The Queen Mum's Style | Bringing the Past to Life
The Queen Mum's Style
An interview with Frances Tempest
The experienced costume designer Frances Tempest was given the task of recreating Elizabeth's signature style in a wardrobe for the television film spanning thirty years of her life. The recipient of a BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) award for costume design for the Masterpiece Theatre presentation A Respectable Trade, Tempest has also been responsible for the design of costumes for Breaking the Code, A Rather English Marriage, The Last of the Blonde Bombshells and The Cazalets, among many others.
She spoke with Masterpiece Theatre Online about the challenges of the assignment and her creative approach in January of 2002.
Paris, 21 July 1938
The king and queen's State visit to Paris has been a triumph. The queen, still in mourning for her mother, has stunned the fashion-conscious French with a series of dresses designed for her by Norman Hartnell in the alternative mourning colour of white. At Versailles today the king reviewed 50,000 French troops but it was the queen's romantic, frothy white dress with matching hat and parasol that brought gasps from the crowd...
-- from Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother:
Chronicle of a Remarkable Life, Dorling Kindersley, 2000
Tell us a bit about your background as a costume designer.
I've never done anything else! I started work in the theatre in the late 1960s and then, gradually, I drifted into film and television and I've been doing it ever since...
With just a few exceptions it seems like you've done a lot of work focusing on the early 20th century...
I just seem to have gotten stuck in that era, you know? It's funny how that happens. I'm dying to do something medieval -- knights in armor or Vikings or something! But, you know, it comes in waves, that. At one point there were six Robin Hood films being made, weren't there? I think that's just sort of fashion... straws in the wind... I was working this year on a film with Bruce Beresford, an 18th century film which unfortunately collapsed through a lack of financing... but that was wonderful...
Where do you start when you approach a project like Bertie and Elizabeth?
Well, it is a fairy tale but it is firmly based in reality, it really happened. And there are so many people who are obsessed with the Queen Mother. She has got real, real fans. You have to be very careful; you're going to get them writing in saying, "Oh, but on the fifth of September she did this, this and this."
And, "the brooch was on the left and not on the right..."
Exactly. Exactly. There's all sorts of source material because she has been heavily photographed her whole life, and there's an awful lot of old newsreel footage. So, all of us worked together -- the producer, the director, the production designer (Martyn John) and myself -- we really soaked ourselves in the photographs and the footage and everything. I felt I could go on Mastermind and take a quiz about the Queen Mother and what she had for breakfast! I was absolutely getting obsessed with it.
But once we'd gone through that we thought, "OK, well, we've done that but now we have to put it to one side because we're not making a documentary. What I said was I really just want to capture the spirit of her, not necessarily that particular dress she wore on that particular day but the feeling and the style of what she wore.
At times though there were outfits that you did try to replicate exactly... certainly the wedding dress...
Absolutely. Her wedding dress is still the personal property of the Queen Mother, so I rang the palace and explained and they said, "Oh, you're in luck, because it's going to go on exhibition!" I said, "Oh, that's wonderful, because we've got photographs but, you know, it's never quite the same as looking at the real thing." I said, "When is it going on exhibition?" and they said, "Well, the end of 2002!"
I had to explain that our time scale was a bit different! So we ended up just working from photographs. We weren't able to see the real thing unfortunately... but I think we came quite close.
The wedding dress was a replica, obviously, and where ever we've cut into real footage, like when she's on the balcony on VE day, when she's laying poppies on the French war memorial -- those are copies of the clothes she actually wore.
How do you go about creating a wardrobe for a character like the Queen Mother?
What you normally do when you're building a character is you get together a wardrobe of clothes and then you mix and match like you do in real life; you know, you use different things over again. But in this case... I've never worked on anything quite like it ... you do a particular scene and it was, "Okay, that's that dress finished with." And we never see that dress again.
What about the men?
It was easier in a way for the men because, you know, a dark suit is a dark suit. We could mix and match a bit more. Bertie didn't have as many clothes. I tried to do a transition with his wardrobe. It starts off very, very formal and I tried to make him less formal as time went on.
And I tried to get across the idea that when they were just being the family, with the little princesses about, it was much more informal. You'd see him in sweaters and soft things... just trying to be like a normal family at home.
Do you concentrate on the main characters and have other people working with you handle the costumes for secondary characters?
Oh no, I'm far too much of a megalomaniac!
You have to delegate; of course you have to delegate. What I try to do is have a color scheme for a particular scene which, again, is the result of a collaboration with the production designer. We look at what color the room is going to be and so on.
And then, within whatever guidelines we develop ... I want this scene all black and silver or whatever it happens to be... that will be my brief to the firm of the costumers, where we hire all the things from. They'd get lots of things together and then together we'd work out what would look good and what is actually going to fit the actors and all of that. So, of course there is delegation, but I have the final overall say on the costumes.
There is clearly a distinction in style between Elizabeth and Wallis Simpson, both physically and in their approach to fashion...
