Welcome to FrockTalk, the web’s only costume-based movie review site. The goal of Frocktalk is to shed light on the magnificent artistry of costume design in motion pictures. Reviews on this site are written by working costume designers in the entertainment industry – people who know, better than anyone, what it takes to make it all happen. The focus of FrockTalk is not to comment on the big flashy costume dramas, but to call attention to the seemingly ordinary costume design work in film that silently and persuasively moves the audience toward understanding the characters. Costume design for motion pictures is an art form that deserves more recognition than it usually gets. Fancy, pretty costumes do not always equal effective, appropriate costumes. The art of the costume is in letting the audience know who the character is, before the actor even has a chance to open his mouth. Read on, and enjoy. ** CAUTION: ALL REVIEWS CONTAIN SPOILERS! **

Jane Eyre: Interview with Designer Michael O’Connor!

Check it out, Frocktalkers – I have an interview for you with costume designer Michael O’Connor about his work on Jane Eyre.  He shares his own sketches, and gives details on how the ideas for these costumes took shape, and – most important to me – what it was like to work with Michael Fassbender!!!  OooOoOooh!  Read on!!

How did you come to be hired on this project?

I met with Cary Fukunaga and showed him some visuals and a general view of how I saw the characters, after being sent the script by the production company.

Had you read or studied the book (in school, or beyond) before you received this script?  What drew you to this film?

I had not read the book before, but I made a start as soon as I had finished the script. I really enjoyed the book and gleaned as much information as I could from it that could go into the costumes.  I was drawn to the film by the story and, having done various periods of the nineteenth century, thought there was a gap with the 1830’s and 1840’s that I hadn’t yet explored in detail.

What were your initial conversations like with the director?  Did he understand the period?  What did he want to achieve?

Speaking to Cary, initially we discussed images that I had taken to him, to see what his reaction would be to various shapes and patterns. It was here he noticed the slight overbearing style of the 1820’s and 1830’s. I kept faithful to the period; I felt it was feasible to set it in the time frame before the book was published (1847). Later Cary would send me more general images of experimental Victorian photography of quite dramatic graphic costumes and extreme lighting and mood. We would have quite detailed discussions of even the metal trim on the bottom of the clogs. I tried to incorporate his ideas in the costumes.

Tell me about how you arrived at the color palette.  It was exquisite.  Was it a result of conversations with the Production Designer and DP, or was it something the director had in mind?

The colour palette really is about the balance between Jane and other characters. The book often describes Jane as wearing plain black. I thought this would be too severe so chose shades of grey, dark blue and slate colours with subtle patterns to reflect the mood of the scene. Once these colours were established, other characters fit in around her. So, for example Rochester has a brown frock coat and not the more usual black; likewise Mrs. Fairfax is mostly in brown. Blanche Ingram, where the temptation is to be brash and colourful, could be designed more subtly.

I loved that the approach on this film was for realism, authenticity to the period without excessive “fanciness”.  It felt very real, very inhabited.  Can you tell us about how that came together – what creative department discussions did you have to achieve this?  It was a very good collaboration, and the whole film felt thoroughly authentic, without pretense of any kind.

The production designer Will Hughes-Jones, using mostly existing locations, was limited to what was available. When it came to, for example, Mrs. Reed’s interior, décor was important. I was keen that shawls and dress patterns wouldn’t clash with furnishings.

To get a sense of authenticity we, as a costume department, spent a lot of time researching the period, including the children’s charity costumes on which the Lowood School uniforms are based.  When designing these costumes I really wanted to believe that they could be exactly what was worn. The costume cutters and I worked very closely together; from the inside out, every garment needed to be constructed as near as possible to the originals.

How much prep time did you have, and at what point in your prep did you get your actors?

We had two months preparation time and had the actors fairly early in the process, which was quite a luxury.

Did your actors have input, special things or colors they wanted for their characters?

I always listen to actors. Mia Wasikowska, probably because of her age and limited experience with the period, was for the most part happy to leave the decisions up to me, once I had explained the progression of costume I had in mind.   Michael Fassbinder we had little time with. He would know, for example, which hat suited him right away.   With Jamie Bell we only had a matter of four days. Fortunately we had worked together before and his character was slightly more clear-cut.

