest (cinema) hours
Interview edited for length and clarity.