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'Every single item has to earn its keep': Ireland's Oscar-nominated costume designer on how her job works

A look at how Consolata Boyle works on film sets around the world, and what we can learn from her job.

Consolata Boyle arrives at the 19th Costume Designers Guild Awards in Beverly Hills in 2017.
Consolata Boyle arrives at the 19th Costume Designers Guild Awards in Beverly Hills in 2017.
Image: Admedia

IF CONSOLATA BOYLE does her job well on a film set, you don’t have to think too much about her work. As it washes over you, you can soak up all of its hidden secrets and stories without even realising.

As the costume designer for films like Florence Foster Jenkins, Anne Devlin, Into the West and Victoria and Abdul, the Oscar-nominated Dubliner is charged with telling a story through the outfits the characters wear.

But her job is more than just putting Meryl Streep in an interesting frock. It’s about giving the viewer a sense of the character, their story arc, their backstory, their personality – all without the viewer even realising what’s being done. 

As well as her three Oscar nominations, Boyle has won several other awards throughout her career. Amongst them are an Emmy Award for the television film The Lion in Winter (2003), a Costume Designers Guild Award for The Queen (2006) and four Irish Film and Television Awards for The Queen (2006), Chéri (2009), The Iron Lady (2011) and Philomena (2013).

Boyle has a long-standing working relationship with British director Stephen Frears (Florence Foster Jenkins, Philomena) over the past 25 years. She and her team frequently travel to work on film sets across the world. For such a feted costume designer however, she tells TheJournal.ie that her career evolved naturally, without any grand plans. 

Radioactive

The first film Boyle worked on was Anne Devlin, directed by Pat Murphy. The 1984 Irish drama – which will be shown at this year’s Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival – is about a woman who is usually called ‘Robert Emmet’s housekeeper’, but whose story Murphy aims to reframe.

A forthcoming 2020 film featuring Boyle’s costume design is Marjane Satrapi’s (Persepolis) second feature Radioactive, about the life of Marie Curie. Yet again we see Boyle exploring the life of a fascinating woman through costume.

“I’ve been asked to do lots of films about interesting women, which I just love,” says Boyle. Marie Curie was “obviously brilliant and completely genius”, but as Radioactive shows, both she and her husband Pierre were exposed to radium and died from associated diseases. 

The filmmaking process for Radioactive involved “lots of interesting discussions” with Iranian native Satrapi, particularly about the labs that the pair worked in. “They always were working in makeshift labs, they never got until the end of their careers, proper funding. They worked in sheds so were very exposed,” says Boyle. 

The film covers the arc of Curie’s life, including her arrival in Paris from Poland, and meant that Boyle had to design costumes dating from the 1890s to the 1930s.

Part of Boyle’s job is dealing with tricky things like this. Take Victoria and Abdul, for example, where Judy Dench’s character Queen Victoria needs to spend much of the film clad in mourning black. As black can look flat on screen, Boyle had to harness ways of making Dench’s outfits sparkle. 

“Like most Victorians she was heavily into surface decoration – masses of layers gave very interesting texture, tucking, looping, ruching and pleating. And with everything going on on this surface we were really able to capitalise on that; and then she did use a lot of black and white. All of that did help in working ways of making black have more depth,” explained Boyle.

Preferred_Radioactive Radioactive Source: Laurie Sparham

‘I literally jumped into the deep end’

Boyle studied History and Archaeology at University College Dublin, where she was involved with Dramsoc. She went on to learn more about costume design at The Abbey Theatre.

“It happened organically,” she tells TheJournal.ie of her career path. “I was very lucky at that time [when I started] – the industry in Ireland was very small and moving from theatre into film was not quite as big a deal, because obviously they are two very different mediums.”

At the same time, the Irish film industry was growing, thanks to the advent of the Irish Film Board and other initiatives.

“I was asked to do things that probably were far too complicated for my experience in film at the time,” says Boyle. “I would say I literally just jumped in at the deep end and literally had to survive. I went in straight as full costume designer – I never assisted anyone, and when I look back now I get more terrified knowing what I know now. But there was an openness and flexibility and a lovely atmosphere around making film at that point, which there still is. Though maybe now it’s a little more rigid and stratified.”

She says that these days TV and film are starting to blend much more, but that “focusing on detail in film is paramount”.

With film, you don’t get “the long and wonderful rehearsal period” you get in theatre. “Sometimes people come in overnight, and everything has to be ready, everything has to be pin sharp for them.”

“Film I always think of as a more brutal industry – you have no second chances. If you don’t get it right in that moment you’ve lost that moment, it’s gone,” she adds.  

