Tweeds, Jumpers & More: An Interview with All Creatures Great and Small’s Costume Designer
From richly colored jumpers to cozy tweeds, All Creatures Great and Small‘s costume designer Ros Little has the characters covered…literally! In an interview with MASTERPIECE, Little takes us behind the scenes to reveal how she helps bring the characters to life and, above all, make them believable through their clothes. Get the scoop on the overalls, the Fair Isles, the wedding gown and more, plus how Little would outfit Tricki Woo if given the chance.
The characters of All Creatures Great and Small have grown and changed over time. Is that reflected in their costumes?
Maybe in some, and not others. The one that maybe has changed a little bit is Mrs. Hall, only because when we first see her, she’s very much the professional woman wearing very modest clothes—very uniformed looking, rather dowdy. And gradually she’s come out of her shell a bit and is more part of the family, and her clothes are richer colors.
Another one who has changed is James Herriot, because initially we had a color palette for Glasgow, which is very much gray, so when we start off in Glasgow at the very beginning of the series, everything’s gray tones. And then we go to the Dales, and it’s all rich, warm colors, a very cozy and heathery sort of richness. We had James originally arriving in a gray suit, which was a quadrupled suit [four identical suits] because we immediately see him being kicked by a stallion! That was in the first series. Then at the beginning of the second series we saw him back in Glasgow again, making up his mind whether he was going to make his life in the Dales or not. So occasionally he’s in gray, but largely he’s more in sort of tweedy things.
Generally, their clothes don’t change a lot, the men in particular, because it was the Depression. There wasn’t much money. It would be wrong for them to have lots of clothes. Occasionally, we need special things for them, like white tie ball, or suddenly Helen, who works on a farm, has a gorgeous evening dress. There are things that we’re able to do with the story, but they wouldn’t really be in the wardrobe. We are just trying to make them look nice in their everyday look.
Can you describe a departure from the regular wardrobe for Mrs. Hall and Helen?
Well, we’ve seen Mrs. Hall in things that are not exactly glamorous, but for example in Series 2 there was a cricket match where she’s in a lovely green stripy dress and it’s very fresh looking. She’s relaxing and she’s with Gerald and she’s having fun. That’s very different to the image we have of her most of the time.
With Helen, there’s the evening dress I had made for her in the first series, a sort of petal-y blue velvet thing. It was really nice. That’s a good contrast for her because she’s worn quite a lot of nice summer dresses of the period, but they’re nothing special. They’re originals, most of them, hired from the costume house Cosprop. Quite a lot of the clothes are originals when we can find them. We have made some blouses and things with reproductions of original prints, but only original things like dresses really last—and even barely. They’ll do for a few scenes, but they’re about 80 years old, so they’re quite fragile.
Things like the beautiful evening dress, we vaguely modeled on another dress, and recreated. A lot of the things in the costume houses we use as a sort of pattern to try on different things, find something that suits her, and then go from there. Because it might not be really quite the right fit, but it’s the idea of finding a look that suits.
Is there something in each character’s wardrobe that you see as emblematic of who they are? Maybe we can start with Helen and her overalls, which viewers far and wide have fallen in love with…
Yeah, I think everybody likes the overalls, but it’s just what people would wear. I mean, dungarees come and go, but they were very in fashion around the time that she started wearing them. I try to keep her wearing nice trousers at home and overalls when she goes to the farm, because she’s now married and living at Skeldale. So the overalls are just to be what she wears for work. Helen’s got two sets that we’ve used—one set is blue, and those are hired, then there’s a brown set, and those are actually bought from a workwear company.
Some of these things are specially made, and some are hired. At Cosprop, for example…with women’s stuff, you tend to find plenty of nice dresses, which have had very little wear because they’re worn in scenes where they’re probably not going to be damaged. But you wouldn’t find work wear, or you just find limited work wear. It has to be made, really. But Helen’s got two overalls and they were easy to find, so that was lucky. And that’s just the look you want: wellingtons, big socks, jackets.
Mrs. Hall’s thing is definitely her old faded cardigan. The actor herself [Anna Madeley] is wedded to this cardigan. She doesn’t wear it as much in Series 3, but as long as it’s there…She feels that really typifies her.
