Drawing on new and established approaches to film costume, this article examines the creative work of the costume designer, contextualizing it as a gendered profession. It takes the career of the British film costume designer Julie Harris as its illustrative case study, tracing her working practice and sense of creative agency through interviews and press coverage as well as the BFI's extensive collection of her annotated costume sketches. Special emphasis is placed on Harris's negotiation of changing modes of postwar British film production, and her management of the professional tensions between costuming in the service of narrative or costuming as spectacle—in Stella Bruzzi's words, the dilemma of whether to look at or through the clothes on-screen. It culminates in a detailed analysis of Harris's Oscar-winning costume work for Darling (1965) and her ambivalence toward the youth-oriented off-the-rack fashions of the 1960s. In conclusion, it emphasizes the significance and complexity of the costume designer's creative labor, and the need for that work to be granted greater visibility.
Screen costume has become firmly established as a worthy object of academic study, following the publication of numerous scholarly monographs and edited collections devoted to the topic—a development connected in part to the broader expansion of fashion studies over the last few decades.1 The emphasis in these studies, however, has tended to fall more on the on-screen semiotics of costume and its function within the mise-en-scène than on the finer details of its creation and provenance. But given women's long-standing and continuing prominence within the field of costume design, and its common designation as a feminine specialization that is “considered ‘women's work’ whether practised by women or by men,” it is clear that this area offers especially productive territory for feminist film history and production studies to explore, given their shared priorities in recording and examining female film labor.2
The work that has already been undertaken in this area has suggested that the gendering of costume design as feminine has entailed lower status and prestige for its exponents. The costume designer (and historian, activist, and advocate for the profession) Deborah Nadoolman Landis cites the example of the omission of costume designers from the film listings in the magazine of the Directors Guild of America, despite the analogous posts of cinematographer, production designer, and editor all being included in its credits, as proof of the industry's “nefarious gender bias” and argues that this kind of creative invisibility has a direct correspondence with the lower pay costume designers can expect to earn. The base salary for a costume designer in Hollywood today, she says, is nearly one-third less than an entering production designer, while internationally “the weekly wage of the costume designer does not approach the minimums of the cinematographer, production designer and editor.”3 As the production studies scholar Miranda J. Banks suggests, evidence such as this suggests how costume “is devalued in relation to professions of, arguably, comparable import that are majority male.”4 It is important that feminist film scholarship works to overturn the marginalization, devaluation, and invisibility of women's work, including in the realm of costume, and this research is animated by that imperative.
This article focuses on a case study of the multi-award-winning British costume designer Julie Harris (1921–2015), plotting and analyzing traces of her creative labor through a variety of primary sources, most notably Harris's annotated costume sketches held in the special collections of the BFI National Archive, the films to which she contributed, promotional and publicity materials, press coverage of her work, and interviews with her, in which she frequently reflected on the job's satisfactions and frustrations, both major and minor. Harris was memorably described in a 1956 newspaper article as “the girl you don't see … the girl whose job it is to make other women look their best.”5 It is the aim of this article to render the woman and her work more fully visible, not only in terms of their own inherent interest, which is considerable, but also as a way of providing more broadly applicable insights into costume design as a professional endeavor in postwar British cinema. Along the way it will shed light on a whole cohort of “girls you don't see” doing vital work creating screen costumes that are both spectacular and surreptitious in their effects. It is particularly interesting to note that while there have been survey books on other key professions in British cinema, including volumes on editors, cinematographers, and production designers, to date an equivalent volume on British costume designers has yet to appear.6 Thinking back to Nadoolman Landis's comparisons of the prestige attached to different areas of film work, and Banks's observation that costume design is devalued in comparison with majority-male professions, it seems that the marginal place accorded to costume design in the writing of British film history is just another symptom of the gendered invisibility affecting costume design labor that seems to manifest across both industrial and critical contexts.
Despite Harris's diverse six-decade career, this article will focus on the 1960s, concluding with a detailed account of her Oscar-winning work for Darling (1965). The reason for this focus is twofold. First, Harris's reputation remains inextricably bound up with that decade, as in Brian McFarlane's paradigmatic summary of her career: that “she not only got an Oscar for Darling but also dressed the Beatles twice.”7 These details were reemphasized in the obituaries for Harris in 2015, prioritizing her work during this period and its entanglement with contemporary fashion and the “swinging London” phenomenon. Her work is of pivotal importance to that moment in which British fashion and British film, and sometimes the two intertwined, enjoyed unprecedented international visibility, as exemplified by films such as Darling, Help! (1965), and Casino Royale (1967), all costumed by Harris and each, in their differing ways, prioritizing style as an essential component of the diegesis. Secondly, the 1960s was also the decade by which, according to Sue Harper, “women's dominance of costume design was complete” in the British film industry, with Harris doing distinguished work alongside peers such as Yvonne Blake, Phyllis Dalton, Beatrice Dawson, Margaret Furse, and Jocelyn Rickards.8 The growing prestige of British costume designers during this period is signaled by their Oscar success, with the more senior figure Elizabeth Haffenden winning twice in the 1960s (in 1960 for Ben Hur and 1967 for A Man for All Seasons), Margaret Furse winning for Anne of the Thousand Days in 1970, and in between the annus mirabilis of 1966, in which Harris won the award for best black-and-white costume design for Darling and Phyllis Dalton won for her work in color on Doctor Zhivago. Because it saw women gain critical mass in the profession as well as major international acclaim, this decade offers especially fertile ground for an exploration of costume design in the British context, and women's essential input therein.
