Costume designer Joanna Eatwell has done a number of well-received, big attention historical TV productions — most notably Wolf Hall. She came to the attention of frock flicks fans when she designed The Paradise, but it’s Wolf Hall that truly impressed. In an interview in The Independent, Eatwell recalled,
“‘I didn’t start out wanting to do this… I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I did a foundation art degree and then did a degree in theatre design, so I was interested in that side of things. I did a bit of costume and then started working in the early Eighties in music videos.’ This was the heyday of MTV, and before computer graphics, “so if the band wanted 500 dancing girls, you did 500 dancing girls,” she says. “I made absolutely everything, and got a reputation, so if you wanted a 30-foot crocodile made, that’s what we would do.” When record companies stopped lavishing money on pop videos, Eatwell moved into commercials and also worked for a while with the photographer David Bailey, before dressing her first drama, the 1991 Jimmy Nail series Spender. ‘I’ve loved it ever since… just telling stories through people'” (Gerard Gilbert, “To Dress a King (and a Doctor, and a Sherlock).” The Independent, Jan 17, 2015).
She’s gone on to design Taboo, Beecham House, and Carnival Row, and has received accolades for many of these. Let’s take a look at her career in historical filmmaking, and as always, I’ll include quotations from the designer about her work whenever possible.
Oliver Twist (1997)
A made-for-TV adaptation of the Charles Dickens classic, produced by Walt Disney Television. Richard Dreyfuss plays Fagin, while Elijah Wood plays the Artful Dodger.
Miracle at Midnight (1998)
Another Disney production, this TV movie stars Mia Farrow in a dramatization of the true story of the Danish rescue of Jews from deportation to Nazi concentration camps during World War II.
A BBC TV movie about Stephen Hawking’s early years, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as the legendary scientist.
Einstein and Eddington (2008)
David Tennant as British scientist Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington, and Andy Serkis as Albert Einstein. According to Wikipedia, “This is the story of Einstein’s general theory of relativity, his relationship with Eddington and the introduction of this theory to the world, against the backdrop of the Great War and Eddington’s eclipse observations.”
Eric & Ernie (2011)
A TV film about the early career of the British comic stage act Morecambe and Wise during the 1940s and 1950s. Eatwell was nominated for a BAFTA award in Best Costume Design for her work.
The Paradise (2012)
A BBC/Masterpiece TV series about an 1870s department store and the people who work and shop there. Eatwell designed season one.
“The costumes were also Tissot-inspired, explains their designer Joanna Eatwell, in particular the uniforms, which were based on his painting The Shop Girl. But it was the wardrobe of Lady Katherine Glendenning, a banker’s daughter with designs on Moray, that took up most of Eatwell’s time. ‘She’s at the height of fashion so we change her outfit for pretty much every scenario,’ explains Eatwell. ‘And they’re all quite labour-intensive because Katherine prefers her own seamstress to The Paradise’s mass-produced clothes.’ Eatwell was eventually forced to hire local seamstresses of her own to help with the 14 or so dresses required every fortnight for Lady Katherine (Elaine Cassidy)” (Lucinda Everett, “A Good Eye for Retail: The Makers of ‘the Paradise’ Built a Luxurious, Period-Perfect Victorian Department Store on a Bargain-Basement BBC Budget. But Could a Big-Spending ITV Rival Leave it on the Shelf?” The Sunday Telegraph, Sep 30, 2012).
The Mill (2013)
A British TV series about life in Quarry Bank Mill in Cheshire, England during the 1830s.
Wolf Hall (2015)
The BBC adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s novel, presenting a dramatization of Thomas Cromwell’s rise to power in Henry VIII’s court, and his role in Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn. Eatwell was nominated for a BAFTA TV Craft award in Costume Design, and an Emmy for Outstanding Costumes for a Period/Fantasy Series, Limited Series or Movie.
“They are all made according to the principles of ‘original practice’ – that is, held together as they would have been in the 16th century. There is not a press stud or zip in sight, even on costumes for the crowd. Sleeves at that time were attached with tiny pins – which is where the phrase ‘pin money’ comes from – and even the pins themselves have been made especially for the production. Instead of buttons, they have aiglets, or points, threaded through eyelets. That, Eatwell adds, is the origin of ‘point-scoring’ – men used to gamble for aiglets with which to hold up their clothes. ‘We wanted to tell the story with depth, weight and honesty,’ she says. ‘There’s no cheating on their costumes'” (Gaby Wood, “Games of Throne: Authenticity is Everything in the BBC Adaptation of Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel’s Tale of Tudor Intrigue, Right Down to the very Last Pin on an Extra’s Costume. Gaby Wood Goes on Set.” Telegraph Magazine, Jan 10, 2015).