Inspiration

Her work often means going to wherever the actor is in the world for a fitting. Then there’s the preparation work that involves talking to the actor about the director’s vision, and the overall vision of the film.

Her preparation time depends on the budget and the size of the film. “Sometimes you have a long run in, a long preparation period and things can be done and planned very quickly. Other times it’s tiny – you need to adapt and function in both worlds. But always what I try to do is have as much research prep time as I can.”

Then she starts to create the world of the film. “That is done methodically, piece by piece by piece, throwing a very wide net and that research is the bedrock of everything you do from then on.”

Some of that inevitably gets thrown out as ideas are refined. “I can’t emphasise enough, the research, how important it is,” says Boyle. “I enjoy it. I get such pleasure from it.”

From this “rich vein of inspiration”, Boyle then creates drawings of the costumes. These are sent to the costume makers, and when they are back the fittings can start. On some films, usually ones with lower budgets, there are no fittings and instead there is outfit buying. 

‘Contemporary is full of traps’

Preferred_Herself (2) Herself

There can be the presumption that contemporary clothing is much easier to source and design than period clothing. A pair of jeans is a pair of jeans, isn’t it? It turns out that this isn’t the case.

“In a way contemporary is full of traps, much more than something that can be conceived of in the past,” says Boyle. With contemporary, she says, everyone has an opinion on the clothing. But if you concentrate on that and not the intent of the film, then you can get lost. 

“You have to have absolute clarity for the look of the film. What is the story, what is the story of each character? And that will dictate things.” Otherwise, she says “utter chaos will ensue and it will be confusing for the audience”.

Every single item, every single piece of jewellery – there has to be a reason why it’s there. It has to earn its keep and be part of the story, of the characters and what will happen. It sounds an awful lot for little pieces of clothing to carry – it has to be invisible. If you start noticing that you’ve lost.

She treats every project as though she’s starting with a “totally blank sheet”. “Obviously you bring experience and it speeds things up, but really when it comes to it every project is a complete blank page,” she says.

Film is all about world building, and costumes give a sense of where the characters sit in that world. Their clothes, jewellery, make-up and hairstyle all tell part of their story, and are a shorthand for their history.

“You hear often actors, what they say is ‘the costume gave me my character, that up to that point I wasn’t quite sure’. But the costume is only one element of absolutely a myriad of things that come together that make sense to people,” says Boyle.

“It’s one of the links in the page  – if it is weak or if it’s wrong or dodgy it can throw everyone out of sync.”

She says she is always surprised by the trust actors have in costume designers. “Here you are a complete stranger with the power to completely skew their performance. They are a group of people I have respect for, complete respect.”

“Once you set up shop it’s like a travelling circus,” she says of life on set. But no matter how prepared you are, “always you have to leave that moment where you are still able to turn on a sixpence”. If you flounder when something goes wrong, ”at that point you’ve lost”.

Film is, says Boyle “an intense industry – emotions are high. You have to have a sense of humour about it as well.”

Regarding her work with Stephen Frears, Boyle says that she has been “so incredibly lucky to work with him for so long”.

She says their relationship “can never be taken for granted”, and describes Frears as “an incredibly brilliant and clever man, an absolute genius at telling a story economically, totally on top of his craft.”

On a Frears set, “everyone is joyful – the actors love him, everyone wants to do their best. It’s unthinkable that you would let him down”.

Boyle has received numerous awards, but she doesn’t take them for granted.

“It’s obviously wonderful, it’s really great in many ways,” she says. “[When you look back at your work] you’re always in a state of horror because all you can see are the mistakes, the lack of energy, the lack of concentration… but also the feeling that this is such a team event, that it’s the team being recognised. That’s what gives the greatest thrill.”

When asked about the most memorable films she’s worked on, Boyle points to her formative early films.

She remembers them “with absolute clarity” for how they taught her about her personal vision. “Into the West, I will never, ever forget that: the people involved, the story, what I learned. December Bride, with Thaddeus O’Sullivan who I went on to work with again. That film had a profound influence on me.”

Because she has been involved with film for so long, Boyle has watched how the Irish industry has gone through highs and lows.

What does she think of it now? “It’s absolutely stunningly wonderful, and the films that are being made and the quality of the storytelling, the technical quality, everything is sky high.”

She says “we should be incredibly proud of everything that is being produced and the people involved” in Irish productions. 

“And the importance of them – important to Ireland, to how Ireland is viewed, most importantly to how we view ourselves. Ireland is taken very seriously in the world when it’s a small country with a very vibrant, creative, invigorated workforce.”

The Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival runs from 26 February – 8 March 2020. For more details, visit the website

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