HOW JULIE HARRIS DID HER WORK, AND HOW SHE FELT ABOUT IT
Despite Nadoolman Landis's persuasive case for screen costuming being seen as a feminine preserve, not to mention the presence of several important female costume designers such as Edith Head, Irene, and Helen Rose in the Hollywood studio era, it is nonetheless the case that men initially dominated the profession, and the notion of the “costume designer as style Svengali” tended to hinge upon a male artist incarnating a female star's image (Jane Gaines cites the examples of Travis Banton and Marlene Dietrich, Orry-Kelly and Bette Davis, and Adrian and Joan Crawford).9 In Britain, the only female costume designers working in film during the 1930s appear to have been Doris Zinkeisen and the somewhat misleadingly named Gordon Conway, and it was only in the 1940s that women such as Elizabeth Haffenden began to make headway.10
Julie Harris's entry into the profession occurred in the mid-1940s. After training as a commercial artist at the Chelsea College of Arts in the 1930s and then working for a court dressmaker just before the war (making white dresses for debutantes), Harris was keen to work in films and sent some speculative sketches to Gainsborough Studios while she was still doing her wartime service in the ATS. In her own words, “even before [she] got demobbed” she was taken on as one of several assistants to Haffenden, who was by then the studio's chief costume designer, alongside fellow future costume designers Joan Ellacott and Phyllis Dalton.11 Harris worked on the Niccolò Paganini biopic The Magic Bow (1946), later graduating to solo designer on Gainsborough's contemporary drama Holiday Camp (1947), and doing striking work creating glamorous evening wear for the heroine of Good Time Girl (1948, fig. 1).
During the 1950s Harris rose to become the Rank Organisation's lead designer, responsible for making costumes not only for the studio's films but also for its stars' personal appearances. This most famously included the concoction of Diana Dors's faux-mink bikini, which garnered huge amounts of publicity at the 1955 Venice film festival despite Harris's disapproval of such an inelegant outfit: “horrid little furry job” is how she described it years later.12 As befitting someone who remembered being “brought up in the film fan era of Carole Lombard and Joan Crawford, and Irene Dunne coming down the stairs singing ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’ swathed in white fox,”13 Harris was especially drawn to creating opulent women's costumes, clearly stating in one interview: “I like really glamorous clothes.”14 She also admitted that she had never quite mastered drawing male figures and that in any case designing women's clothes, in her view, afforded her far greater opportunities for creativity than costuming men, a task which tended to be “all administration really” and shopping to order, rather than what she saw as the more satisfying work of bespoke design.15 This is reflected in the BFI's Julie Harris sketch collection, in which the women's costumes vastly outnumbers the men's.
Given her love of glamour, it is little wonder that her delicately drawn and painted costume sketches are things of beauty—indeed, works of art in their own right, not merely working templates for future costume design but subtle moments of drama and characterization. Each one bears the authorial imprimatur of Harris's signature. Their materiality is also crucial, particularly the originals with fabric swatches attached, a feature that cannot be replicated in quite the same way in digital form. The sketches present some interesting interpretive challenges, partly because of the tendency identified by Sue Harper and Vincent Porter for film and television historians to feel more comfortable “scour[ing] through archives for empirical data” while “tend[ing] to ignore each medium's visual qualities,” a problem deriving “in part with the difficulty of finding an appropriate verbal language with which to discuss” the latter.16 In the specific case of Harris's sketches, it may also have something to do with the seductive visual pleasure they offer; it feels more fitting to swoon and covet than to try to analyze.
A very elegant and attractive woman herself—it was often noted that she possessed “a film-star face”17—Harris also became an occasional style commentator and arbiter of sartorial good taste in the 1950s, dispensing advice from her “brain full of fashion wisdom”18 to the likes of Girl Film and Television Annual's teenage readers (fig. 2).19 Once her contract with Rank elapsed as the company's operations contracted in the 1960s, Harris successfully shifted to freelance work. The loss of regular employment and ready use of Pinewood's excellent wardrobe facility, with its stock costumes and equipment, was compensated for by greater freedom to schedule assignments according to her own wishes: “I prefer to work inconsistently,” she said in 1967. “I like a good break between films.”20 Nonetheless she remained very busy throughout the 1960s, working on more than twenty-five film productions as well as doing small amounts of stage and television work. Her BAFTA nominations for Psyche 59 (1964), Help!, and Casino Royale, her win for her Victorian-period work on The Wrong Box (1966), and her aforementioned 1966 Academy Award were highlights of a busy decade, providing palpable evidence of her preeminence within the field, both domestically and internationally.
