Colour Costume Design

By Sarah Street

As is well-known, Technicolor films invariably included a credit for the ‘color consultant’, an expert whose employment was compulsory for filmmakers who shot films using three-strip cameras leased from Technicolor. In the heyday of the process this was typically Natalie Kalmus, a key figure in the company’s public branding and advocate of the influential ‘color conscious’ approach to film colour design (Street 2011). As Eastmancolor’s uptake accelerated in Britain during the 1960s, there was no longer an imperative to credit an expert, whether in cinematography or costume, for their input in grappling with the continuing challenges posed by colour. When watching The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969; shot in Eastmancolor-based DeLuxe) it is therefore perhaps surprising to see the striking yellow-lettered credit ‘Colour Costume Design’ attributed to Elizabeth Haffenden and Joan Bridge:

Haffenden (1906-1976) and Bridge (1912-2009) collaborated on costume design in sixteen films, the majority of which were in colour. They won an Academy Award and a BAFTA for A Man for All Seasons (1966), and their list of films includes many key titles from the 1960s and 1970s such as The Sundowners (1960), Half a Sixpence (1967), Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968), Fiddler on the Roof (1971) and The Day of the Jackal (1973). Joan Bridge’s expertise with colour was established in the 1940s when she was often listed as the colour consultant on many British Technicolor films. Whereas British technicians sometimes resented Natalie Kalmus as ‘interfering’ and belittled her knowledge about colour, they held a far more respectful opinion of Joan Bridge. Haffenden was the designer on Gainsborough’s sumptuous studio costume films that ‘made women’s bodies opulent and mysterious, both by the choice of cut and fabric and by the decoration’ (Harper 2000: 214). The second colour film for which she designed costumes (the first was The Man Within, 1947) was Jassy (Bernard Knowles, 1947), Gainsborough’s first and only Technicolor film on which Joan Bridge and Natalie Kalmus were both credited as colour directors. The colour red is particularly important in this fictional historical melodrama, and Haffenden used it to signal the increasing ascendancy of Jassy as a character while presenting audiences with the shock and pleasure of seeing Margaret Lockwood, the popular star who played her, for the first time on screen in colour (Street 2012: 146-7), as accentuated in the film’s poster:

Red is also a dominant colour in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie which is introduced by the exterior appearance of the Edinburgh house where Brodie lives, distinguished from others in the terrace by its red-painted front wall, upper railings and doormat seen from crane shots that open the film:

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie was directed by Ronald Neame, cinematographer on Blithe Spirit (David Lean, 1945), a Technicolor film on which Natalie Kalmus and Joan Bridge are credited as colour directors, and was distinguished for its use of green lighting in conjunction with costume to create the film’s ghostly effects. One reviewer of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie noted that Neame captured the repressive atmosphere of the school ‘particularly through his restrained and effective use of colour’ (Farber 1969: 62-3). The opening shots set the tone for the presentation of Brodie (Maggie Smith) as the charismatic teacher who stands apart from most other staff at the Marcia Blaine School for Girls who are dressed in greys and dark colours also worn by the pupils. The Headmistress, Miss Mackay (Celia Johnson), is seen in grey, black and generally dark costumes to reinforce her character as being completely opposite to Brodie’s outré unconventionality and what turns out to be a powerful influence over the girls in her ‘set’. These images show Brodie at her most powerful, even dangerous, as she flagrantly disregards the curriculum in favour of vivid tales of a past love, visits to Italy and contradictory admiration for Mussolini (she detests the regimentation of the Girl Guides yet admires Fascism). 

Muriel Spark’s novel, on which the film is based, made little reference to costume, but Haffenden and Bridge’s visually striking designs vividly bring out Brodie’s flamboyance. Spark’s description notes that: ‘There was nothing outwardly odd about Miss Brodie. Inwardly was a different matter…There was nothing Miss Brodie could not yet learn, she boasted of it’ (1961; 1978 edition: 43). For the film, colour provided an apt way of indicating something of her unconventionality, of a woman in the years of her ‘prime’ and whose onslaught against ‘trivia’ inspired the ‘crème de la crème’ under her charge. Miss Brodie clearly likes colour, telling her pupils that it ‘enlivens the spirit’. On a visit to Miss Mackay’s office the contrast between the two characters can clearly be seen through their costume, with Mackay commenting on her ‘colourful frock’ in a bemused rather than admiring fashion. As Brodie leaves, she delivers a withering remark directed at Mackay’s choice of ‘such serviceable’ (i.e. not artistic) chrysanthemums lumped rather inelegantly in a vase by the door. 

Brodie’s bold, red-accented costume however becomes less so when she is eventually dismissed, as seen here wearing a more somber tone of purple. As these examples show, Haffenden and Bridge selected colours, textures and fabrics carefully when designing for film. 

In the black-and-white era designing costumes required very specific considerations of stock, fabrics and textures, factors which Edith Head had extensive knowledge about when working in Hollywood (Resha, Screening the Past). Effective costume design for colour films also had to take into account the stock, effects of lighting, and cognisance of how fabrics, textures, patterns, colour combinations and contrasts contributed to a costume’s visual impact. As Melanie Williams (2019: 234) has pointed out, colour gave costume designers additional means through which to explore character such as with Julie Harris’s fuchsia-coloured costumes for the character Ahme (Eleanor Bron) in Help! (1965). As our Eastmancolor project has uncovered, other designers such as Jocelyn Richards, Shirley Russell, Andrea Galer and Mary Routh also exploited colour’s ability to transform a character through costume. Haffenden and Bridge led the way as expert colour consultants who undoubtedly contributed to enduring chromatic ‘looks’ and aesthetic conventions of both Technicolor and Eastmancolor. 

References

Farber, Stephen (1969), ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’, Film Quarterly, vol. 22, no. 3, pp. 62-3.

Harper, Sue (2000), Women in British Cinema: Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know, London: Continuum.

Resha, David, ‘Designing for Black-and-White: Edith Head and the Craft of the Costume Designer’, http://www.screeningthepast.com/2015/06/designing-for-black-and-white-edith-head-and-the-craft-of-the-costume-designer/

Street, Sarah (2011), ‘Negotiating the Archives: The Natalie Kalmus papers and the “branding” of Technicolor in Britain and the United States’, The Moving Image, vol. 11, no. 1, pp. 1-24.

Street, Sarah (2012), Colour Films in Britain, London: British Film Institute/Palgrave Macmillan.

Williams, Melanie (2019), ‘Costume Design’, in Farmer, Mayne, Petrie and Williams, Transformation and Tradition in 1960s British Cinema, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press: 222-40.

 

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