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Costume designer Jenny Beavan has a royal time on 'The King's Speech'

Achieving a vintage look on a 'minuscule' budget is right up the eight-time Oscar nominee's alley.

January 05, 2011|By Irene Lacher, Special to the Los Angeles Times

The authenticity of the British period film "The King's Speech," about King George VI's struggle with a debilitating stammer, owes much to its costume designer, Jenny Beavan, who won an Oscar for her work on "A Room With a View" and was nominated for seven other films.

Were the clothes the royal family wore copies of their actual wardrobe, or were they inspired by it?

They were very much inspired by the research I did. I didn't slavishly follow it. I just took the inspiration from all that newsreel footage and photographs.

I noticed a number of items in the film that people don't wear much or at all anymore, like bowlers and top hats, veils and gloves, collars and pocket chains, and on and on. Were those custom-made or vintage?

A lot of them are new. Furs were all vintage. You can get some really beautiful gloves from Italy now. I had Helena's [Bonham Carter] made because she has got the smallest hands. Collars you can get. There's the Vintage Shirt Co. and the Costume Store, who do vintage collars and shirts, and actually some of the old-fashioned shirtmakers in Jermyn Street, which services the top business community, you can still get a good detached collar.

People still wear them?

People still do a bit, I think. My grandfather would never be seen without. He just never wore a shirt without the proper detached collar on it, made in the same fabric. But it's getting more difficult to get good vintage stuff as it's just getting more and more distant, I suppose. On the whole, we have to remake them, just to get the fit, or the fabric was actually rotting. Helena wore several vintage coats.

You used a lot of fabrics that are quintessentially British — tweeds and pinstripes. Did you have them custom-made?

Oh, no. I have to tell you, this film was done on the most minuscule budget with precisely 51/2 weeks to prep it. So there was no time to make anything in terms of fabric. Quite often I'd find a fabric and know that if I just rinsed it through a dye, I could knock the color out of it and make it look more real.

Speaking of color, I noticed that the palette was quite muted. Were bright colors considered gauche then?

I think there probably were quite a lot of bright colors, but with Helena, she looks more real if you don't use the piercing blues and mauves and pinks that the Queen Mother wore. On film, it can look a bit sugar candy. If you bring it down to a more muted look for the women, I think you get nearer the truth of the character in this particular film.

Was the different status of the duke (and later king) and the speech therapist reflected in their clothing, or was the way men dressed too subtle for that?

Colin's [Firth] suits were custom-made, and Geoffrey's [Rush] suits came off the peg and were a little bit short in the arms sometimes. But in those days, men had a good suit, and they would last for years. And they were much firmer fabrics than these soft, wafty tweeds we wear today because, of course, they were keeping the cold out. And they were much more substantial and they lasted a much longer time.

I noticed that when the Queen Mum first meets Lionel, he's wearing tweed and then, when he knows he's having his first meeting with the duke, he's wearing pinstripes.

That was a Geoffrey and me thing. He had four suits, and he used to discuss which one he felt was the right one to wear on a particular occasion. I think pinstripe is more smart and businesslike.

Life was so much more formal then, even for royalty. There were a number of scenes where the prince of Wales and the duke of York were wearing tuxes. Was that just for dinner?

Oh, yes. They absolutely dressed for dinner. You get up and put on your morning costume to go for a walk or whatever, and in the afternoon, you'd very often have a nap and then you absolutely always change for dinner. Ladies often didn't have a huge amount to do, and so this whole changing of appearance was fantastically important.

Wallis Simpson's clothing reflected her status as the scarlet woman — the black dress with the low-cut back that even now would stand out. Was that the way she dressed, or did you dress her that way for a dramatic purpose?

I wanted something fairly simple and dramatic. I found this beautiful necklace, which she actually designed for Van Cleef & Arpels. They had a copy of it, and they lent it to me. And so I wanted something where I could put it down the back, because I just thought it would be such a wonderful image.

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