In some ways, costume design, whose end product is very visible on screen, does not immediately appear to fit in with Sally Potter's observation that women's work in film usually comes within the category of “invisible labour.”21 It is much easier to see how Potter's argument applies to a majority-female area of film labor such as continuity or script supervision, which very obviously “hinges on invisibility, noticed only if it is not done properly via continuity errors which render visible the processes of film-making that should ordinarily be invisible.”22 Practitioners of this kind of work are often torn between relishing their invisibility, the subtlety of art-concealing-art, and wanting proper recognition for the extensive effort that goes into the appearance of seamlessness. This is where some parallels with costume design become apparent. In industry discourses, exemplary design for the screen is seen to be self-effacing, aiming to obliterate signs of its labor, as Miranda J. Banks suggests: “If a costume is not right, and a viewer notices this, this extra-textual recognition pulls viewers out of the narrative, reminding them of the industrial production of the image.”23 Likewise, Nadoolman Landis outlines the role's creative imperatives thus: “A successful costume must be … woven seamlessly into the narrative and visual tapestry of the movie…. Costumes, like the characters they embody, must evolve within the context of the story and the arc of the character within it.”24 Or in the words of Julie Harris's contemporary, the costume designer Anthony Mendleson: “It was design for a character, always.”25 But this therefore creates a recurrent tension between the principle of costumes working solely as “functionaries of the narrative” and their potential to move beyond mere characterization and become “spectacular interventions that interfere with the scenes in which they appear”—the crucial question of “whether to look at or through the clothes,” as Stella Bruzzi puts it.26 Harris's feelings about the professional demand for narrative and characterization to be prioritized, over and above costume's spectacular potential, shifted over time, as can be traced through her changing position in interviews.
There is certainly ample evidence of Harris's adherence to the orthodoxy of costume being “handmaiden to the story,” as she espoused it in several interviews, while showing a clear-eyed awareness of where this placed the designer in the production hierarchy:
In designing for films, there are fundamental priorities. In Miss Harris's order of importance, these are the script, the character, the director's requirements, the actor's likes and dislikes, the art director's opinions, the action. “Last of all,” says Miss Harris ruefully, “comes what the designer would like.”27
Script and character figure in paramount position, but in working toward the objective of creating believable on-screen people, the costume designer's input, and her or his collaboration and consultation with other key creative personnel, are clearly also vital. This creative back-and-forth is reflected in the running order Harris described for her workflow:
The first thing you do is read the script…. I do a breakdown of the number of costume changes, and what kinds of clothes are needed. Then it's discussed with the director and producer. And probably the artistic director too…. Then probably you make sketches.28
Given the importance of harmonious collaboration, it is clear from her statements in later interviews how much Harris valued mutual trust among the creative team, often built up through successive projects: “It's nice working with the same people because you learn how their thinking goes, and they have confidence in you.”29
As Harris suggests, a central part of the costume designer's creative process is the drawing up of sketches to provide an idea of how a character might be dressed in a particular scene, sometimes offering alternative versions to be selected according to the preferences of the director, art director, and star. Harris frequently stated that she was happy to adapt costumes in line with a star's preferences, and to design to flatter. She happily disregarded strict Regency period authenticity so that Melina Mercouri's figure could be shown off to best advantage in The Gypsy and the Gentleman (1958), and did likewise for Lauren Bacall in the Edwardian-set North West Frontier (1959). Similar considerations are observable in some of Harris's sketch annotations, as with the note on a sketch for Samantha Eggar in Psyche 59—“Hat style to be agreed with Miss Eggar”—and the alternative swatches of polka-dot fabric for a blouse for Shirley Anne Field in The War Lover (1962) to be tried against her complexion during fittings. These suggest the kinds of experiments, negotiations, and further decisions to be undertaken between the drawing board and having the finished articles ready for filming.
