When, in 2016, Jenny Beavan received her 10th Academy Award nomination – which was swiftly converted into her second Oscar win – the media might reasonably have marvelled at how the costume designer, a Merchant Ivory veteran, had proved just as adept at fashioning the post-apocalyptic fetish clobber of Mad Max: Fury Road as she had with rustling up Austen-era empire lines.
Instead, Beavan found herself at the centre of one of the great non-stories of the 21st century.
A clip of Alejandro González Iñárritu, director of The Revenant, with his arms folded as the costume designer made her way towards the podium became visual shorthand for imagined outrage. We were told the crowd was looking down its collective nose at her allegedly unconventional garb. Were they?
Beavan had already caused a stir by accepting a Bafta in a comfy frock; Stephen Fry compared her (with genuine affection) to a bag lady. Now, she had won an Oscar wearing flat shoes and a leather jacket from Marks & Spencer. Iñárritu quite reasonably protested that the clip was taken out of context and insisted that “Jenny Beavan is a masterful costume designer and very deserving of the Oscar for Mad Max: Fury Road”.
Ann Widdecombe, however, weighed in against Beavan. “Jenny Beavan is a rude woman,” she wrote in the Express. “She plainly could not be bothered, which is rude to her hosts and her fellow guests.”
Beavan responded to the crisis by, well, not responding. But the incident did, at least, shine a spotlight on one of the industry’s most admired and singular craftspeople. She now has genuine status as a great English eccentric of the age.
Cruella, a new origins story for Ms C de Vil, the chain-smoking, aspiring dog murderess from 101 Dalmatians, looks set to push Beavan once more into the limelight. Disney’s new summer tentpole is inspired by the character from Dodie Smith’s 1956 novel The Hundred and One Dalmatians, but it is, more accurately, a precursor to the 1996 live-action remake of Disney’s animated 1961 take on the novel (if that makes sense).
The new, 1970s-set film casts Emma Stone as Estella “Cruella” de Vil, a grifter and aspiring fashion designer, who, by day, is an apprentice to Emma Thompson’s Miranda Priestly-alike Baroness von Hellman, the intimidating head of a prestigious fashion empire.
By night, when she isn’t mucking around with her criminal buddies Jaspar and Horace, Cruella upstages the Baroness with a series of show-stopping, punk-inspired gowns – dresses that marry the DIY ingenuity of a young Vivienne Westwood with the classic lines favoured by John Galliano. The look, Beavan notes, was partly inspired by a photograph she saw of the great German punk diva Nina Hagen.
The sheer luck of a movie like this is that the costumes do a lot of your work for you. Once you put those things on, you feel like Cruella de Vil
“Fashion was omnipresent in this film,” says Craig Gillespie, director of Cruella. “So we got Academy Award-winner Jenny Beavan. She’s done it all. The Baroness is at the height of fashion in the 1970s. How is Cruella going to disrupt the establishment?”
Emma Stone knows the answer: “Fashion is Cruella’s tool for revenge.”
Beavan describes Cruella as the biggest project of her career, a film that required 47 spectacular costume changes for Stone and 33 for Thompson. Even Joel Fry and Paul Walter Hauser, amusing as Jaspar and Horace, each had 30 costumes. The scale was not matched by a preparation time that was truncated by Emma Stone’s late availability. Add to that a script that uses fashion not only as visual stand-off but as an important part of the story and characterisation.
“The sheer luck of a movie like this is that the costumes do a lot of your work for you,” says Stone. “Once you put those things on, you feel like Cruella de Vil. And to first see the entire look of Cruella? I have to admit I took a lot of pictures. It was a very narcissistic day, which is perfect for Cruella. Jenny has created something really special.”
In common with Mad Max: Fury Road, Beavan notes that Cruella isn’t her natural milieu. Costume design itself was not part of her plan. A graduate in set design from London’s Central School of Art and Design, Beavan, now 70, took an unpaid job designing costumes for a small Merchant Ivory production, a project that led to decades of work designing for director James Ivory. Fashion is more alien still.
“Fashion isn’t my thing,” Beavan admitted at a recent press event. “I’m a storyteller with clothes. Fashion is incidental. I always thought I was going to be a set designer in theatre. The costumes were always the second part of what I thought my career would be. But even though the whole fashion element of [Cruella] wasn’t me, I could take it on as a story.
“I was around in the ’70s. So I remember it from the first time around. I remember what people were wearing and there were some wonderful things that came back to me in the process of exploring wonderful photographs and fashion magazines from that time. And there was quite a dense script, and you see a complete arc of her journey – from being a young kid who’s rebellious and obviously enjoys clothes, to a fully fledged, very individual type of fashion designer.”
Beavan describes costume design as extremely collaborative. The costumier behind Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes, Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility and Robert Altman’s Gosford Park has, throughout her career, frequently called on Cosprop, a British costume-rental house run by the designer John Bright, who she credits with educating her about “the history and the politics of clothing”. The pair have worked together on A Room with a View, which earned Beavan her first Oscar, The Bostonians and The Remains of the Day.
For Cruella, she carefully names her newer collaborators, including the designer Ian Wallis – who, for a key scene, crafted one fabulous dress from another – and Kirsten Fletcher, a constructionist who incorporated an entire vehicle into one of Cruella’s dress trains. Beavan notes, too, the huge contribution made by the actors she dresses.
“I’ve worked with Emma Thompson since about 1980, so, you know, she is an old friend and still has the most wonderful figure,” says Beavan, who dressed Thompson on Sense and Sensibility. “You can see what her character should be, and so I worked with Jane Law, another extraordinary costume-maker, and we made some toiles, and took her up to do a fitting in Scotland. From that we found the shapes that wouldn’t really work. She’s got a great figure, so why not just make the most of it? The Baroness would have.
“The other Emma I’d never actually met before, but I’d heard wonderful things from a lot of people who worked on The Favourite and about what a great person she was and such a sport – which she certainly was, for some of the things she wore.”
Beavan says that much of her inspiration comes from people-watching, especially on the London Underground, where “...I manage to pretend I’m looking at my mobile phone and I sort of collect people, really.”
She also suggests that aspiring costume designers seek out a good education.
“I would suggest anyone who is interested go to one of the schools out there, be it in England, America – or there’s a very good one in Prague. I would suggest training in costume design through an art school. You’ll get a real range of skills where you learn all those arts like dyeing and fabric painting, and 3D printing, which is now a very useful thing. How you cut. How you pattern-cut. How you drape. The history of costume. All these things are incredibly good to know. I can cut and I can sew. I’m not the world’s greatest, but I can certainly re-back a waistcoat if needed.
I also think it's really good to work your way up from the bottom, learning what it feels like on set
“And then you mustn’t be grand. You must absolutely know you’re part of a team. If you want to do your own thing, and put your mark on things, be a fashion designer, don’t be a costume designer. You work in collaboration with the director’s vision you will have to fulfil. And if you don’t agree with it, then there’s no point in doing it. Then you’ve got the production designer and the make-up and hair – because that completes the look – to create a character.”
Listen carefully, aspirants. Jenny Beavan has done it all.
“I also think it’s really good to work your way up from the bottom, learning what it feels like on set. En route up to being, hopefully, a costume designer, you may find other things you prefer doing. You may prefer cutting. You may prefer being a textile artist and head of that department. You may prefer just being a brilliant fitter. That’s what I would suggest.”
Cruella is on Disney+ from May 28th