“‘All dramas are costume dramas… For me, the starting point is researching every character, and I look at all available portraiture. You have your Holbeins and so on and then you start working out how the garments are constructed, because unless you work out how they are put together, it will never look like that,’ she says, stabbing a finger at a cut-out of Holbein’s famous portrait of Thomas Cromwell. ‘So you have to go back: how did they construct this? What is the original practice?'” Gerard Gilbert, “To Dress a King (and a Doctor, and a Sherlock).” The Independent, Jan 17, 2015
“It is about telling the story through the clothes. With Cromwell more than anything, it is visually indicating his rise which has been one of the more interesting points. Because of Mark’s background at The Globe theatre, he works in a certain way which isn’t a way we often work in television which is ‘getting back to original practise’ and making it how it was made at this time. Everything has been handmade for him, hand dyed, all the fastenings are correct” (Interview with costume designer Joanna Eatwell).
“We started with the art of the period. It was pre-photography so one has to go straight to art. We were incredibly lucky because Hans Holbein the Younger was an amazing painter who specialized in portraiture of the court. He also did something that was rare: He did one or two paintings of the merchant class which was incredibly important in this case, because of Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance) and his family. There was one particular painting he did of a merchant’s wife which shows the construction of her clothing. That was the key for [designing for] Cromwell’s family — particularly Johane (Saskia Reeves), his sister-in-law, because there really is so little known about what the emerging merchant class wore at that time. He also painted one or two paintings for people who actually worked for King Henry VIII (Damian Lewis)–I think they were servants–and that’s something that was incredibly hard to find out about” (Behind the Seams with PBS’s Wolf Hall Costume Designer).
Set in 1814, the series focuses on the return to England of a man (Tom Hardy) with a mysterious past, and “explores the dark side of London… along with political and business corruption, the gangs, the misery of the working class, and the increase in wealth of the rich” (Wikipedia). Eatwell was again nominated for a BAFTA TV Craft award in Costume Design.
“‘For Taboo, I wanted to work in a sense of reality: London was a cold and dirty place, people walked through the mud and not over it. They were practical and didn’t want to suffer the elements, which is why I favoured boots over shoes, and wherever possible used layers and big coats,’ she says. ‘This isn’t the Regency world of Jane Austin [sic]! There isn’t a single white muslin dress or silk slipper anywhere. People were living a brutish existence, and the Port of London was a dangerous place.’ As for the biggest challenge of creating an authentic costume, Joanna says it’s very simple: time. ‘To make something authentically means hand sewing and finishing. It’s so important to get the shape right, as every era fetishizes a different part of the body. Once you know what it is, you build on that with relish!'” (Taboo’s costume designer Joanna Eatwell on the challenges of dressing Tom Hardy).
The Ottoman Lieutenant (2017)
A love story about an American nurse and a Turkish officer during World War I. The film received flak for possibly denying the Armenian genocide.
The Miniaturist (2017)
An adaptation of a novel set in 1680s Amsterdam, about a newly married woman who is given a mysterious doll’s house.
“My work is research based. I am a research nerd. I will go immediately to paintings, and on a job like this, there is a lot of art around. This is almost an untouched period. It hasn’t been touched in terms of television for at least thirty years. With Dutch art, what is an absolute godsend and what makes it very different to European art is the Dutch painted what they called interior domestic scenes. So we have paintings that cover the classes” (The Miniaturist: Costumes).
Beecham House (2019)
Focused on an English family (led by a former East Indian Company soldier) living in Delhi, India in the 1790s. Eatwell was again nominated for a BAFTA TV Craft award in Costume Design.
A neo-noir TV series about mythical creatures living in a human city in what appears to be the 1890s. Eatwell was nominated for a Costume Designers Guild award in Excellence in Sci-Fi/Fantasy Television, and an Emmy for Outstanding Fantasy/Sci-Fi Costumes.
“’Carnival Row’ was a fabulous challenge because we were creating an alternative world that adhered to history as we know it in some cases and in others, it was starting from scratch. We had the human world and the magical world and we needed to create individual cultures for all the inhabitants. We had to believe they had histories and homelands because losing [those histories and homelands] was an important part of the story. We had a great many meetings about the look of the various worlds and I produced many concept drawings for discussion. We also mocked up ideas on mannequins so we could put groups together and see how they worked. We had to believe it was real and gritty, a dangerous world'” (Why a Character’s Backstory is Crucial for Costume Designers Like Joanna Eatwell of ‘Carnival Row’).
A Christmas Carol (2019)
A “dark fantasy” take on the Charles Dickens classic, starring Guy Pearce as Scrooge and Andy Serkis as the Ghost of Christmas Past.
Which is your favorite of Joanna Eatwell’s historical costume designs?