When I’m not doing my degree, I watch a lot of period drama, which not only teaches me about the history of the particular time, but also about what people wore. It was no different when I watched the film Made in Dagenham, on which the musical is based. When I then read the musical script, I was inspired not only by the themes, but the place that fashion occupies in the show. A stand out moment is when Lisa Hopkins lends her Biba dress to Rita; the one Rita had commented on when they happen to meet outside Mr Buckton’s office. Lisa is a highly educated, stylish woman, who understands and identifies with the plight of the Ford sewing machinists in their fight for equal pay. The handing over of the Biba dress is a symbol of solidarity between classes of women, and of power whereby Rita goes on to make her groundbreaking speech to the TUC. Having the privilege as a designer to make this moment happen was something I was incredibly excited about.
Yet, how to compete with the design for the film by Louise Stjernsward, based on Barbara Hulanicki's original Biba designs? Initially as my research into the brand expanded, I was keen on doing something different, to give people a glimpse of the wealth of other designs Biba had to offer, from her iconic gingham dress to the miniskirt. However, upon discussion with the director, there seemed a clear reason why every production of the show so far has kept this detail. This red dress has come to represent far more than just a celebration of a Biba design: audiences make connections between the film and the show, identifying it as a symbol of Rita's growing confidence in the fight for equal pay. Not having Rita in a red dress would be like depriving Dorothy of her ruby slippers, or leaving the Phantom of the Opera without his mask It’s safe to say that the red dress by Biba is here to stay.
One design decision down...how then would we make our design original: what would make the costumes in our version stand out? A trip to to the Victoria and Albert museum in London was a particularly instrumental part in this process. I spent a long time in their fashion gallery, absorbing how clothing changed over time, tight restrictive Victorian bodices are replaced by the flamboyant patterns in 1960s and beyond. I was able to study designs not just by Biba, but by Mary Quant, who was renowned for challenging the dominance of Parisian fashion, increasing the popularity of mini skirts and hot pants, as well as André Courrèges, who produced luxury ready-to-wear designs for an emerging market for young people. Whilst these two designers are mentioned in the script, I went beyond this to study the more psychedelic style of the late sixties made popular by Emilio Pucci, as well as examples of knitwear by Ritva Ross. In the costume department we have been able to incorporate aspects of work by these designers into the costume, paying homage to the variety of 60s fashion. Come and see the show to see if you can spot where they appear!
Beth McCullagh, Costume Designer
See Made in Dagenham from Wed 13 to Sat 16 Feb