The costume designer (1950s-1970s)

Location : London

Although Elizabeth wanted to be a fashion designer she became a costume designer for theatre and the BBC where she worked on many iconic shows of the 1950s and ’60s, researching period costume and looking after the wardrobe staff while filming. 

Starting out

I left art school in Oxford with my qualification, which was not quite a degree but  nonetheless a nice piece of paper to have. I wanted to be a fashion illustrator but couldn’t get a job anywhere as I had not been trained in the commercial aspects of fashion design at my art school  So when I was 19 or 20 I went to work in a dress shop in Oxford instead, selling clothes directly to customers. After a while I changed course and went to a very expensive beauty school in Sloane Street London, took a Diploma in Beauty Culture, passed the exams and became a fully qualified beautician. I then went to work for a very big hair salon in the West End. I stayed for two years but still yearned to get into fashion, so I decided that somehow I was going to find a way to get back into it. I lived in all sorts of bedsits at the time just getting by, and I cannot remember how much I was paid at those jobs as it seems such a long time ago. None of my friends or family were anywhere near me as I was in London and they were mostly living in Oxford. I was offered a job at Wollands Brothers store in Knightsbridge. It was the most elegant store in Knightsbridge and was absolutely amazing. They held very splendid fashion shows and had fashion collections displayed there which I used to help with. It doesn’t exist any more [it was next door to Harvey Nichols and closed in 1967].

I had a friend in London who I’d been at art school with, and she was working in Covent Garden for a company making headdresses. After I’d been at Wollands for what seemed ages she suddenly contacted me and said ‘there’s a job going in the West End, in theatre, it’s for a firm called Alex Shanks Stage Costumes Ltd and it’s in Garrick Street’. Well, Covent Garden at that time had two costume companies, one that goes away and one that stays at home! And a theatre wanted to duplicate the whole of the Swan Lake costumes for the company that were performing away and the one that was resident there. So would I be interested? I foolishly gave in my notice and went to see Alex Shanks, who incidentally was quite a famous producer as well as a costumier. He was just on the verge of going away with another travelling company and I got the job but ended up sitting in an empty office with just a dress stand for company. The entire wardrobe for the production of Swan Lake, all the costumes, headdresses and jewellery were brought in to me where I sat for three weeks to a month copying them all in detail so that they could be refitted in Alex Shanks’ work room for the second company. While I was there a very famous woman designer Beatrice Dawson came in one day and spotted some of my drawings. She suggested that I move on to television as colour TV had just started and costume design was becoming very important. So I took my portfolio and was interviewed at the Television Centre in Wood Lane. It was a vast place and I had to be interviewed in front of a panel, but I was offered a job in costume design!

Working at the BEEB

To start with I had to trail round the big costume department and it was very big! There were the stock rooms, then the ‘wardrobe area’ where all the rails of clothes for different productions were kept, and finally the filming area where you dressed the performers who were ready to go for filming. I had a week or two shadowing others there and was then sent to Lime Grove Studios on a three week course where they taught me how to use colour for Colour TV which was still quite new at that time. I was then given my first show to work on and this frightened me somewhat. It was Eric Sykes and Hattie Jacques and there was some local outside filming attached to it. The production assistant said to me, ‘Oh, it’s a piece of cake.’ But this was my first show, and my first studio work by myself. I worked until 10 at night when the recording finished. It was only once a week but this was my introduction to the BBC.

For a long time I worked on modern series and things like that. They then gave me ‘Little Women’. There were names in this that nobody would know now as it was so long ago. An actress called Angela Down was quite popular, and the mother was played by a woman called Stephanie Bidmead, who I believe died quite young. Martin Jarvis was in it also and he’s quite a well known name now. There was a lot of costume making and designing to do. It was my first really big design programme and I went away on location with them in Dorset. Now when taking costumes, especially period costumes away for filming, you had to have your wits about you in case you left anything behind. You couldn’t knock on a door and ask for a bonnet! And we were also away for one or two weeks at a time. So this was my first big period production. I was there for twenty five years and I worked on some enormous things! There was a programme called ‘Churchill’s People’, very heavy and very intellectual, and I worked on every other episode. The first episode started in AD43 and the following ones continued on covering the centuries. What an experience!

