One of the things I look forward to in period dramas is the costuming. For years we have been treated to fashionable Regency-era finery in Jane Austen adaptations, but the new Masterpiece Classic series Poldark takes us into an earlier era in British history. Set in 1780’s provincial Cornwall, the main plot line revolves around the Poldark family, their neighbors and their tenants—supplying an array of characters from different social classes. Curious about the late Georgian clothing in Poldark, I asked costume designer Marianne Agertoft to joins us today for a Q & A.
LAN: Welcome Marianne.
MA: Hi Laurel Ann. Thank you so much for your interest in the costumes for Poldark.
It was a great and passionate journey for all of us in the costume team and it is wonderful that the work is being appreciated.
Portrait of Captain George K. H. Coussmaker by Joshua Reynolds (1782)
LAN: From a layman’s point of view, being a costume designer looks like a very glamorous job. You get to spend your day being creative, researching history, playing with fabric, and working with celebrities! Can you share with us what your typical day was like while working on the costumes for Poldark?
MA: Well there isn’t really one kind of typical day, because the work is quite organic as the production develops… perhaps if I break it down into what our days are like as we move through prep? And then for shooting’.
During prep the first stage is to get familiar with the scripts and break them down into story days in order to find out what the characters will need in terms of costumes.
The next step is to research the era by studying paintings and original garments.
Then follows the exciting time of meeting with the actors and developing the look and feel of their characters. Shapes, details and fabrics are then chosen and the costumes begin to come together.
Once we begin filming the days become even more varied. Costumes are established on set throughout the day and in between there are fittings of costumes for principal and supporting cast.
It is not very glamorous but it is an exciting and a unique opportunity to be part of creating a costume drama like Poldark.
Matthew Rhys and Anna Maxwell Martin in Regency-era attire in Death Comes to Pemberley (2014)
LAN: Period drama fans have seen many Regency and Victorian era movies and television series over the years, but not many set in the 1780’s like Poldark. Can you explain what styles dominated late eighteenth-century fashion and how it impacted your designs?
MA: Broadly speaking in women’s wear the waistline is featured, enhanced by the shape of the corsets or jumps with low necklines, the hips are gently exaggerated by petticoats and soft pads.
The lines of the men’s wear are simple and elegant. The emphasis is on the face, framed by the shirt collar, stock and the high collar of the coat.
Slim fitted frock coats, waistcoats, high-waisted fitted pantaloons, riding boots and an overcoat with swagger finishing off the look.
I did take liberties in order to achieve what I felt would work best within the world we were creating.
The scripts have a very timeless feel so rather than being pedantic about period accuracy, the priority was making the costumes look and feel relevant, both to the cast wearing them and to the audience watching.
Aidan Turner as Cap’n Poldark with miners
LAN: Beginning a large project such as Poldark must be daunting. What was your personal process to understand the era and characters before you began your designs?
MA: Research is key. Due to limited prep time, one only gets to scratch the surface of how people lived and dressed. I had worked with a costume lecturer on a previous project and when embarking on Poldark it made sense to do the same.
It was truly exciting researching all the various social levels that Poldark moves in. Miners, middle class town folks, judges, sailors, soldiers (British and American), the upper classes, the list goes on and all the big events that take place like weddings, funerals and christening.
Once one has gained an understanding of an era it also frees one up to find ways of creating a look for the characters which feels real. We aimed to create a world, in which the audience visually would be able to relate to all the social levels and just enjoy the story as it unfolded.
Eleanor Tomlinson (center) with laborers
LAN: Costume design can be a portal into a character’s soul. How do you relay personality, social status, and even the mood of the character in that moment in your creations? Did you give any special touches to your designs in Poldark that made them truly your own?
MA: I come from a theatre design background and for me the world that the actors have to perform within and what they wear has to become one.
The colours of the costumes have to suit the individual actors but they also have to work within the various sets and locations. Fabrics were chosen with great care to insure they would hang well. A lot of emphasis was put into the getting the tone and feel right, this meant dyeing fabrics to fit within the palette and huge amounts of ageing of the costumes to achieve great textures.