Absolutely. Amber Rose Sealey, who plays Wallis, is an American actress who lives here in England, in London. I'd worked with her before -- I worked with her twice last year, just by chance -- so that was good because we already knew each other. All the photographs of Wallis... she just looked fantastic! She was not an attractive woman but she dressed so well! I think that was one of the things the English hated about her!
This film has a clearly negative viewpoint about Mrs. Simpson.
Well, she was known as "that woman." The Queen Mother has never spoken about her; whether, when she's dead, things will be published I don't know, but the official version is that the Queen Mother never forgave Wallis Simpson. Without Wallis Simpson, Bertie would never have been King and if he hadn't been King he wouldn't have had to do all that work and he wouldn't have made himself ill. So Wallis Simpson was blamed for killing Bertie.
This poor actress, Amber, who played Wallis... she began to actually identify with the part. She'd say, "I'm sure she was a very nice woman, really!" No, that's not what we want!
She had a fantastic figure, she looked brilliant. A lot of her clothes were actually originals. Some were copies, made to fit, but some were actual originals that she just poured herself into and she looked stunning.
Do you use vintage clothing?
I do try to. It depends. A lot of it is luck, isn't it? With Amber we were lucky; we found some vintage pieces and they fit because she was very small. We had to make virtually everything for Juliet, which had a lot to do with her size because she's so tall. We did find some beautiful things, some of which we copied, because the originals didn't fit her.
Once you've done the research of studying photographs and newsreels, what's your next step?
I started out on this project meeting Juliet. We had to look at her body very carefully and work out the engineering and the padding and how much we would be able to pad without it looking ridiculous. We tried to work out the stages. It really was doing the basics at first. After that we just put things on to see what was going to work on her.
It's all very well having lots of photographs of the Queen Mother in a particular thing but if that thing didn't work on Juliet... I decided in the end the object of the exercise was to make Juliet look wonderful. If I can make her look wonderful and look like the Queen Mother, that's fantastic, but really, the idea was to make her look wonderful. That became my priority.
Then, I did sketches and sent them off to the dressmakers. You can imagine, with that many clothes, we had people all over England stitching away.
Your dressmakers will work from sketches?
Yes, and they're not terribly detailed. I also had a milliner; I had someone making all of Juliet's hats as well. Hats are one of my obsessions! If you've seen Mapp and Lucia you probably know that! I love hats.
What I would do -- for both the dressmakers and the milliner -- I would send a sketch of the sort of thing I was after, together with some photographs and reference material of the Queen Mother wearing either that hat or something very similar, or the same sort of scale. We needed to have Juliet's costume fittings virtually every other day because there was so much.
And she wasn't the only one...
We did manage to get a head start with Juliet. And then they started casting all these other people and I thought "Oh, no!" It wasn't one of those films where everything is ready from the first day of filming; it was very much a process of, "Okay, that's day one and everything is set up and looking lovely; I'll run away and worry about day 2 now!" It was an ongoing process.
What kind of staff do you work with?
I did it all with a firm I work with a lot called Cosprop who do most of the costumes for period films; they do some beautiful things. They have their own staff of costumers and dressmakers and dyers and beaders and embroiderers and everybody else.
But there was so much to do that we were also using freelance people dotted about all over the country.
There was one woman who was down in Devon sewing away at the little princesses' clothes. When we had the foot and mouth scare and they were burning all the animals, I rang her one day and she said, "It's terrible; all I can see are these fires." She was sitting there stitching the little princesses' dresses; it was quite bizarre.
What has become of the costumes now that filming is complete?
The costumes have gone back to Cosprop; all the Queen Mother's clothes are being stored because Bath Costume Museum (we filmed in Bath) wants to do an exhibition to coincide with the showing of the television film.
How do you think American audiences will react to Bertie and Elizabeth?
I'm sure it will be different for an American to watch. In the early days, I'd arranged to meet the director for a very preliminary chat and we met in a hotel in London because it was a sort of central place. We were just sitting there, drinking tea, chatting in a not very loud voice about what we were going to do, and this American woman came over! She said, "I can't help it! I overheard what you said! When are we going to see it?!" She was going to go back home and tell everybody. I thought, gee, that's our audience! It was great! That was even before we had made it!
Jo Willet (the producer) always said she wanted it to be a love story, you know. It's not a documentary about the Queen Mother, because there's enough of those, God knows, you know, and it's not a documentary about Wallis Simpson. That's all been covered so many times. It's a love story, a story of their marriage. I hope that's what comes across.
It was very frustrating because you just wished you could have gone and spoken to her. She never gives interviews. But what an amazing life! It is like a fairy tale. From the mid-thirties to the outbreak of the war -- when she was being dressed by (Norman) Hartnell -- she was like a film star. She really looked fantastic and she knew how to play the crowd, to get the attention.
It was great fun; I really enjoyed every minute of it but it was exhausting!
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