A frequent collaborator of director Stephen Frears (Philomena, The Queen), a master in translating the unbelievable true story to the big screen, costume designer Consolata Boyle entered into the rarefied world of 1940s, high society New York for Florence Foster Jenkins. Given the incredulity fostered by the story of a famously terrible singer, who gives her name to the project, historical accuracy and attention to detail were imperative, nowhere more so than in the film’s elaborate set of costumes. Speaking with Deadline, Boyle details her attraction to the project, her collaboration with Meryl Streep—this year receiving the Costume Designers Guild’s distinguished collaborator award—and the challenges of designing costumes for a character who dressed herself like no one else.
Having worked with Stephen Frears on many projects, what was it that struck you as interesting with Florence Foster Jenkins?
I think the whole idea of the project is so intriguing and so magical, the idea that somebody who lives totally in their imagination like Florence did allows freedom for us to fly, and the fact that somebody as wonderful as Meryl was playing that central part was wonderful for me.
I just think that it works, hopefully, on many levels. It’s not just someone who was deluded, but it’s also about longing and laughs, and in a strange way, achieving what one wishes for, but then losing it, and finding it. It’s a very lovely and intriguing story, based obviously on reality, but a wonderful story.
Is it exciting to be able to create a representation of a real life person, particularly one who took so much pride in her designs?
Yes, because she lived in this world that she created for herself. As Bayfield says, “Ours is a happy world,” and so in order to enter this world in a way that’s childlike and has an innocence about it, you have to leave certain cynicism behind. That was wonderful because it gives freedom for your imagination to fly.
What did the research process for this film entail?
Obviously, the main research was about the woman herself, and we did a vast amount of research about the world she moved in—New York at that time, and that particular echelon of society that she flourished in, in a way. These ladies’ clubs of that time, which was, in a way, the only way that a woman could have that element of freedom to actually perform within that world. And so she created it herself, because she was an outsider. She created her own way in through these musical societies that she set up and paid for, and did everything herself.
We did a vast amount of research around that period and the whole feeling, and cast a very wide net. And then obviously there was this lovely element at the center, where there’s quite a lot of visual images of her. She was recorded quite a lot and photographed, particularly in her performance costume. There was this wonderful mixture of her daily life and her performance life, and in many ways, she was always dressing up, even in her day-to-day life, as well as the extreme exotic quality of her and tableau vivant costumes where she did these amazing performances that her group sort of lauded.
To answer your question, it was a very wide area of research, but then in the end, it’s always absolutely imagination. We’re telling a story, and we move away from all the research, and take the research with us and use some of it, not use some at all, to the ends of what the story is about.
In looking at the project as a period piece, what were the qualities of costumes or materials used at the time that were specific to that time?
Along with Stephen, our wonderful director, Alan MacDonald, production designer, and myself and Danny Cohen, the cameraman, worked very closely to create that feeling of New York in that period, and the color palette that we used is very specific, to give that lovely sort of pastel, and lightness of touch—which was a way to create her story, but also an overall visual approach to the film. The color was incredibly important for me; the fabrics are incredibly important.
The fabrics that would’ve been available at that time and the sort of fabrics that she used in her performance outfit, every single nuance of her accessories and her hats, all of those things I’m sure were so important to women in that period. Every single thing has to be right and just on the button, so that then there’s no area of doubt. We were all working together and singing off the same hymn sheet. That was our plan.
In your work, do you create every costume from scratch, or do you source some costumes for certain projects?
All of Florence’s look was created completely from scratch, and basically all of the principles are created totally from scratch, as well as some of the background. Because Meryl had to wear padding, everything had to be built around that padding. So usually with my work, the sort of project that I’m asked to be involved with, there’s a lot of making involved, and I like to source everything from scratch as much as I possibly can, and use original fabrics, or re-create fabrics based on the original.
But because the period of the late 1940s is not that long ago, a lot of fabrics are still available from that period, which is absolutely wonderful, and we searched high and low. We did a huge search in America for everything, and to get the right mood and feeling and the type of fabric of that period—to get it bang on right. And for our stock and our background, there was a lot of hiring from America, from the East and West Coast. We sourced from everywhere.
I’d imagine it would be difficult to source whole pieces for Meryl, given that Jenkins was so steadfast in pursuing her own aesthetic.
It would be impossible; you’re creating a world, and that world is a very particular one, a very heightened one. She created this world, along with Bayfield, and everybody who came into this world had to live by the rules of this world, in a way.
You had commented previously that there’s a certain beautiful childishness about Jenkins, in her creativity and self-authorship.
Yeah, it’s very true about her. There’s an innocence about her, as well as that rather tragic backstory of her marriage and state of health. And that sort of longing for something so incredibly, with such intensity. It’s a very touching story about longing for something, achieving it, and then maybe not quite achieving it. That magic bubble is burst at the end, even though Bayfield tries to protect her from all of that.
What was the process of creating bodysuits for Meryl?
We had wonderful skilled people making it from the ground up, and Meryl was such fun to work with; she really enjoyed it, and actually wore it from the beginning of the day to the end. With great humor and grace, it was sculpted to her body, and sculpted to the shape from all our reference points of the original woman to get that sort of bulk, because Meryl is very slender. Obviously, she needed to be bulked out, but it needed to be made as light as possible and as comfortable as possible to wear.
What is Streep like, as a collaborator?
I think that Meryl is very particular, and she has a fantastic interest. It’s because she knows the power of costume. Everything in her background, all her experience, she knows that costume is absolutely vital, and its power to become one with the performance.
Certain scenes in the film required hundreds of background performers; was it a rigorous process to create costumes for everyone involved?
It was. You have to work very hard during the prep period and search high and low, and obviously there’s a lot of making involved, even though every single thing for the principles is made from the ground up. It’s a big organizational process. But it’s something that happens on every film, so there is a way of doing it, and there’s a logic to how we work. There’s a search for all the stuff, finding everything that’s right for the particular mood of every scene, whether it be evening wear and day wear and rougher pieces or high society pieces.
What was the most challenging costume to produce for the film?
I think probably some of the performance costumes, like the Brunhilde costume, which is the one that we see her in first, when she’s lowered down. That’s technically quite complicated—it had to be all on wires and suspended, and work so that she could be lowered. The wings and the actual costume itself was quite a challenge, but we enjoyed it and Meryl was really such a trooper, being involved with the harness and the padding, and the costume and the wings and the headpiece, and everything going on at the same time.
What are you working on next? I believe there’s another Stephen Frears film in the works.
We literally just finished a project called Victoria and Abdul—we shot a lot of it here in the UK, and then the beginning and end is shot in India, in Agra. It’s about the relationship, again based on fact, between the elderly Queen Victoria and her Indian servant, Abdul Karim. It’s a very moving, very wonderful story; Judi Dench plays Victoria and Ali Fazal plays Abdul. Working again with Stephen is always such an incredible pleasure.