The costumes that brought the shows to life in 2020 were everything from street-savvy I May Destroy You, to the polyester power and wit of the Small Axe movies
The shearling coat was not very attractive on its hanger. It was made from “horrible and cheap offcuts”. Costume designer Phoebe de Gaye recalls purchasing it at the “scuzzy end of Oxford Street” in 1980.
It was worn by Del Boy in Only Fools and Horses and reminded her of the coats worn as a jacket by used car salesmen. She says this gave the character verisimilitude. “It worked when he put it over a Gabicci shirt, a red one with black suede pockets. But we didn’t really think much about it.”
The coat would be as famous as the wearer. It was a model for TV character clothing, which contrasted with the glitz and glamour of costume drama. De Gaye says that some things strike a chord but it’s impossible to predict what. “You’re trying to create something real when you make a costume for a TV character. The coat captured the zeitgeist for some reason.”
Television was one of the few victorious in 2020. Television has been the dominant entertainment source throughout the year, with the exception of the jaw-dropping I May Destroy You, Steve McQueen’s Small Axe, and the ritzy costumes dramas Mrs America and The Queen’s Gambit.
These programs provided some relief during a difficult year. They offered a glimpse into the real world, and a way to connect with newness and culture. On the small screen were big stories being told, as well as new realities, both historical and current, being depicted. This has been made possible by the use of TV costumes. These worlds will crumble if the costumes worn by characters are not correct.
“It’s always costume dramas that win, but to me, the best costumes don’t register because they look so real,” Lynsey Moor, costume designer for BBC’s I May Destroy You. Lynsey Moore is Lynsey’s costume designer. Lynsey was inspired by her own sexual assault five-years ago when she created the dark, sharp consent drama. “Contemporary costumes design is the most difficult because viewers are experts in it. It is impossible to believe that the clothes were taken from someone’s wardrobe on a morning like that.”
Arabella, Coel’s character is both a writer, and a social influencer. Her clothing switches quickly between identities. She can be found in short-sleeved T shirts and baggy jeans one minute, while the next she is wearing long-sleeved T shirts and suits. One minute, she’s wearing box-fresh Champion sportswear and Kim Kardashian hair. She is also a detective and sometimes an agent of chaos.
Moore says that people wanted to see their own reflections in her or to recognize her as someone who is confident despite terrible things happening. Moore dressed her in an Ikat jacket and high-waisted pants for the assault, and a pinafore with a clean-shaven face for self-help meetings.
“In popular culture, the woman who has been subject to rape is often seen in a scanty-clad or physically vulnerable state. She says that Arabella’s experience was not the same as that of most women. “The script stated pink hair, but the rest of it was open for discussion.”
“You’re using psychology to create characters, but mainly you are using clothes as plot devices,” De Gaye said. He put Killing Eve’s Villanelle into Molly Goddard Tull for therapy and a Dries van Noten suit to commit the murder.
“Obviously, we are not immune to the catwalk happenings – it all comes from the same toolbox. But catwalk is fantasy. Villanelle is not a fashion follower, but a magpie. But somehow, Killing Eve became a shopping show.
Moore is currently working on a period drama starring Anne Boleyn. It is slated for 2021. Moore said: “I love fashion. It’s tempting to allow the catwalk to inform, but the center-point is storytelling.”
Lockdown TV is not just about dressing up. It’s all about seeing people dress up. The costumes in Killing Eve were fun and enjoyable, a way to escape the monotony of life. But Arabella’s pandemic-friendly wardrobe for I May Destroy you is closer to Del Boy’s. It cares for something that feels authentic to London’s streets. The styling is a refreshingly normal aspect of a show like Coel, which is a great relief in these difficult times.
Tom Loxley is the editor of Radio Times. He says, “Ofcourse, reality requires real clothes – and a more downbeat appearance, but we have been determined to lose ourselves in glamour of the past too. We have been able to dress vicariously through the characters because we are unable to get dressed up for work and for others.”
Loxley says that Netflix’s “Queen’s Gambit” was a sleeper hit. It made use of precise recreation of period detail as well as Cate Blanchett’s Mrs America.
“That being said, anyone who believes reality must be dull should look through Marianne’s closet in Normal People.”
Sally Rooney’s novel was adapted for television by Sally Connell. This was partly because it was sentimental and prescient about student life. Connell’s much-discussed “gold chain” – which Connell spoke a lot about than Connell could, Marianne’s success (and objectification of her Tuscan wardrobe) became a surrogate for our cancelled holidays.
Television is often viewed as a modern-day version of opium for the masses. This year has only exacerbated that perception. Sometimes, we are unable to leave our home and the screen is our only escape. In uncertain times, nostalgia thrives. A raft of shows has allowed us to escape into other time periods, with their costumes providing a pleasant part of the escape.
The role of the costume designer in creating authentic costumes has never been more important with all the information available online about different times and locations.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to go out and see the world. In Mangrove, the first of the Small Axe series, the racism of the London Met and of British postwar society is conveyed all the more effectively because of the pitch-perfect costume design – black hats, tracksuits and what costumier Lisa Duncan describes as “spice-coloured” polyester. That costume design combines with the sights and sounds of Notting Hill’s black community to create a believable, beautiful and sometimes devastating picture of a time and place.
Bina Daigler, costume design on Mrs America, says that she never wanted the show to feel like a drama. She mixed custom-made blouses with jeans and real Yves Saint Laurent, and Diane Von Furstenberg. There was a certain glamour to Gloria Steinem, and even Phyllis Schlafly. “But I didn’t want people looking at the show to say, “Oh, those were the 1970s.” People should look at issues like racism and inequality and realize that we are still here.