Technical considerations also played an important part in Harris's creative process, as we can see from her comment on a sketch for a girl's dress for Swiss Family Robinson (1960) demonstrating her knowledge of how different kinds of lighting and color processes would affect the costume's final look on screen: “I like the possibility of yellow as an alternative to pink. But it is such a tricky colour for Eastman that I must choose it very carefully. With warm yellow light from the lamps it could be quite pretty.” Black-and-white photography of color costumes on Harris's other films presented their own complications for the designer, as in Darling, as did how different cuts and fabrics would work on a moving body. And Harris's remit was not restricted to the visual; the implications of costuming for sound recording had to be taken into account, such as the necessity to use “rustling taffeta” very sparingly.30
At the preproduction stage, further costume amendments might be required at the behest of a director, often reflecting changes in narrative emphasis. We can see this demonstrated in Harris's work on Prudence and the Pill (1968); a newspaper article on it described four of her sketches and followed the changes made to a single costume required for Deborah Kerr's character. A housecoat for a breakfast scene had to be amended to an evening gown when the timing was switched to night and the scene given more dramatic emphasis: “as this was a climactic scene, he [the director] wanted more glitter.” The off-the-shoulder dress Harris proposed (fig. 3) then wouldn't work given the preponderance of close-up framing intended for the scene—which would make Kerr appear naked—so “Miss Harris went back to the collar of sketch 2. And the dress at last reaches the cameras.”31
The preparatory labor undertaken by the designer here is considerable, especially given the time and care required for sketches: “Each of her drawings takes about an hour to do, and is an exquisite vignette of the person she is designing for.”32 Indeed, traces of that time pressure are sometimes evident in Harris's annotations on sketches, as with her comments on sketches for Swiss Family Robinson:
Getting rather pressed for time so this is just roughly to suggest that by now, Kuala has cut the sleeves from grandpa's jacket, to make him more comfortable for fighting…. Sorry I haven't time for more detail, but you will never get the sketches at all if I go on at this rate.
This particular assignment also demanded special attention to what would be the visible effects of the wear and tear undergone by the characters' clothes while they were marooned on a tropical island, a challenge that Harris approached with great care and skill, as demonstrated by her copious rough sketches and accompanying notes.33
As draft sketches are approved or revised, a firmer idea of the “dress plot” for a film begins to consolidate; Harris described the overall costuming plan for a film as “a sort of Bible as to what each character wears in each scene”34 that will be crucial for continuity. Then before filming starts (and frequently during), the costumes that have been designed now have to be made up, often by costumier firms such as Berman or Angels, under the designer's supervision, with the fabrics she has selected, while other costumes are bought or rented. On a film with a large cast, this represents an enormous workload. For instance, creating several hundred identical school uniforms for the opening shots of Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1969) meant not only acquiring the correct number of stock costumes in the right size but also having to make emergency amendments, as Harris recalled:
When the clothes were unpacked none of the ties and hatbands had any stripes on them…. But we had a wonderful wardrobe supervisor called Betty Adamson, who found art students in Sherbourne and lots of pots of white paint and brushes. And they all sat down and painted the stripes. It went on almost all night.35
Anecdotes such as this map onto the kinds of production stories delineated by John Caldwell as typical of craftspeople and technicians: “war stories” and “against all odds” narratives that emphasize the quiet heroism of “physical perseverance and tenacity” in completing a difficult task successfully.36
For Harris, like many of her peers, the work of the costume designer extended far beyond her initial concepts and sketches, and she regarded “being on the studio floor right through shooting” as “essential” because “every day brings unforeseen problems.”37 For instance you might “forget that the action calls for a cup of tea to be spilt over a coat, and you find you have only one and a duplicate is needed for re-takes. I make a schedule but it changes constantly. Something supposedly not wanted for two weeks is wanted yesterday.”38 In her emphasis on omniscient levels of vigilance and dogged, arduous work in the service of the picture, Harris adheres to customary “trade stories” from costume designers as well as broader industry discourses about film costume's function hinging on characterization and authenticity.39
In similar vein, Harris often talked about the importance of getting period costumes right, a meticulous approach that is evident in her extensive sketch portfolio for Petula Clark's costumes for Goodbye, Mr. Chips, which includes sketches of original Vogue fashion plates from 1938 and 1940 (with notes to self such as “shoulders square but not too exaggerated—this was some years later”). It is no accident that in the “film fashion ABC” she drew up for a newspaper article in 1956, V was for “veracity.”40 The aspiration toward veracity extended beyond period pieces into contemporary settings, with Harris exhibiting particular professional pride in her work on The Whisperers (1967), transforming Edith Evans into an impoverished, downtrodden elderly lady with the aid of a customized battered old coat picked up for £1 at Camden Market: “We rubbed the lapels with candle wax to make it look greasy, and rubbed candle wax all down the front. Eventually we put it through a washing machine. It looked quite different by the time we had finished!”41
In a later interview, however, Harris's position toward the privileging of characterization over spectacle in film costume appeared more ambivalent:
Character is harder than dressing someone up in the full fig of glamour, but it's not always more rewarding. It's an achievement if you make someone look right in character, like Edith Evans in The Whisperers, which was really quite difficult, and therefore very satisfying. However, no-one is going to say you are a great designer for having done that.42
Here Harris queries the long-standing received wisdom that realizing character represents the apex of a costume designer's achievement and suggests some of the concomitant problems of status and respect that come with this kind of invisible labor. Furthermore, when she is then asked in the same interview which film stands out as “wholly satisfactory” in her career, Harris plumps first for Casino Royale, an infamously chaotic production that had five different directors working on it, resulting in an equally chaotic end product. Yet with an almost limitless Hollywood-fueled budget (“they always wanted something ‘yesterday’ so it was a case of ‘pay anything, just get it’”),43 an absence of the usual imperatives to dress for narrative and character, and no single authorial-directorial presence to determine how costumes should look, it seems that the assignment was a liberating experience for Harris in terms of creative agency, however incoherent it might have been as a film. As she put it, “Some of it is very bad but there was lots for me.”44 Other films selected by Harris as particularly satisfactory in her career also tended toward the spectacular; one suspects it is the pretty gowns (fig. 4) and lavishly costumed musical numbers as much as its period veracity that made Goodbye, Mr. Chips another personal favorite among her films.
