‘I couldn’t be much less keen on style’: the designer who dressed Mad Max and Cruella
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‘I couldn’t be much less keen on style’: the designer who dressed Mad Max and Cruella

If you spot a woman trying to surreptitiously take a photo of you on the bus – you’d have to look interesting – there’s a fair chance it might be Jenny Beavan. “I am the biggest people-watcher ever,” says Beavan, the British costume director who is up for her fourth Oscar next month. She took a secret photo the other day, she says, of “a fabulous woman. I don’t know whether she was from a sect or something – she was wearing white and had the most extraordinary white hat on. She was amazing; she looked like a sort of strange clown. I snuck a photo.” Elements of it might make it into a film – “I might be doing something to do with ghosts” – but it will be squirrelled away in Beavan’s mind, even if she can’t find the actual photo now to show me. She sighs and puts her phone away.

We are sitting in her office at the back of her beautiful London house, where she has lived for more than 30 years. Beavan has a straightforward, no-nonsense manner, but she’s also incredibly warm, her grey curls bouncing around her face, so the effect isn’t austere but fun and surprisingly comforting. If you were a film star, you would think nothing of telling her all your secrets while she was dressing you. Does she get good gossip? “Oh yeah,” she says, with a glint of mischief. “It’s like the confessional. Thank God I’ve got a really pants memory and can’t remember a thing, because I do hear some fairly intimate stuff. I’ve been very good, I’ve never divulged.”

Beavan’s house is filled with collections and curios, though done with such an expert eye – she started as a theatre set designer – that it doesn’t look cluttered. Her office is lined with books (histories of Palestinian costume, Indian art, the fashion of the French Revolution, and on and on), as well as some of her awards, including her four Baftas. Where are the others? She looks a bit sheepish and says they’re elsewhere in the house, because there are so many.

She started in period costume: Beavan was Merchant Ivory’s go-to costume director, winning her first Oscar in 1987 for A Room With a View, and nominated over the next few years for films including Howards End, The Remains of the Day and Sense and Sensibility. She did the costumes for Gosford Park and The King’s Speech, then showed she didn’t just do period Englishness when in 2015 she did Mad Max: Fury Road, the fourth film in the post-apocalyptic franchise; it brought her a second Academy Award. Cruella, the 70s-set origin story of Cruella de Vil, followed that.

This time she is nominated for Mrs Harris Goes to Paris, a charming film about Ada Harris (played by Lesley Manville), a cleaner who falls in love with a Christian Dior gown belonging to a client and sets her heart on getting her own. It is set in the 50s and the clothes are, of course, wonderful – you have to believe that a dress could be so exquisite, and made with such haute couture artistry, that Ada becomes obsessed with it – but even the floral tabards she wears while she’s cleaning are a thing of beauty. Beavan’s ideas come first from the script, then she throws herself into research, creating mood boards. “I never draw, I think it’s two-dimensional. I can’t draw anyhow.”

Beavan is in her early 70s now, and although she has enjoyed not working for the past few months, she is thinking about her next projects. “I’m not sure what I’d do every day if I didn’t work.” She grew up in London, where her mother and father were professional musicians – her father a cellist and her mother a viola player. Both had come from unconventional families. On her father’s side, her grandmother had been a pianist for silent cinema and liked to take her children off to communes, and her grandfather had been a founder member of the Cardiff Anarchist Society. Beavan’s mother, meanwhile, had been sent off to chamber music schools from the age of 12, “and was really into vegetarianism and homeopathy”. Beavan and her sister went to a school based on Froebel principles, which prioritised learning through play, “and ran around in bare feet, never had television. We had a wall in the sitting room which we could draw on. We were always making things out of cornflake packets, just really creative.”

It was a happy, bohemian childhood – not derailed, it seems, even by the death of her mother when Beavan was 14. A distant relation they called Aunt Pol came to live with them and brought her two children, and so it seemed as if her world expanded, not collapsed. “I think we just all sort of accepted it, and then Pol coming was wonderful,” says Beavan. “I’m terrible, I just accept things. It’s quite worrying sometimes.” Her mother’s death must have affected her, though? “I always feel it should but I can’t honestly think of any way it did,” she says. “I think we were much more stoical then.”

When Beavan was about 10, her grandfather took her to see Twelfth Night. “I just fell in love,” she says. “I didn’t know about all the backstage stuff at that point, I wasn’t certain I wanted to act, I just wanted to be part of that magical world.” She went to the Central School of Art and Design, learning from the theatre designer Ralph Koltai. “He never even considered film – that wasn’t a true art – and he also said I needn’t worry about the costumes, I could always get someone else to do them.”

She worked for the Royal Opera House, and others, “anyone who would have me”. In the 70s, a childhood friend, by now working in TV and commissioning a Merchant Ivory film, brought Beavan in to do the costumes. She had no plans to go into costume design full-time, but Merchant Ivory kept calling and she found she enjoyed it. Set-designer friends joke with her, “and say, ‘At least a chest of drawers doesn’t answer you back’. But I like the interaction with a real person.” It must be an intimate job. “Very, and it’s very nurturing. It’s more than just putting clothes on them: you are very much there as a sort of therapist, mother, all of which I enjoy thoroughly.”

Can actors be difficult? “I like most of them enormously,” she says. “Yes, a few are tricky and normally it’s nerves. I think because I am very down-to-earth, we normally get on well. Also I listen to them, it’s teamwork, it’s not just me saying: ‘That’s what you should wear’, it’s about their response to the character.” How does she deal with difficult ones? “Don’t show a chink. It’s particularly two women I’m thinking of, and I’m not going to name them, but you just say: ‘OK, let’s see how we can solve this.’ You hold your nerve, and you’re fine.” Directors are the same. “Again, [the difficult ones are] normally quite inexperienced, and feel they have to make their mark.” And the costume department is an easy target. “Everybody wears clothes, so everyone can have an opinion.”

It was “really tricky times”, she says, to be a young woman working in film in the 80s and 90s. “It was the days of the unions when it was like a mafia, and particularly in wardrobe, there were a lot of men. They didn’t like young female designers, and I wasn’t allowed to be called a designer because I wasn’t in whatever union, so I had an absolute loathing of unions because they made my life really difficult. Completely different now, and I think the unions are more useful.”

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