By Lindsay Lopez – April 30, 2013
Despite the catalog of nearly 40 films and intermittent television projects under her belt, Costume Designer Penny Rose will tell you first and foremost that to credit her with the thousands of costumes produced for those projects would be a misnomer.
“When [designing for] a film, there’s a team of 30 people involved—so I’m only putting in one thirtieth,” she says. “Without the team, you just couldn’t pull it off.”
Teamwork, collaboration and loyalty have been integral components of the British designer’s career since her initiation to the craft in the 1960s. While working in several departments of the theater at Windsor during school holidays as a teen, she established a love for costume in particular. After studying stage management at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, Rose worked in the high fashion world as an assistant and buyer for Fiorucci in Milan. Though she says she took the job “because I speak Italian, not much any reason else,” it acquainted Rose with a who’s who of 70s fashion and film players.
“I met somebody who suggested I do TV commercials,” Rose says. “The directors at the time were Tony and Ridley Scott, Adrian Lyne, Alan Parker. . .they all went on to become great British film directors.”
Rose credits Mr. Smith (1976), a half hour short directed by Lyne, as her first official film project. “I was maybe 26. We were all very much a team, everybody stuck together—rather like my life is now,” she explains. “I work with the same people all the time—it’s comfortable, you know the language, what people like.”
Since her start in the late 70s, Rose has devoted her skills to primarily period and fantasy film projects—among the high profile dramas and blockbusters she’s spearheaded over the last couple decades are Mission: Impossible and Evita (1996), King Arthur (2004), Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010), and all four installments of Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean films, (with an upcoming fifth installment currently in the queue).
Aside from her solid design team (she’s worked with Assistant Costume Designer John Norster for nearly 27 years and illustrator Darrell Warner for 15 years, in addition to teams of freelance specialists for the countless design duties required on each project), Rose derives both comfort and pleasure in repeatedly teaming with directors and actors. She collaborated with three-time Pirates director Gore Verbinski once again for Disney’s The Lone Ranger reboot, premiering this May, and possesses a not-so-secret admiration for her Jack Sparrow/Tonto (“there’s no such thing as too much Johnny Depp,” she says).
Additionally, Rose notes recurring collaboration with Pirates alums Geoffrey Rush and Keira Knightley (with whom she also worked on King Arthur) and actor Anthony Hopkins (with whom she worked on 1993’s Shadowlands and 1994’s The Road to Wellville) as instances where a comfortable rapport and a design “shorthand” is formed. A bond with the actors—and casting in general—is so crucial to effective Costume Design, Rose says, that when tackling new projects she doesn’t design costumes until principal casting is finalized.
“Very often the casting inspires what we would do with the character,” Rose says. While there’s a good deal of inspiration to be culled from the script, brainstorming with the director, and fine art (Rose draws frequent inspiration from trolling galleries for portraiture), the designer says, “I’m very often inspired by the casting. I instantly think, ‘oh, that person could get away with’. . .”
Rose is also adamant about keeping her actors’ comfort level in mind and not simply creating a character. “There’s a misconception about simply making costumes [for characters] and giving them to the actors—that ‘so and so’ is going to wear a black dress,’ even if it doesn’t suit [the actress] at all. It’s the same with the hair, the makeup. I’ve sat with a lady in a wig that was the wrong color for her skin tone, and I had no problem speaking up!” she says with a laugh. “The actor has to feel they are truly morphing into the character. I need the actors to feel happy—it’s imperative to me.”
For young professionals and students of Costume Design, Rose advises the importance of a lifetime commitment to studying one’s craft, as well as recognizing and valuing the multi-faceted nature of the job.
“There’s been a cross over between styling and Costume Design,” Rose says, “but the two have no similarities at all—[Costume Design requires] you to know budgeting, scheduling, your stunt men—it’s a comprehensive job.”
Successfully achieving a design vision within these constraints is truly satisfying, Rose says, counting the 1991 film The Commitments, about a Dublin street band, among her most rewarding projects to date. Rose so effectively nailed an authentic look that some viewers assumed the film pulled real band members off the street in existing attire. “If the clothes aren’t noticed, then you have done a fabulous job—I’m not a believer that the clothes should stand out. If you are doing something that’s all about the clothes, you want the clothes to look dead right,” she says.
“The challenge of the job is very often to achieve what you want within the budget that you have, and the whole thing is a challenge. Money wise, time wise, people wise, skills wise—there are huge elements and decision making [involved].”
With skilled help in the dye shop, from prop makers and a multitude of other workshops and departments—it’s a wonderful team environment, she says, with people equipped with the skills to move toward the team’s desired result and achieve it.