Of course we also used some costumes that we didn’t actually design. There were enormous scenes which we would hire in costumes for. We also had to acquire the help of a lot of outside dressmakers and jewellers. Costumiers were all over the place and we had our favourites. The last programme that I was involved with that people might remember was ‘The Duchess of Duke Street’ which was a period serial with somebody called Gemma Jones playing the lead. I enjoyed that enormously and had fun things to do. I worked with ‘The Goodies’ which was immensely popular and we all had a wonderful time. We would be away on location a lot and Bill, Tim and Graham were marvellous people. Everyone got to know each other in light entertainment and we got up to all sorts of things.

I got married and carried on working for another two years and before I took early retirement. But I changed my mind again and applied for another job and became the drama script assessor at the costume department. All drama serials and play departments sent me the scripts of the programmes they were intending to produce, and I had to assess what it was going to cost them for wardrobe and how many staff including designers and assistants were going to be needed.

I would have to estimate how many dressers would be needed. There would be armies of dressers working on your production. Every star was allocated a dresser. I had to decide whether a programme warranted assistants, and there were a lot of female assistants whose ambition was, of course, to become designers. Probably many of them thought they were a darn sight better than me. But I could obviously only be given the minimum people to employ. I worked on a series called ‘The Spies’ which ran for a long time. We filmed in Malta for a month and I was only allowed one male assistant, so I did the women assistant bit myself. I had a month’s annual leave, as it was called, and if you were ultra successful you could get special awards  for merit, long service or what you’d done to help. I got a travel award for my work and I had to say where I wanted to go and was given a month’s paid leave. I had to go and be interviewed by the powers that be and it was decided that I’d get three weeks instead! I decided to tour cathedral cities and they approved of that. So that was nice, three weeks pay and a holiday. I also got one or two special awards for service to the BBC and they were monetary

Looking back

I had a pretty good general knowledge but for a place like Oxford you would think it should have been better. I studied all sorts of things like architecture and pottery whilst at Oxford Art School, because after all I stayed for six years in total. Although the teaching was good the woman who was in charge of the costume area was an absolute fuddy-duddy. It was fashion that I was really into at that time of my tuition, and I felt that what I finally landed up in was very poor. But my ability must have been there naturally, because I got no training from that particular tutor but a lot of outside experience in working for shops like Wollands. I went to the British Museum, and mostly did my research through books and libraries, so my general knowledge of historical costume was pretty good. I didn’t have too much trouble with research, except when I worked on something like ‘Churchill’s People’ which went back to AD 43. Some things did take more research than others but my favourites were always the Victorian era, and Edwardian in particular. I didn’t care much for the 20s! I could design that without doing too much research if I was doing a show set in that period. I would say though that the majority of things I did were set around about that time.

‘Kean’ however was set back in the 1700s, so I had to do a fair amount of research on that and it came mostly from books. There weren’t many places at that time that you could get a lot of information from so one had to hunt the libraries. I have enjoyed my working life enormously, but once I got into theatre I knew I’d arrived. No matter how glamorous it seemed Wollands was just shop work and as soon as I got to Alex Shanks Stage Costumes I felt I was home. I had wasted a lot of time between art school and getting there by working in shops and beauty but I suddenly thought ‘this is it.’ I settled in very quickly and felt very at home. When I was at Alex Shanks I used to do a lot of work with Covent Garden and went into a lot of theatres making their costumes but it was still not designing. However I would sketch for myself what I thought they should have made. My boss was a producer of musical shows and he used to do a big show at Blackpool every season. I would go there with him to help put that on, and various other theatres where he put plays on. All very enjoyable, and I always felt quite relaxed as I did in television, once I’d gotten over that first show. Of course you’re always worried and I was a terrible one for that. But overall it was good and I enjoyed everything. I look back upon it with great fondness and I made life-long friends there and met some very dear people.

Elizabeth (1931-2012) talking to WISEArchive on 24th January 2008 in Hindolveston.

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