Despite playing a vital role in the world of film and TV, costume and production design often don’t get the recognition they deserve. It is frequently the case for costume designers, who work in the shadow of actors and directors, but even more so for the embroiderers, artisans and suppliers, who work in the shadow of the designers.
This article hopes to shed some light on the behind-the-scenes work of the unsung heroes of costume and set design.
An unmistakable symbol of tradition and history, embroidery is often used in period dramas. A signifier of another time and an immediate way to convey the status of a character, embroidery can subtly communicate complex meaning to audience. The creations of embroiderer Thomas Sjølander illustrate this perfectly, his luscious embroideries taking centre stage in Kingdom of Heaven and Memoirs of a Geisha. Two great films where the costumes must be sensitive to the period, culture, geography and simultaneously express the characters subtext.
Hand & Lock have also contributed to many memorable costume dramas. Determined to portray the royals as accurately as possible, costume designers for The Crown called upon the 250 year old embroidery house for simple supplies. The costume department bought laces, badges and accoutrements for uniforms and saddle cloths used in the foreground and background of many key scenes. Hand & Lock are uniquely placed to supply the same materials used on the real royal family as well as the reproductions captured on film.
Downton Abbey by contrast was far more involved. The costume designers wanted to produce butlers’ uniforms for a grand banquet. The green livery jackets were decorated with silver lace and silver russia braid in elaborate frogging designs. The processes took four embroiders two weeks to complete, with the final jackets being receiving less than five minutes screen time in the final film.
In the celebrity biopic genre accuracy is equally important, but sometimes scenes have to be manufactured to propel the story. Capturing Freddie Mercury’s eccentricity was quite a task for Bohemian Rhapsody’s costume design team, who even ordered a bespoke aiguillette from Hand & Lock for the black leather jacket worn by Rami Malek in the film, a replica of the jacket worn by Mercury in the 1985 Fashion Aid. The director of Bohemian Rhapsody reproduced a riotous party and borrowed costume inspiration from Mercury’s music videos. The final scene on screen captures the spirit, style and decadence of the legendary singer.
A world away from reality and another genre entirely, where embroidery can be deployed in imaginative ways, is the world of fantasy. The work of Michelle Carragher for Game of Thrones, which can be seen across all eight seasons of the show, proves that anything can be recreated with embroidery.
Carragher’s embroidery had to be produced under tight filming deadlines yet always captured the essence of the characters portrayed. Her embroidery has been featured on thousands of online blogs and articles and the costumes themselves have been featured in many museums exhibitions.
Still in the realms of fantasy, Hand & Lock produced some challenging costumes for Dracula Untold. The main issue Hand & Lock embroiderers faced was making machine embroidery look like hand embroidery. While machine was the best answer for the budget, the film was set in the late Middle Ages, when no such thing existed. By using metallic threads the aesthetic of goldwork hand embroidery could be emulated. The two costumes were on screen for little more than ten seconds with neither wearer standing still for long enough for any close scrutiny. Proving the design choice appropriate to the nature of the scene being filmed.
While the embroidery production is sometimes out of the hands of Hand & Lock, it is still rewarding to see materials supplied used in unexpected ways on the big screen. In Disney’s live action version of Aladdin, Hand & Lock supplied the exquisite gold laces for Jasmine and Jafar’s costumes. These laces left the atelier as a roll of lace in the hands of a costume assistant before being arranged in elaborate patterns on the final costumes.
Laces such as these are typically used in military uniforms so including them as fringe decorations on a pink silk dress is a pleasant and surprising choice.
Embroidery was also produced for fantasy films such as The BFG & Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them – a pipe banner and a massive wall hanging crest, respectively. An interesting choice by the costume and production design teams, when CGI, used throughout both films, would likely have been easier. In both cases the embroidery is very easy to miss but perhaps the real story is about creating a world that feels real for the actors to bring the story to life. This kind of exacting approach is a testament to the diligence of the costume departments and set designers on these two popular films.
Film credits rarely include the army of suppliers and embroiderers that work in the shadows supplying costume designers. Nevertheless there is still pleasure and pride in seeing your embroidery on the big screen, even if you have to freeze-frame it to get a good look. Next time you watch a film and admire the costumes spare a thought for the unsung artisans, suppliers and embroiderers that brought it to life.
Book a TourRead More