In September 2018 award-winning costume designer and Costume Symposium producer Susannah Buxton presented a masterclass to BA Theatre & Performance Design students at the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts (LIPA). Describing successful period drama design as a mixture of authenticity and originality, Susannah said, “The hardest part of the job is making the clothes look like they belong to the person. If it looks like a costume, you’ve failed.”
Susannah is one of the UK’s leading costume designers with over 30 years experience. Her credits include Downton Abbey, Poldark, Burton and Taylor, and Mr Wroe’s Virgins. She has received a BAFTA, two Emmys, two Royal Television Society Awards and a Costume Designers Guild (USA) award.
Discussing her work on the first two series of Downton Abbey, Susannah said she was able to create each character’s own style. “That was one of the joys of Downton, it’s not from a classic novel – it’s new writing. You’ve got characters you’re helping to develop from the beginning. You have time to build up the personality, to build up their wardrobe so they are wearing clothes that really do look like they belong to them.”
Part of her brief for Downton Abbey was to help make the show accessible to contemporary audiences. To achieve this Susannah used present-day fashion photos as a starting reference and avoided simply recreating designs. “I try to avoid some historical details as they would be would be less acceptable to our modern eye. There is little point in simply copying an original piece. My ideas come from studying the way the piece has been made and the silhouette it creates, and then translate some of that information into my new design. To incorporate original trimmings or beading where possible helps make it more believable, although they are harder and harder to source now.”
Susannah also discussed the differences between working in theatre, TV and film, how period costumes are much more revealing of a person’s class and background, and the reality of working as a costume designer. “You do need to have passion and resilience and be able to work in a freelance capacity. But it’s a fantastic industry to work in, one of the most exciting, and I couldn’t be more encouraging of people to come into the industry.”
Costume Symposium 2019 will take place in Liverpool in September in association with LIPA.
Here’s a trailer for a film from the Craft Council in which Susannah talks about her work.