With Sam [West, who plays Siegfried], when we first talked about this series, he said, “I don’t want to be too smart. I should be a bit shabby.” I said, “Well, good. Because you would be,” because I’d spoken to people like older vets I’d made contact with. And one—he’s an elderly but well-known vet—was at pains to tell me that when he was a boy in the ’30s, the vet came on a bicycle. Even a car was beyond the means of a vet, really. You think of a vet as a quite well paid role now, but it wasn’t particularly then, and you see the character Siegfried Farnon scrimping together and forgetting to send the bills. They are relatively well off, compared to a lot of the villagers, but their clothes would be limited.
His thing is the ties. We have some nice silk ties that we’ve used, but we’ve used them so much that eventually I started getting messages last year saying, “Can we do anything about Sam’s ties? He’d like some new ones.” I’m like, I thought we loved these ties. But he’d love them so much that because they were silk, they actually completely started to shred. I’d thought they were exaggerating—they were worn on the edges before—but we used them so much that when I saw them, there was just the lining left, really, where the knot would be. I had to find some other ones. Because he likes particular colors, we tend to try and add with him—the suits are fairly plain and sensible, lovely tweeds, and then we add quite a flamboyant handkerchief and a rich colored tie, and occasionally slightly eccentric things, bits of knitwear, just because he’d like his character wearing an old cardigan or something like that in his downtime, maybe playing Scrabble at home.
Tristan, he’s quite dapper. He’s just been dapper the whole time, really. He likes wearing the suits. I had some trousers made for him because he spends quite a lot of time now in the surgery, so it’s the white coat, shirt and tie. You don’t really see the trousers, to be honest, or the jumpers, but you might do when he is taking off the white coat and putting on his jacket and going to the pub. We’ve always had quite bold jumpers for him.
…At the beginning, I fitted Tristan [in some] Fair Isles, and [the producers] were like, “Oh, yes, all this knitwear, it’s great.” It looks good, and it looks good against the backgrounds. There’s been a lot of very positive feedback about all the colors, the rich palette, not just in the costumes but in the set, and in the locations that are chosen.
The whole feeling is rich in a real way without it being flashy in any way. It’s just rich colors have been used by Jackie Smith, the production designer. And we worked closely together before we ever chose anything—I knew the colors that she would be using. It’s difficult, actually, because it’s quite dark in the set. Mrs. Hall’s pinnies are quite cheerful, and light colors, even though she’s wearing a drab skirt and dreary old shoes and often her cardigan. A cheerful pinny was a cheap thing that would be bought in a market stall, or maybe she made them. Everybody wore them. So that’s how we enliven her and try to make things help offset her against the set.
Things like the maroon dress. We got Mrs. Hall in a lovely rich colored dress I had made for her for Helen’s wedding. Actually, it’s a copy of an original dress that looked really nice on her. It was green, but I had found a company who do reproduction fabrics, and they can do them in all sorts of colors. They could show me all the prints they could do, then I could choose what color I wanted. But you can also choose the scale, so this might have been bigger, but we scaled it down to this size. It’s just a simple, elegant dress. I didn’t know if it would work for the wedding, but it could be worn again because there’s quite a lot of these reds and things in the house.
James, well, he has a really simple tweed jacket, kind of greenish gray, and that is him, kind of like Mrs. Hall [and her cardigan]. He has another jacket that I had made for him, which looks more sort of grown up, something a bit darker as he’s become more mature, but I’ve tended to keep that for good. When he has to go to the Ministry of Agriculture, I think wears his good tweed jacket at the time. Personally, I prefer, and I think he prefers, the first jacket.
The corduroys, the tweeds, the knitwear—they all seem so timeless. Can you clue us in to any details that would signal to a viewer that this is 1930s in men’s wear?
I suppose they have quite long collars, and the cut of the trousers—they’ve got high waisted double pleats. The problem is that some of these things have come [in and out of fashion], so these clothes could have been worn somewhere between the ’20s and the ’50s, really. Not so much the suits—and they don’t wear so many suits—but certainly these tweed jackets, the waist coats and so on. One of the reasons their clothes won’t change much is because you could still buy a jacket like the ones that we’ve had made or hired. They wouldn’t be quite the same cut, they might be a bit shorter or a bit more boxy or have different types of vents, but they’d still give the overall look.