The relish with which Harris worked on costumes in the exotic/erotic vein suggests her attraction to creating clothes that were spectacular above all other considerations. Her sketches offer a richly realized range of arresting female costumes, from her Balinese-influenced nightclub dancers in the Charlie Drake vehicle The Cracksman (1963), to the witty but still sexy pastiches of Irene Sharaff's designs from Cleopatra (1963) for Amanda Barrie in Carry on Cleo (1964, fig. 5), to the stunning spangled burlesque outfits for We Joined the Navy (1962), which demanded just as much meticulous attentiveness to matters of costume continuity as Swiss Family Robinson but this time in terms of the different stages of striptease rather than wear and tear. The comic-book orientalism required for Vesper's bright-pink silk “elephant boy” tunic and turban in Casino Royale, or Ahme's Courrèges-meets-salwar-kameez outfits in Help! (fig. 6), seem to have especially whetted Harris's creative appetite.45
This is also true of Harris's enthusiasm for designing fancy dress costumes when the narrative demanded it. Her sketches for the spare, elegant women's daywear for the thriller Deadfall (1968) contrast completely with a range of much more vividly drawn outfits for a costume ball scene, among them a Scheherazade, a Medusa, a Restoration wench, and a red silk crinoline with what she described as “a touch of the Lola Montez.” Harris was also responsible for all of Genevieve Page's costumes as Margot Beste-Chetwynde for Decline and Fall … of a Birdwatcher (1968), and although her designs are dazzling throughout, with lots of ostrich feathers (responding to the title's avian brief) and lashings of her favored shade of pink (known in the trade as “Harris Pink”),46 she seemed to show the greatest pleasure in creating a fancy dress costume, sadly not used in the film, for the incalculably wealthy Margot to dress up as what Harris notes is her “idea of ‘the poor’” in “very ‘couture’ rags. Twigs by Constance Spry [royal florist]. Fabulous long wig. Becoming smudges of ‘dirt’ on face.” These costumes do serve a narrative purpose—the latter would have underlined Margot's essential callousness in a very witty and concise fashion, had it reached the screen—but they seem to go far beyond the immediate demands of narrative expediency and stretch into the realm of spectacular excess. They are clothes that demand to be looked at rather than looked through.
Harris sometimes exhibited frustration at the inability of filmmakers to showcase the beauty of her costumes to best effect, such as a beautiful feathered gown with gradations of color from brown to orange for Petula Clark on Goodbye, Mr. Chips that was eventually shot only in head-and-shoulder close-up so “you just saw the top bit, the ugly bit.”47 Other carefully created costumes might be shown only for a second or excised altogether, and Harris admitted that it was “frustrating when a scene in the film has to be cut and perhaps one of my favorite dresses doesn't get used.”48 Her intriguing plan to subtly change the color of Ursula Andress's chiffon gown in one scene in Casino Royale so that it would begin pale pink and end up deep pink (fig. 7), achieved by making four identical copies of the costume dyed gradually darker shades, was mangled in the editing so it “lost the whole point,” which was to suggest the accelerating romanticism of the scene.49
For Harris, it seems, narrative was important, but so too were spectacle and proper respect being accorded to a beautiful costume. As she reiterated in another interview, again in relation to her creations for Ursula Andress on Casino Royale, if someone has gone to the bother of making a beautiful dress, then the director should “show it!”50 For all these frustrations, it seems that the exhibitionistic tendencies and higher (Hollywood-backed) budgets of British cinema of the 1960s probably provided one of the most sympathetic contexts for her costumes to be accorded a prominent position in the mise-en-scène.
