Dressing Sherlock, Bertie and Judi Dench: a look inside the archive of costume designer Jenny Beavan

A first peek into the archive of Oscar-winning British costume designer Jenny Beavan, whose films have included A Room with a View, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, The King’s Speech and Mad Max: Fury Road

29 October 2015

By Hope Margetts

Fabric samples for Anna and the King (1999)
Jenny Beavan Collection, BFI National Archive
Jenny Beavan photographed by Keith Hamshere while filming Black Beauty (1994)
Jenny Beavan Collection, BFI National Archive

With the BFI’s LOVE season in full swing with nationwide screenings and events, London’s BFI Southbank is set to host a range of romance-themed film screenings, an ‘In Love with Costume’ study day and a costume exhibition over the autumn and winter months. What better chance then to delve into the world of bustles, corsets and red coats in one of the BFI’s most recently acquired archives: that of award-winning costume designer Jenny Beavan, who earlier this year gifted her working archive to the BFI National Archive. The London-born designer has created costumes for leading actors including Dame Judi Dench and Colin Firth, and for award-winning films such as A Room with a View (1985), Sense and Sensibility (1995) and The King’s Speech (2010).

After an education in stage design at the Central School of Art and Design (now Central St Martin’s UAL) Beavan was, in her own words, “catapulted” into the world of costuming by a series of chance encounters. Thanks to her childhood friend Nick Young, she embarked upon a stint of unpaid work on some early Merchant Ivory productions, which lead to her dressing Dame Peggy Ashcroft for Hullabaloo over Georgie and Bonnie’s Pictures (1978). The following year, Ismail Merchant informed her that she would work as the assistant to costume designer Judy Moorcroft on The Europeans (1979). Beavan’s career was fully launched when the chance came to take the position as costume designer for the Merchant Ivory film Jane Austen in Manhattan (1980). Since then, she has designed for a star-studded line-up of film, television and theatre productions, many of which are represented in the files she has given to the BFI.  

Beavan’s archive spans her early Merchant Ivory days collaborating with John Bright, the founder and owner of the renowned costumier Cosprop. Cosprop, which recently celebrated its 50th anniversary, provides period costumes for film, TV and theatre around the world. Beavan and Bright have a long-standing friendship and have co-designed for many productions, particularly by Merchant Ivory, including The Bostonians (1984), Howards End (1992) and The Remains of the Day (1993), all of which are represented in the BFI papers. The archive then brings us into the noughties with films such as Beavan’s BAFTA winner Gosford Park (2001, best costume design), Alexander (2004) and Casanova (2005). Some of her most recent projects represented are Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes adaptations (2009, 2011), The King’s Speech, and Gambit (2012).

So what can be found within the archive? Beavan’s papers are a treasure trove of correspondence, scripts, press books, research, annotations, slides, Polaroids and photographs, fabric swatches, mood boards and much more besides.

Notes on costume prices for the characters Bertie, Elizabeth and Lionel in The King’s Speech (2010)
Jenny Beavan Collection, BFI National Archive

The archive provides an intimate portrayal of the process behind the construction of a costume, for which Beavan undertakes in-depth research into a production’s time period and characters.

Beavan's favourite research photo of “Arabella and Billyboy” for Tea with Mussolini (1999)
Jenny Beavan Collection, BFI National Archive

There is an intense concentration on the films’ historical contexts, Beavan having chosen to work predominantly on period films. The archive contains photocopied history books, photographs, old postcards and magazines, as is seen in her research collages for Caroline Thompson’s 1994 Black Beauty.

Black Beauty (1994) research
Jenny Beavan Collection, BFI National Archive

The archive also contains a beautiful selection of film stills, such as the following image of Kristin Scott Thomas in a Chanel dress worn in Gosford Park (2001). 

I go through the script until I know it by heart and have lived and breathed each of the characters. Jenny Beavan in Deborah Nadoolman Landis’ book FilmCraft: Costume Design, 2012

The pages of Beavan’s notebooks and folders are filled with breakdowns of plots and characters, which display her effort to truly get inside a character in order to dress them.

