Stephanie Smith meets designer-maker, Dawn Wood, who specialises in historical costumes and vintage-inspired fashions
Dawn Wood is a kingmaker, of sorts. “I could make Richard III tomorrow,” she says.
What she means is, if the campaign to bring the 15th-century monarch back to York succeeds, she has the skills and knowledge to recreate for him an authentic wardrobe of clothes, perhaps for a life-like dummy for the exhibition that will undoubtedly be required to celebrate the occasion.
Dawn is an historical costume and fashion designer/maker. For 30 years, she has been making reproduction outfits for museums, displays and education departments. Her work features at Kensington Palace and the Royal Armouries as well as in films and on TV.
She has a huge library of patterns, plates and books for reference, and also makes new but retro and vintage-inspired lingerie and clothes.
Born in Barnsley, she grew up in Huddersfield, where she developed an early interest not just in sewing, knitting and crocheting, but also in the fashion of bygone eras. “There’s some archive footage in the bowels of Huddersfield University of me talking about Viking clothing aged 11, for a project that they Super-8ed,” she says.
The interest stems from more than a love of clothes. “It’s about everything – the whole socio-economic history, where fibres come from, I just have to know about everything. If I get a commission for a costume, I have to know about, not just the date, but the social strata, the household, how fashionable they would be, their age and what was going on that the time, whether there were wars in France, so we didn’t get fabrics from there...”
Dawn studied fashion design at Batley Art College and moved to London in 1986, where she set up as a freelance costume designer in 1988 (she worked on The Princess Bride and on Franco Zefferelli’s Hamlet, among other films, and for the Royal Opera House). In 2002, she moved back to Yorkshire, this time to Leeds, and has been able to continue her business, Ages of Elegance, thanks in part to the internet and the growth of the Goth and Steampunk movements, supplying clients all over the world.
She shares a shop and studio space in Crown Court, Leeds city centre, with her partner of 20 years, Andrew Clark, who is a military metal worker, making buttons and buckles for uniforms for court livery and film costumes. They got married last year, with Dawn of course wearing one of her own creations.
“We have a little 18th-century hovel behind Blue Rinse, she says. “It had been a tailor’s workshop and, in that little area, there had been lace makers and shoe makers, so it’s that whole heritage. It’s fabulous and I love it.”
Feeling the need to collaborate, in 2008 she set up Fabrication, a social enterprise with a group of designer-makers working as a co-operative. They opened a shop Kirkgate in 2011, moved to the Merrion Centre and then last year to The Light.
“We have this community now,” she says. “Everyone bounces off each other. Everyone contributes to the bill, the hours. Pretty much everyone does bespoke work.”
The wedding area has proved particularly popular, offering a place to order one of Dawn’s wedding dresses, perhaps commission a tiara from a jewellery maker, order wedding cards, even chutneys and cheeses for the reception – and everything handmade and very special.
Fabrication also runs classes in sewing, leather work, metal casting and many other activities. “We have found some amazing sellers and some very talented people,” Dawn says. “It’s a new way of working – by collaboration, you can get an awful lot done.”