The obverse of the designer's professional pride in creating unique on-screen costumes (and the wish to have them displayed to full effect) comes with her or his sense of unease around the use of off-the-rack clothes rather than bespoke designs. In the context of contemporary Hollywood costume culture, Helen Warner has detailed the professional concerns expressed over “costume designers ‘proper’ being replaced by ‘creative shoppers,’” with the rise of the “stylist” seeming to represent a deskilling of the art of screen costuming for many, but not all, of its practitioners.51 Similar concerns may lie behind Harris's frequently stated preference for period drama despite being better known for modern dress films. Not only does period drama carry the prestige of historical research, but it also increases the likelihood of costumes being specially designed rather than “shopped,” increasing the designer's creative control. As Harris argued, “With modern things it's different because the director can look at them and might say, ‘Oh, my wife doesn't like that.’ They all know about modern clothes. But with period clothes, people know less so they accept the pretty drawing that I give them.”52
In addition, contemporary settings have always presented specific problems around the fashionable-ness of their costumes due to the time lag inherent in film production. Harris remarked upon how “tricky” it was “having to second-guess what would be fashionable in a year's time, because a film from start to finish took about nine months; you might do your sketches ten months in advance and, by the time the film came out, fashion had changed.”53 This was the reason why Samuel Goldwyn briefly hired Coco Chanel to design costumes for his films in the early 1930s, to avoid being caught out by a sudden change in hemlines that rendered a film's fashions out of date.54 The “costume versus fashion” rhetoric common to industry discourses around the profession—fashion generally being seen as antithetical to character, in the same manner as spectacle is—has also meant, as Jane Gaines observes, that designers “have dissociated themselves from trend-setting” for fear of being contaminated by consumerism rather than associated with the more prestigious realm of dramatic craft.55
In Harris's career, these concerns about shopping for a film versus bespoke design, about how to harness or anticipate contemporary fashion, and about the tension between character and fashion, spectacle and narrative, all converged in her work on the film that was to win her an Oscar, Darling. The remainder of this article will concern itself with a close consideration of Harris's costume design work for Darling, with a special focus on the costumes worn by the film's lead character, Diana Scott, played by Julie Christie (who also won an Oscar for her work on the film). Darling's narrative centers on a young woman's progress from aspiring London model to high society and finally marriage into the Italian aristocracy, with the narrative framing provided by Diana being interviewed by Ideal Woman magazine about her rise to fame. Diana's voice-over, answering the interviewer's questions, is used in ironic counterpoint to the extended flashback that purports to show us the “real” story of her past, including numerous affairs and betrayals, and a “happy ending” that is anything but happy, with Diana trapped in an outwardly glamorous but hollow and loveless marriage.
DARLING: FASHION, FEMININITY, MOBILITY, COSMOPOLITANISM
Harris came to Darling's production at a very late stage, replacing the previous designer ten days before shooting was due to begin, as she recalled in an interview in 2010:
No-one had a costume to wear! So Victor Linden, who I had worked with before, rang me and asked if I could help out and get some stuff for location. So there was a bit of a quick shop with Julie Christie in the High Street. That was just to get a few things so we could get by really, but you never have all the clothes for a whole film ready when you start filming on day one and luckily by the time we got to all the “better stuff” I had had time to do my designs and get things made. Some of it was made in Rome, and then when we were on location in Capri the fitters came out to Capri for fittings and I was able to catch up a bit.56
Time constraints necessitated hasty shopping for some of the film's costumes, but these appear to have been the clothes required for the earlier parts of the narrative in which Diana is a gauche girl-about-town. The scene that introduces her recalls the similar moment in Billy Liar (1963) in which Christie's character Liz first appeared, both young women striding confidently through an urban landscape, insouciantly swinging their handbags. Some of Liz's likability, bound up with Christie's emergent star persona as a modern young woman, therefore informs the first encounter with Diana in Darling. The pinstripe trouser suit she wears in this scene (fig. 8) is an early design from Biba, the company central to the youth-centered fast fashion revolution of the 1960s, recognized with delight by Biba's designer Barbara Hulanicki when she saw it on-screen.57
Hulanicki's 1960s clothes have been acclaimed for their “instinctive grasp of the emerging identity of young women—financially independent, sexually confident and sartorially expressive,”58 all of which maps effectively onto the character of Diana. Her trouser suit, still quite an outré choice in the mid-1960s, is referred to in Diana's voice-over as naively unstylish—“I don't know what I was wearing. Terribly Chelsea I thought I was”—but she is also shown defending it as bold and new in the vox-pop television interview she gives to Dirk Bogarde's BBC reporter Robert: “Would you say the way I dress is conventional?” she asks while posing to show off her outfit.
This moment seems indicative of a larger epistemological uncertainty around the significance of Diana's clothes and whether their style is to be repudiated or admired. Julie Harris certainly was not very keen on them, hence her reference to the “better stuff,” meaning the more mature, couture-esque outfits that Diana wears when she begins her social climb. Harris later elaborated in an interview, “It wasn't exactly Cinderella but she went from an ordinary model girl to the Italian princess so she ends up able to have the clothes that I felt I understood and loved more than the early ones which were King's Road sixties, swinging sixties.”59 And yet the more casual clothes worn for the scenes at the very beginning of Diana's trajectory—the trouser suit, a tight white ribbed polo-neck sweater, short tartan skirt, and flat suede knee-high boots for her secret assignation with her lover, and then back at home wearing a sporty minidress trimmed with white piping and ribbed white knee socks (fig. 9), all worn with hair loose—represent a new way of dressing that to young female audiences would prove just as aspirational as Diana's more elegant formalwear.
