Fantastical, historical, ingenious and magical, the work of a costume designer combines both artistic and highly technical skills.
These fabulous creations are all the work of students at the University of Huddersfield, studying or graduating from its Costume with Textiles BA (Hons) course, which aims to offer a fresh and original approach to costume design through combining textiles and construction. Students develop the skills required to become costume designers and makers for film, opera, theatre, dance and television, or as wardrobe assistants, illustrators and textile designers for the creative industries.
The demand for high-end, highly skilled costume creation has grown thanks to drama series such as Game of Thrones, whose elaborate outfits might require embroidery detail and other specialised techniques, says course leader Clair Sweeney.
“There are very different remits for on stage and in front of a camera because you’re going to see the detail,” she says. “We had students work on the Star Wars film. One had a placement and then got other freelance work once she had graduated on that. The course teaches three pathways: textiles, design and construction, plus theory and written work.
“Each of the areas is giving a student a skill set into how to design and how to read a text, to figure out who those characters are and get a background into their visions for those characters, and how they want to achieve them,” says Clair. Students also learn illustration skills from life drawing.
The course is about 10 years old. Most students are school leavers or from a foundation course, but there are also some mature students, aged up to 60 or so, who have decided on a career change or want to improve their skills. Around 80 per cent take up the option of a year on placement in industry. Recent placements have included Opera North, the National Theatre, the Royal Exchange, Scottish Ballet, Northern Ballet, the Royal Shakespeare Company, Marc Jacobs in New York, Opera Australia and the People’s Poppy project in London.
Students begin by devising a set of designs for a group of characters, perhaps for a stage show, and then learn theory and design to study pattern, scale, embellishments and embroidery. “The whole point for our students is to make the fabrics – they’ve dyed it, printed on it, embroidered it. It becomes impressive as to how much work has gone into them,” says Clair.
Students might also recreate historical fabrics or reinterpret them and the course teaches both traditional and contemporary methods. Once they have their fabrics, they construct and make samples, and then make a final garment to measure on their chosen model. The final year graduate show is held each year at the Live Costume Show in the Lawrence Batley Theatre, attended by local schools, college and industry contacts.
This year’s show was also attended by Sarah, Duchess of York, who came to see designs created for her Little Red series of children’s books. The Duchess is a regular visitor to the university, where the Duke of York, her former husband, is chancellor. First year fashion design students also created clothes for Princess Beatrice and Princess Eugenie to wear during London Fashion Week.
Last month, second year students showed on the Great Yorkshire Show catwalk a set of designs they created for Linthwaite-based disinfectant brand Zoflora, whose marketing team approached the Costume with Textiles department and asked if it would like to set a brief for students to create costumes to help promote a new floral scent, Green Valley, tying in with a garden that the company had also commissioned for Hampton Court Flower Show.
“It was quite a fun brief and the students engaged with that and came up with their own research,” says Clair. “One of the students researched traditional Yorkshire tweed and used that in the concept. Another one researched all the flowers that went into the scent.” The chosen designs were showcased at Hampton Court in June, with one modelled by actress Lucy-Jo Hudson.
Working with companies such as Zoflora provides the students with invaluable experience, says Clair. “They really invested both in the course and the students, by committing to the project, and also financially, which meant there was a budget for the students to work to. Then the remit of working and producing costumes within a month – a quick turnaround that is quite reflective of industry.”
Last year Emily Spreadborough, a 2015 graduate, won the prestigious Hand and Lock first prize for embroidery with her entry The Woman, a hand-embroidered costume made up of 72 Perspex panels with a combination of goldwork and silk shading, inspired by the 1884 satirical novella Flatland by Edwin Abbott.
Clair says, “Emily is quite a nice example of taking elements of research and knowledge of the tradition, but pushing it with a twist, and her twist was corsetry.
“She was making a whole body corset using Perspex, embroidery skills and traditional gold working skills in a really fresh, contemporary manner.”
■ Find out more about the University of Huddersfield’s Costume with Textiles BA (Hons) course online at www.hud.ac.uk/ada.