How did the actors respond to the totally different cut and feel of the garments – particularly the men – those coats fit so much more narrowly than our suits of today?  Did they have any feedback for you?

The cut of the frock coat looks very tight and restricting but is in fact, with its small arm holes and close fitting body, quite easy to move in. I think it gives the actor a good sense of the period. Whereas ladies fashions change throughout the nineteenth century, the staple for men is the frock coat, so it’s important to get its subtle changes in each decade right.

What were your conversations with hair and makeup like?  They did SUCH a great job.  It was a magnificent team effort.

I had worked with Daniel Philips and his team before on The Duchess and was familiar with his work on The Queen. We coordinated on, for example, the various caps worn by Judi Dench as Mrs. Fairfax.

Please, please, please tell me where you sourced your fabrics.  They were all exquisite.

The fabrics came from many sources in Europe and the U.S. – ‘The Cloth Shop’ in London, Dalston Market, Shepherd’s Bush Market, lace from France. I used printed cottons from the U.S. based on original nineteenth century designs. I used a lot of original materials and trims, and French linen and cotton sheeting for making undergarments.

If I may – what was your approximate costume budget?  How did you make the film work within the parameters of that number?

The budget is information the production company has; I’d have to check.

It wasn’t very large that’s for sure.

How much did you rent, and how much did you build for the show?

All the principal costumes were made for the production. Only background costumes were hired. I couldn’t hire costumes for the main roles because I needed to control how it looked.

Who did your aging/dyeing and what were your instructions to them?  I am thinking particularly of the young girls in the Lowood School, and the ghostly wife of Rochester.  Those garments were really beautiful and sad – how did you achieve the look?

The ageing and dyeing was done by Emma Walker whom I have known since Topsy Turvy.

With the school girls’ costumes, I wanted to show that part of their daily routine, in such schools, was to maintain the clothes, but to show how they would have been handed down to younger girls and had become quite worn over the years.

I wanted to put stains on the collars and aprons that had, over time, become ingrained, even though we should assume they kept their linen clean. We darned and patched some of the girl’s clothes.

We had to age Jamie Bell’s costume the morning of the shoot.

Yikes!!  Can you please talk a bit about (what I call) the “freedom dress” that Jane wears when she leaves Lowood – it’s the same costume she wears when she flees Rochester’s home, Thornfield Hall (at least, that’s what I noticed).  Can you tell us about that decision?

The ‘Freedom Dress’ as you call it was made from tartan linen I had bought. Cary wanted something in the costume of Jane to reflect the architecture of Thornfield Hall. I decided to use this fabric as its pattern reflected the Jacobean windows in the hall. This dress became known as ‘The Jacobean” dress. It is cut with diagonal panels on the bodice, also reflecting the small mullioned windowpanes.

We first see the dress when she leaves Lowood as a woman, and she then wears it several times as a work-a-day dress. I wanted her to wear what she arrives in when she flees Thornfield; so it is this dress she changes from the wedding costume into.

This dress, like Jane’s other ones, had pockets sewn into the seams at the back of the skirt, as was the case in the period. This was also a separate request from Cary for Jane to put her needlework into. It is great when the two ideas coincide.

We made two of these dresses because of stunts and rain sequences.

Do you have any sketches or pictures you might be able to share?

Mia (Wasikowska) is a very keen photographer and would often have her camera on set. It would be interesting to see her stills I think!

And, off the record, how is it working with Fassbender?  I am so curious!!  I think he is a fantastic actor, and he blew me away in this movie.  Off the record, I promise.

Don’t really need to be off the record with Fassbender – he’s a total delight!

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Oh, my 2011 is really complete now.  Big, huge, juicy thanks to Michael O’Connor for sharing his stories from this wonderful film.  I am looking forward to seeing it again, now knowing the details!  Happy New Year, everyone, and congrats to Michael O’Connor and his team on a job very well done.


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