In fact, the mixture of the two types of clothes in her wardrobe is crucial, as Christine Geraghty notes in her account of the film. Whether Diana is wearing “the mod (tartan skirt, knee-length socks, hairbands)” or “the traditional (her evening dress at the charity function)” (fig. 10), both styles “are worn with an individual flourish, and the emphasis in her dress is not so much on following a 60s style but creating it, controlling fashion rather than conforming to it,” communicating a sense of “self-confidence based on but not limited to a new approach to fashion and style.”60 The Darling look was powerfully influential on contemporary fashion, particularly in the United States, with Harris noting how the U.S. trade paper Women's Wear Daily “thought the look said something” and picked up on the film as a source of new styles, something confirmed by the British fashion writer Felicity Green, who observed its influence stateside (along with that of another film of 1965, The Knack … and How to Get It) and Julie Christie's enshrinement as fashion icon: “Two British hit films have given New York its latest ‘in’ words. Now everything is either ‘Darling’ or ‘Knacky.’ … The whole ‘Darling’ hit started with Julie Christie's movie of that name and she is the no. 1 exponent of the look, from her wild blonde mane to her little girl shoes.”61
In the face of apparent authorial intention to criticize the worst aspects of affluent society through what seemed to them to be its most obvious representative, a shallow young woman,62 the discourse of costuming in Darling works to undermine any straightforward critique of Diana and instead, as Geraghty argues, represents an alternative discourse of creative self-expression for young women, whether that is through the off-the-rack clothes bought for the film or Harris's mod-inflected bespoke designs (figs. 11, 12). As Pam Cook noted of Gainsborough's costume melodramas, following Sue Harper's work, in a formation that applies equally well to Darling twenty years later: “Design works against the rather moralistic trajectory of the scripts, in which sexually aggressive women tend to come to a sticky end, by celebrating a feminine pleasure principle…. We are back with the disruptive power of costume—always, it seems, a troublemaker.'63
While Julie Harris as costume designer was undoubtedly the central organizing force of “the Darling look,” the input of Julie Christie on its creation was also crucial. The hasty preproduction shopping trips to acquire suitable off-the-rack clothes were undertaken by Harris and Christie together, and Harris credited Christie with keeping the skirt lengths short for her character's clothes, echoing her own personal style of “simple little skirts,”64 despite Harris's qualms that such a distinctive hemline might have passed into obloquy by the time of the film's release: “I was doubtful but it was Julie Christie who said keep it short and she was so right.”65 This collaborative dimension to the costuming for Darling may well have been instrumental to its ability to simultaneously harness and influence fashion. Harris had proved herself adept in costuming fashionable young women in previous films, including her Bardot-esque wardrobe of tight gingham, broderie anglaise, and denim for Christie in the comedy The Fast Lady (1962) as well as the mod-style schoolgirl uniforms in A Hard Day's Night (1964), but as we have seen, her deeper preference was for a more traditional kind of feminine elegance. She cited Deborah Kerr as her favorite star to dress because she “liked her kind of clothes—and the way she wore them.”66 Although Christie does have some outfits to wear in Darling that echo that kind of mature glamour, they actually tend to be used at the points of the narrative when her character is feeling most hemmed in and claustrophobic, particularly her stint as lonely, neglected principessa toward the end of the film (fig. 13). In that spirit, Harris created a rich, full-length evening coat, a model of “Galitzine-Fabiani elegance,”67 to go over a chiffon underdress, to go over a slip, layers deliberately designed to be torn off by their wearer as she wanders the corridors of the palace, alone and unhappy. “Jewellery to break away” reads one of her annotations to the costume sketch.