For men, their clothes are limited. With knitwear, it tends to be v-necks, and we can see the tie and so on. Not so much crew necks, but polo necks [turtlenecks] could be worn, but that would be more of a naval thing at the time. I’ve had farmers and people wearing polo necks, that might come in a bit more. I thought having a polo neck knitted for a James, but then I thought, no, he has really got to be professional with a tie on, properly turned out. Ties are going out now, but back then, a professional man would always be in a tie. It’s small things—cuff links instead of buttons, for example—that hopefully people are convinced it’s the ’30s.
Can you tell us about Helen’s wedding dress?
I knew that they were wanting this to be something that they would love. Helen had had another almost wedding before [to Hugh Hulton], and I already knew that eventually she’d marry James, so for the first wedding, we found a very typically 1930s wedding dress to hire from Cosprop. It was along the lines of the sort of fashions that Wallis Simpson would wear, a slim sort of thing, and that was very nice. So then the one for James had to be almost the opposite. But the main thing was that it would suit Rachel, because she is very petite, so she can’t be festooned in too much fabric.
We found this absolutely gorgeous, fabulous Italian lace. Luckily Melissa Gallant, the executive producer, said, “I wonder what it might be in the way of lace?” and I was like, “Well there’s this…because I’ve already found it.” So we looked at a few laces, this was of course the most expensive lace in the shop, but it’s bound to be. We dyed the silk [of the dress] a little bit darker than the lace so that the pattern would definitely show—it would be no good putting it against white and then it would just disappear. It’d be a terrible waste.
I’d found something that was sort of along the lines of what I thought might work in terms of a fashion plate. It was this idea of a nice, fitted bodice, and a skirt that would be full but not from the waist—it would be bias cut. And then we tried things. We’d think, “Well, we love that neckline”—we hadn’t actually expected to go with the original neckline of the dress, but we did. “But we don’t want a sleeve like that, we want this.” We needed long sleeves, because was filming in March. Plus, I think it’s more modest for a bride to have long sleeves anyway.
So we worked with looking for shapes that flatter [Rachel]. It doesn’t particularly matter about the period per se, with a wedding dress—it could be anything. It had to work with her figure, and she had to feel very happy in it, because apart from the scenes, it was going to attract more attention than her ordinary clothes, which people are interested in anyway…Then I showed the producers [because] obviously they knew the wedding dress would be the big thing. We couldn’t take the risk that further down the line they’d say, “Oh wish it wasn’t lace,” so we showed them this lace draped over a mannequin to give them the idea of how it would move and everything, and Brian [Percival, executive producer and director] signed up to that idea, and Melissa and everybody who needed to know.
We try to make it so we believe everything they wear, rather than just liking a thing. It’s more about trying to make [the actor] feel right for whatever they’re doing in their character. And for them to feel right. I need to like it, but they need to like it, and if they don’t like it, there’s no point in ever having it. We don’t show any directors anything that the actor’s not sure about, because there wouldn’t be any point.
And that’s why we wouldn’t normally start with a drawing. I’d be much more likely to show them an original pattern and an original fabric, rather than a drawing. …It’s fine when it’s stylized for the theater, or certain types of productions—I’ve done The Last Kingdom, where we’re starting from scratch and we don’t know what people wore in the ninth century. Then you need to do drawings, because you have to make everything. Whereas this is more about real clothes. It’s not so far away that people wouldn’t produce pictures of their granny or something. The ’30s is not that far away, and there’s plenty of films and photographs and lots of iconic characters—the Prince of Wales and Mrs. Simpson, people like that—who somehow are constantly appearing, so people are familiar with these things. We’re just trying to make it look believable, really.
Last of all, if you could design a costume for Tricki Woo, what would it be?
I could imagine him having a lovely tailored tartan coat. At the time dogs didn’t have much, so I think he should have a traditional coat, properly appointed with nice leather buckles and everything. I think he might like that.