Costume designer Alison McLaughlin has worked with the likes of Madonna, Eddie Izzard, Natalie Dormer and Tim Roth in a career spanning over two decades.
McLaughlin’s latest project – Days Of The Bagnold Summer – saw her collaborate with Simon Bird (of The Inbetweeners and Friday Night Dinner fame) in his directorial debut. Based on a graphic novel, the film follows a single librarian (played by Monica Dolan) as she tries to reconnect with her introverted, metalhead teenage son (Earl Cave).
Close-up Culture’s James Prestridge spoke to McLaughlin about her work on the film, the preparation that goes into costume design, a strange encounter with Madonna, and much more.
Q: ‘Days Of The Bagnold Summer’ will screen at this year’s BFI London Film Festival (5, 6 and 7 October). How was your experience working with Simon Bird on his directorial debut?
A: An absolute pleasure. Of course everybody says this but it’s really true; I did have to get over the fact I was only used to seeing him in school uniform on TV, and that he is now a grown up person and director. But he managed the set with a calm self-assurance that really impressed me.
Q: I’ve seen stills of Earl Cave’s character, Daniel, in death metal hoodies and Monica Dolan’s character, Sue, in beige cardigans. Can you talk about some of character looks you put together for the film?
A: Sue’s costumes were harder than they looked. We must of tried on hundreds of different options! But it was important to get it right and make Sue look real. Monica really wants to feel the character in every way and I loved her input; however, when we tried something on that was ‘true’ we both knew it straight away.
Earl Cave always looked cool in stuff so we had to nerd him up quite a lot for his character. Simon wanted a very particular ‘don’t look at me but I’m part of the death metal tribe and proud of it’ type of vibe for him. Earl did a brilliant job helping me customise his character’s shoes when he was hanging around on set waiting for things to happen, which I loved.
Tamsin Greig’s character, Astrid, was a joy to do as we both had the same vision of this posh hippy momma.
Rob Brydon’s fitting was great – I loved the way he looked flirtingly at himself in the mirror channelling his character, Mr Porter, when he tried on a revoltingly bad – but good figure-hugging – polo neck.
Q: Do we see any transformations or character progression mirrored in their clothing choices through the film? Does Daniel show any flickers of colour?
A: Daniel’s clothes were cycled a lot – pretty much in the same way a teenager would do randomly picking up his clothes from the bedroom floor. He’s always cocooned with lots of layers and hoods to protect him from the cruelty of the outside world. When we come to the final wedding scene he does look different, but the suit is a baggy charity shop find and flaps around. It shows he’s starting to change and grow as a person.
Sues wears her cardies and jumpers like Daniel wears his hoodies – as armour and protection, so it was nice to have her spread her wings in her wedding guest outfit and channel a little bit of Princess Diana.
Q: How does the challenge of working on something contemporary like ‘Days Of The Bagnold Summer’ compare to a period piece? A costuming novice like myself imagines the contemporary work to be much simpler, but am I missing any hidden hurdles that these projects present?
A: Weirdly, contemporary can sometimes be more difficult as there are so many more ways to express yourself through fashion. One of the hardest things can be making sure somebody looks up to the minute fashionable when you know the film may not be coming out for a year or even two.
In period costume there are lots of rules and set ways to dress for certain eras, so you have to be very prepared and scour hire places or have things made up. You also have quite a rigid template to work from in terms of collar shapes, length of skirt, etc.
Q: What has been the strangest costuming problem you’ve faced in your time in the industry?
A: Sourcing a pony fetish bondage costume, and then having Madonna come and give her approval with her son – aged around three years old – at her side.
Q: What is your planning and preparation for a project like?
A: First of all, I will read and break down the script which means separating out the characters and costumes and story days. I also look at where we will need doubles or triples of costumes (fight scenes with blood, characters falling into water, etc.).
Then I will talk with the director about their ideas, vision and mood for the film. Sometimes I will then talk with the actor I’m designing for, if they are not too manically busy, and then source the costumes and proceed to the fittings.
Q: You’ve toured with musical acts and worked all over the world. How does that experience compare to being on a film set?
A: Touring as wardrobe is completely different. The hours are longer and you have to work on the fly as – on the whole – you are doing maintenance and dressing with occasionally a bit of styling, depending who it is.
What it lacks in not being as artistically fulfilling, it makes up for in the feeling of adrenaline of walking to the stage with the artist and knowing there is a massive audience out there! Also, you do get some wicked days off around the world and stay in incredible hotels I could never afford.
Q: Natalie Dormer, Eddie Izzard, Tim Roth, Jack O’Connell and Madonna are just a few of the star names you’ve worked with. Have you ever found it surreal or overwhelming working with these big names? Or do you find it relatively easy to stay level-headed?
A: You have to, it’s part of your job! If they smell fear you’re done for…
Q: Is there a movie genre, director or star that you would love to work with in the future?
A: Wes Anderson, for sure.
Q: What sparked your interest in fashion and clothing?
A: I got rejected by the local hairdressing college and my mum suggested I try applying to art school as she always wanted to do that. I then realised that I loved fashion and textiles, and ended up at Chelsea School of Art eventually – which made her very proud.
Q: At what point did you realise this could be a career? What was your entry point to the industry?
A: After Chelsea I ran Joe Public, a clothing company specialising in knitwear and print, with a friend and fellow student called Janet Dervan for three years.
I took a couple of years out and went to New York working in nightclubs and generally having lots of fun.
I then went into animation for a while and was working for a company that did commercials combining animation and live-action. I was just in the right place at the right time as a stylist for a commercial let them down at the last minute and I stepped in.
Q: What has been the proudest or most standout moment of your career so far?
A: Way back when our Joe Public collection was shown on the catwalk with BodyMap, who we absolutely idolised at art school.
More recently when Skeletons, a film I costume designed, won Best British Film in the Edinburgh International Film Festival.
Q: You have spent time volunteering for CWNN (Choir With No Name). Can you tell us about the cause and why you were drawn to it?
A: The Choir With No Name was started to help homeless and marginalised people in Brighton (there are four other choirs in London, Liverpool and Birmingham). We meet up every Monday evening to practice and then sit down together and eat a hot meal together. We always have a full diary of gigs coming up and perform everywhere from the Brighton Dome to Glyndebourne to local community projects.
It seems to bring out confidence in people who are struggling to be seen as a valid human beings in society. All of our members have the chance to perform solos and it’s fantastic seeing people bloom. The sense of camaraderie is amazing.
Q: What is next for you? Any upcoming projects or ambitions to share?
A: I’m starting work on a short film called Ernie, directed by Ray Panthaki (Marcella). It is part of The Uncertain Kingdom (a collective of shorts commenting on the disruption and confusion in the world at the moment with Brexit, homelessness, green issues, racism, etc.)
This is quite a serious one for me, but I can’t wait to get my teeth into it!
You can see ‘Days Of The Bagnold Summer at the BFI London Film Festival on 5, 6 and 7 October (for ticket info). The film will be released in UK cinemas in 2020.