RUTH CAMPBELL meets the York costume designer who has created outfits for Hollywood stars as well as inspiring a new generation of theatrical dressmakers
ANYONE who has seen the film Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban will be familiar with Pauline Chambers’ work, although they probably wouldn’t realise it. Many members of the public will have seen her creations on stage and TV too.
She doesn’t get the plaudits, praise or recognition actors, directors and producers are used to. But without Pauline and her behind-the-scenes team, many films, operas or shows simply couldn’t go on.
She made the sumptuous, billowing robes worn by actress Dawn French, who plays the Fat Lady in the painting in the Harry Potter film. She also helped make the Hogwarts school uniforms worn by the children.
Pauline, 48, has worked in theatrical costume for 27 years, creating outfits for everything from major operas to period TV dramas and huge Hollywood blockbusters while at the same time tutoring in costume at Hull University.
She is also using her experience and expertise to help train a new generation of highly skilled period costume makers at the Northern College of Costume in York, which she set up in 2007 after realising there was a gap in the market.
The college’s light and airy workrooms, which were once a dance studio, now house heavy and fine silks, brocades and taffetas. There are costume patterns, sketches and cuts of cloth laid out on the table. Tailors’ mannequins are being dressed.
Where else could young fashion and drama students learn to make the perfect Mr Darcy-style Regency suits, hand-finished Victorian gowns, corsets and bustles, classical tutus and glamorous 1940s evening dresses?
Most university costume design courses focus on theory. But you don’t need to have written a dissertation on Victorian bustles or 18th century gussets to be a good costume maker, explains Pauline.
It does sometimes irritate her that this area of costume can be treated as the Cinderella of theatre and film.
“It can be annoying when designers get all the credit. It’s as if the making of a costume is not important. But there is a lot of skill – pattern-cutting, draping, sewing, fitting and finishing – involved in turning a drawing into a three-dimensional garment someone can wear,” she says. “It’s an art form.”
Her intensive 15-week, apprentice-style programme, aimed at fashion and drama graduates and those with prior experience, is the only course of its kind in the country. Specialists, including a tutu maker and a tailor, are brought in to pass on their skills and students go on field trips to buy fabrics at Yorkshire Mills and in London.
Students leave ready to step straight into work, with around 90 per cent employed in the industry. Some have gone on to make costumes for actresses such as Nicole Kidman, Covent Garden sopranos and the stars of Evita.
Classes are kept deliberately small, with a maximum of eight students. “I keep in touch with them all and follow what they are doing,” says Pauline, who also runs short one and two-day courses for people interested in very specific periods or costumes.
Pauline, who grew up in Cumbria, the daughter of a factory worker and a postman, was inspired to get involved in costume design after watching a BBC TV adaptation of Pride And Prejudice when she was a teenager. “I wanted to get away from a very small town, to do something a bit different. I wanted to see the lights.”
She failed her CSE needlecraft at school. “We made boxes out of Christmas cards, plant pots out of pegs and crocheted a rug. It was really silly and didn’t inspire me at all,” she says.
At the Mabel Fletcher College in Liverpool, she discovered she had a skill not only for designing, but also for making costumes and decided to go down that route.
She got to see the bright lights. Since graduating in 1985, Pauline has gone on to work for everyone from the English National Opera to the Glyndebourne Festival and the BBC’s French and Saunders TV show, as well as the West Yorkshire Playhouse and York Theatre Royal. Her film credits include Little Women and The Phantom Of The Opera.
Theatre, TV and film work bring different demands. In the theatre, costumes are usually run up quickly in about six weeks and, because of the distance of the audience, you can get away with machine stitching on period costumes.
In TV, detail matters, particularly for close-up work, and the budget is usually higher. Major film production companies invest even more time and money. “They will usually find a space in an old factory. On the Harry Potter film, they set up base in an old RAF building for six to nine months.”
Each outfit can take hours to create.
Although her career has taken her all over the country, when she first came to work at the Theatre Royal in 1986, Pauline decided to put down roots in the city she loves. She still gets a thrill out of creating a new costume, especially an historic one, which involves research to get a feel for the outfit.
“I love doing big, big periods, like Victorian or 18th century or Edwardian, when you have to make corsets and bustle cages and crinolines. They’re such big, dramatic costumes, rather like sculpture really,” she says. “But mainly it’s the people and places that make my job so enjoyable.”
To find out more about the Northern College of Costume visit northerncollege ofcostume.co.uk