Kristin Scott Thomas in Robert Altman’s BAFTA-winning Gosford Park (2001)
Jenny Beavan Collection, BFI National Archive. Photographer: Mark Tillie

Scripts are annotated and interspersed with photographs, depicting the likes of Judi Dench and Maggie Smith, for example, in costume on the set of Merchant Ivory’s A Room with a View (1985). Each component of a character’s costume is written down alongside reference photographs in order to form a costume continuity file: a running order of costumes from the beginning to the end of the film.

A Room with a View (1985) costume continuity file
Jenny Beavan Collection, BFI National Archive
To-do list in a notebook for Howards End (1992)
Jenny Beavan Collection, BFI National Archive

The screen adaptation of E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View, an Edwardian-set drama of desire and repression, won Beavan and Bright the Academy Award for best costume design. Their exquisitely embroidered fabrics are thoughtfully tailored to each character: Lucy Honeychurch’s (Helena Bonham Carter) light, flowing dress fabrics complement her romantic, more impulsive nature and contrast with the starchier, more rigid outfits of her prim older cousin, Charlotte Bartlett (Maggie Smith). The costumes adhere to a fairly restricted colour palette to create a sophisticated simplicity, with lots of cream, white and black, which comes across in one of the costume inventories, below.

A departure from the more flamboyant, melodramatic costuming of the early to mid twentieth century, such as was often produced by Gainsborough Pictures (1924-51), Merchant Ivory saw a concentration on the detail of a dress and its accessories, which the sheer quantity of research, fabric samples and images in the Beavan archive corroborates. Well-known for their artistic, visually stunning period films, the continuity of designers such as Beavan and Bright working across Merchant Ivory productions has been an important factor in creating the company’s signature style.

It’s the most marvellous, challenging, exciting, innovative job.Jenny Beavan in Deborah Nadoolman Landis’ book FilmCraft: Costume Design, 2012

A key aspect of Beavan’s work process is her many to-do lists, written in notebooks, on scraps of paper and on the backs of envelopes. A method of breaking down an overwhelming workload, these windows into the designer’s daily self-organisation also provide some of the more personal touches within the collection, with shopping lists and birthday reminders scattered amongst filming requirements and purchases.

I’ll do a mood board but I don’t draw, because drawing is two-dimensional and people are three.Jenny Beavan in Deborah Nadoolman Landis’ book FilmCraft: Costume Design, 2012

Many of the most visually stunning items within the collection come in the form of Beavan’s mood boards, which consist of large paper or cardboard sheets with cut-out photographs of actors, historical figures or costumes glued down, often alongside fabric swatches and handwritten annotations. Preferring to work with the clothes on the actor rather than sketching out designs to create later, Beavan’s mood boards convey the desired aesthetic for a costume, evoking the atmosphere of its historical and/or fictional context.

‘The Royal Children Go to the Banquet’ for Anna and the King (1999)
Jenny Beavan Collection, BFI National Archive

Her boards of research and fabrics for Tea with Mussolini (1999) conjure up an air of 1930s decadence, while with Roald Dahl’s Esio Trot (2014), modern magazine cuttings depicting Judi Dench highlight and help select the colours that will work best for the actress.

Nothing about the work of Jenny Beavan suggests an attempt to impose a personal stamp on her characters; rather her design process as reflected through her archive reveals an enormous concentration on historical accuracy, authenticity and a dedication to the characters themselves, the actors, as well as to the overall aesthetic of the film.  

Jenny Beavan’s archive also provides a wonderful scholarly resource on the process of costume design and will greatly support research into this area. Costume design is a growing field of research, with increased academic interest in the role of costume, its construction, its relationship to the body and its effects on the viewer, which archives such as Beavan’s will contribute to exploring further.

The archive will expand as Beavan’s filmography continues to grow (she has just completed A Cure for Wellness, to be released in 2016) and as she deposits more material (this will include paper-based as well as digital working files).

Her most recently released film is Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). In terms of its look and style, the arid and dystopian world of Max is completely different to anything that Beavan has designed before. But the film holds true to the same principles that have informed Beavan’s work throughout her career: that “costumes are all about storytelling with clothes”.

The Jenny Beavan collection will be available for research later this year. Please contact BFI Special Collections via our web contact form with any enquiries.

BFI Player logo

All-you-can-watch access to 100s of films

A free trial, then just £4.99/month or £49/year.

Get free trial