Costuming Sherlock

07 Aug 2018, Posted by admin in Latest1

We find out what inspired costume designer, Naomi Gibbs, when working on Blackeyed Theatre’s latest touring production, Sherlock Holmes: The Sign Of Four.

As a long-time fan of Sherlock Holmes, I was thrilled – to say the least – when Blackeyed Theatre approached me about costume designing for this production. It seems quite serendipitous to me that I should be doing this now, having lived on the very street where Arthur Conan Doyle’s practice was located (1 Bush Villas, Southsea) where he actually wrote The Sign of Four. I named my youngest son after the author. Oddly I am simultaneously designing Peter Pan, and of course Arthur Conan Doyle and J.M Barrie were firm friends! The stories of Sherlock are, it seems, a through-thread in my life.

I started with the script. It was important to me to try to strip back all of my preconceptions about Sherlock Holmes while I read Nick’s script, as though encountering the tale for the first time, primarily because the source material for my design concepts should always have the script at the very heart.

The Sherlock you’ll meet in our production has not deviated from the iconic character you’ll already know through popular culture. Although we’ll have interesting, slightly abstract ideas in the set, beautifully designed by Victoria Spearing, the natural and period-appropriate way in which the characters will be clothed will hopefully assist in suspending audience disbelief.


Mary Morston low res

Initial design for Mary Morstan

The play is set in the late 1880s (except for flashback scenes), during which men’s clothing was not undergoing major changes in silhouette, yet the ladies’ cut was slowly turning away from the extreme bustle shapes that had endured much popularity. 1888 saw the Victorians still in the throes of bustle fascination, but I believe Mary Morstan would wear a moderately sized bustle pad. Mary is a practical and earnest character with sense and intelligence. Being a governess of respectable but working class, I imagined that she’d opt to clothe herself modestly in something that would last but have a simple elegance. The colour of her attire should match her personality and give dignity alongside unassuming gentle beauty. So I chose a greyish tinged forget-me-not blue with typical ivory accents, though certainly not too much fussy lace. I hope to incorporate some of the antique Victorian handmade crochet lace in my collection. Mary’s gown will be lightly distressed after completion, because she’d be getting as much wear from her garments as possible before retiring them. Her bodice was inspired by an original garment of the era, which I felt was very resourcefully and inventively created with a refinement in simple details rather than fanciful frou-frou, which seemed to work with her personality. It’s likely I will make this up in cotton or wool suiting or perhaps matte crepe, bypassing the fancy taffetas and silks, which would be unfitting.

For Sherlock and Watson, I took great joy in referring back to the artists who illustrated Conan Doyle’s printed short stories, most notably Sidney Paget, who created hundreds of illustrations for the Sherlock stories, and Frederick Dorr Steele who is attributed to nailing the iconic accessories of the calabash pipe and deerstalker hat to Holmes’ image forever (though not the first to include them in Sherlock illustrations). There are many artists who contributed illustrations for various publications to accompany the Sherlock stories, some of who are uncredited. Such a wealth of imagery contemporary with the original story is really such a jewel of a resource for someone tasked with designing clothes for actors to bring the famous duo to life.


Costume design

Costume design for Holmes

I am yet undecided as to whether to include a deerstalker with Mr Holmes’ wardrobe. An impish part of me wants to buck the expectation and omit it as I never much liked it anyway! Also, I happen to have the insider-knowledge that our writer and director Nick Lane has more than a passing distaste for hats on stage, so their use will be limited. The pair will be outfitted with attire including a starched collar shirt, tie or cravat, formal trousers, waistcoat and jacket, as much of the action happens outside. Colours were generally more sober for gentlemen (Thaddeus Sholto excepted from the rule) due to a desire for practicality, economy and general good taste and longevity of wear. For Sherlock, he’ll cut a fine figure in black, whereas Watson will don the more relaxed hues of brown, hopefully in a tasteful city tweed. Because he’s more accessible as a character, we can perhaps relate more to him on a personal level. The way I see it, he is our mediator, translating the action between the incredible genius of Holmes and the rest of the waking world. Neither should look wealthy and I am hoping to get a worn rather than sharp look into their garments.

The actor who plays Adnan, Chowdar, Dost Akbar, Khan and Athelney-Jones will need to ‘wear many hats’ in the literal sense, so his changes need to be slick, easy and have a ‘tourable’ convenience (as do the others). So for him, I have decided to use a base costume to suit the majority of his characters, whilst giving it separate personalities to assist the audience to identify each with the use of pre-tied fixed turbans, which I have researched to be culturally appropriate for his roles. Designing for these characters has given me a wonderful opportunity to explore new streams of research which I hadn’t yet had occasion to delve into: traditional Indian costume. A consideration which is really coming to the forefront of the minds of costume designers, recently more so than ever, are the ever-evolving (and hopefully progressive) attitudes to the appropriate use of garments belonging to cultures and ethnicities that are not the designer’s own. It’s important for designers to ensure that the use of cultural garb is respectful and fits the period (and must be well researched so as to be used in correct context). The Victorians were obsessed with Oriental (in the Victorian sense of the word) textiles, so you’ll see motifs of this throughout my designs as it suits some of the characters and their backgrounds. A modern designer aims not to misappropriate a culture’s art when clothing the cast, but they may be saying through the clothes that the generation the characters belonged to most certainly did.


Sholto low res

Costume design for Thaddeus Sholto

My intention with the use of colour is to help create a clear distinction for the flash back scenes, and to give a feeling of the different flavours between India and Victorian London.

Jonathan Small’s peg leg creates an interesting costuming challenge, so I’ll be discussing my design ideas with a prop maker. To compliment his wooden leg, he’ll be wearing a very worn-in dusty and dirty coat and a tattered scarf.

Overall, my job is to help the actors tell the story, so for each design I make sure I ask myself key questions about the characters such as; How wealthy are they? What is their standing in society? How much does this person care about their appearance? What is their profession or occupation? What are their personal tastes? The clothes have to suit each criteria. Then, I must meet additional criteria such as ‘Can this actor move freely in their costume?’, ‘Is it fit for purpose?’ For each question I can take my cues from the script.

Having completed my designs, I spent a weekend in London, selecting ideal fabrics for my designs from my favourite suppliers, many of which are run by Sikh families who specialise in beautiful ranges of textiles to suit the production. As we near rehearsals, the construction of the costumes is well underway and due to be completed within the next couple of weeks.

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