The heroine's stripping off of her clothes and jewels in this scene marks an important dramatic climax in the film's dense and complex “dress plot,” one that is riven with trans-European peregrinations, as one commentator described, from “typical Chelsea bird (Vinyl raincoat, knee socks, zany dresses) … pseudo-sophisticate in Paris (Courrèges boots and shift), and finally her grandeur as the wife of an Italian prince (Galitzine-type Palazzo pyjamas, superbly cut Fabiani-type coat and Givenchy fur-lined hat).”68 Diana has not only tried many things, she has also tried on many things—party clothes, model clothes, costumes, daywear, evening wear, menswear—but none has really proved a satisfactory fit, and in the end the naked, sobbing woman, soon to be rejected by her ex-lover when she attempts a reconciliation, is all that remains. However, while this is true in strictly narrative terms, the film's “covert, codified discourse that centres on the clothes themselves”69 suggests otherwise. The sheer plenitude of Diana's wardrobe—there's a telling shot of her early in the film in a little black dress, deciding from an extensive collection which pair of shoes to slip into (fig. 14)—and its diversity, with clothes for every occasion, from smart suits for work and casual clothes for leisure to chic little cocktail dresses, presents a powerful sumptuary counternarrative. Once again, these are clothes (and accessories) to be looked at rather than looked through, costumes that elicit the “critical ‘shopper's eye’” identified by Charlotte Herzog in her work on fashion shows in film, in which viewers are encouraged to “size up the cut and line of the dress into which they project their (imaginary) bodies.”70
Ultimately, the keynote of Julie Harris's wardrobe for Diana in Darling is mobility: physical, social, and geographical. In what she wears, Diana can walk the streets, dance at a discotheque, hop on the back of a scooter, or bicycle her legs in the air. She flies off to exciting destinations such as Paris and Capri for pleasure, or travels to Italy for a job on a commercial. The apparent ease and spontaneity of Diana's European travel is particularly interesting and suggests the same kind of destabilization of national identity that Pam Cook identified in Gainsborough's costume melodramas, with “their emphasis on hybrid identities and concern with crossing national borders.”71 In both the 1940s and the 1960s, costume is key in constructing a transgressive, transnational border crossing, manifesting in the flamboyant femininity of Elizabeth Haffenden's gypsy-influenced aesthetic for the Gainsborough melodramas, and in the perfect holiday wardrobe that Diana has for her break in Capri in Darling. Neat little sundresses with floral and cherry prints, simple sandals, big black sunglasses, capri pants, Breton top (fig. 15): these are clothes that embody cosmopolitanism, that move across national borders in their origins (British, French, Italian) but also literally in Diana's suitcase, speaking to that sense of mobility that Moya Luckett identifies as typical of media representations of desirable femininity in the 1960s.72 Even though such mobility ultimately results in enforced exile and stasis in Darling, this pessimistic narrative closure is not quite enough to close the wandering “shopper's eye,” taking in a wealth of desirable fashion possibilities that speak to what Julie Christie would later sum up as “an element of possibility for women … a new way of living.”73
But in the final analysis, any consideration of the complex significations of on-screen costume should acknowledge and examine the offscreen labor that goes into its creation. Harris's primary recollection of working on Darling focused on the labor involved: “The work that went into those clothes was amazing…. There were a tremendous amount of clothes in that film!”74 Her work on the film, begun at late notice, not only entailed the creation of a subtle and highly communicative costume scheme for its female lead, featuring more than thirty distinct costumes (which happened to influence 1960s fashion), but also encompassed the considerable task of sorting out the clothes for the entire cast and making sure that all the people populating the diverse worlds inhabited by Diana looked right.75 The irony is that the more right those people look, the more it seems that they naturally look that way, that no work has gone into their appearances. This effortless final result on screen belies the “sheer physical slog” and often punishing schedules endured by those who mastermind film costuming, as Harris suggested: “Just getting from A to B in the West End for fittings and shopping is ulcerating when I'm on a tight schedule darting between the studio and London,” or further afield in the case of a production such as Goodbye, Mr. Chips, where she had to fly to Paris and Geneva to do Petula Clark's fittings.76 It also belies the complex demands of designing for character, of “keeping a sharp and beady eye on fashion [and] develop[ing] a flair for fashion futures,”77 and in the right circumstances giving full creative expression to costume as a powerful source of visual pleasure. Julie Harris managed all these demands with aplomb.
Her distinguished work in the 1960s continued into the following decade on varied assignments, including Roger Moore's first Bond film Live and Let Die (1973), making beautiful period costumes for The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970) and the fairy-tale musical The Slipper and the Rose (1976)—“I've never enjoyed my work more,” she wrote to its director Bryan Forbes on her sketch for Cinderella's wedding dress (fig. 16)—and designing simultaneously futuristic and ultra-contemporary costumes for the dystopian Rollerball (1975, fig. 17). Working more for television in the 1980s, her final assignment was the miniseries A Perfect Hero (1991), set in the 1940s, which offered Harris a final opportunity to demonstrate her skill in creating period costumes as well as marking a return to the decade in which her long career in screen costume design had begun.
In line with the broader aims of feminist production studies and historical inquiry, this article has attempted to elucidate how one particular costume designer did her work and how she felt about it (at the time and subsequently), and more broadly to reverse the tendency for media production labor, which is gendered feminine, like costume design, to be rendered invisible. Julie Harris did gain a minor degree of media visibility, although ironically this often emphasized her self-effacing invisibility, as “the girl you don't see” whose role was making others look good.78 Sometimes Harris was happy to collude with this, stating in her foreword to Elizabeth Leese's book that costume had to be “the art that conceals art. It is all part of the alchemy we call the cinema.”79 But just one paragraph later, she voiced an equally pressing but somewhat contradictory desire for visibility: “Even within the film business, the costume designer has been a long time winning proper recognition…. The wardrobe department and all it encompasses was taken for granted far too long.”80 It is the job of feminist film history to recognize these profoundly gendered ambivalences and tensions around the visibility of “women's work” such as costume design, and attempt to render it fully visible.