From the beginning I need to have a clear vision of the look of the background artists, in order to carefully balance that with the designs for the principal cast.
Once that balance exists, the more detailed design work on the main costumes can begin and out of that come the nuances, which reflect their personality and social status.
The aim with all this, is to provide the actors with a wardrobe that they feel at ease in and that it truly belongs to the character they are playing. This way they can freely express whatever emotions that the part requires without worrying about what they are wearing.
Crystal Leaity as Margaret in a Georgian style high-society clothing
LAN: Would the clothing in provincial Cornwall differ from Georgian London, the epicenter of fashion during this time? If so, how did this affect your design decisions?
MA: When creating a fictional world I think it is important to balance the levels of society carefully. Fashion can become too strong a statement and almost create caricatures rather than real people.
Fashion is only used in Poldark to illustrate the contrast of city and country and even then, none of the costume designs are very fashionable.
Truro being a port town, would have been influenced by other cultures not just London, but not big in a fashionable way.
The Warleggan’s circle as the most fashionable with Sanson, the dandy cousin and the peak of Margaret’s rapid rise in high society reflect the world of fashion.
For the rest of the characters in the drama, the use of fashion is very low key and quite restrained.
Aidan Turner as Captain Ross Poldark in his regimentals
LAN: The scenes of Captain Ross Poldark in his regimental uniform are quite striking. He served in His Majesties 62nd Regiment of Foot under Cornwallis. How accurate is his uniform, and did you design the greatcoat?
MA: Ross Poldark’s uniform and greatcoat were carefully chosen from a specialist uniform supplier. He wears two different uniforms, the first when he joins the army as a Lieutenant and the second when he returns as a Captain.
The buttons and braid used for the button holes are not accurate. British Army regiments used flat tape which would show exactly which regiment they belonged to. The uniforms we used have braided buttonholes so it is not clear which regiment he served in.
Montage of two Georgian-era portraits of young ladies and Heida Reed (center) in pink frocks
LAN: I was immediately struck by the resemblance of actress Heida Reed, who plays Elizabeth Chynoweth, to portraits of the era by Sir Joshua Reynolds. Were you inspired by gowns in any of the classic portraits of the era to create her beautiful mauve silk frock?
MA: Joshua Reynolds, George Thomas Gainsborough, George Romney to mention some of the painters who were a great inspiration for both details and romantic feel. The earthy atmosphere of Cornish painter John Opie’s paintings were the basis of the more realistic feel of the costumes.
The details on the dusty pink/mauve gown came from studying these paintings as well as photos and drawings of original garments and their patterns.
Once we found a shape that suited Heida, all her dresses were based on that and different fabrics chosen and specific details were added to suit the various occasions; Engagement/dinner dress, Wedding gown, Ball gowns, Sunday Best dress, pregnancy dress and all her day dresses.
Demelza dressed in her brother’s clothes with Garrick her dog
LAN: Eleanor Tomlinson as Demelza Carne goes through a wide character transformation, physically and emotionally through the first season. Can you explain your creative process of how you portrayed this through her costumes?
MA: I had worked with Eleanor on another period drama so we had a great time getting straight into the journey of Demelza.
The key to all the outfits was that they had to look as if Demelza, as someone who initially dressed as a boy, would have chosen the garments. As she becomes aware of her sexuality, she begins to enjoy dressing as a woman and takes pride, but in a modest and simple way. The choice of fabrics and colours reflect her love of nature.
When she becomes a mother it was important to show her as a practical multitasking woman so the skirt and jacket options were added to her wardrobe.
The golden ball gown and velveteen cape which Ross gives to her is kept simple and it is the fabric is what makes her stand out at the Warleggan Ball.
The entire journey was more or less decided at the very early stages so Eleanor was able to also envisage the journey and have as much input as possible.
Cousins: the dark Poldark (Aidan Turner as Ross on the left)
and the fair Poldark (Kyle Soller as Francis on the right)
LAN: Ross Poldark, George Warleggan and Francis Poldark are three male characters with entirely different approaches to life’s challenges. Did this important distinction affect your design decisions? Did the actors have any input on their final ensemble?
MA: The characters have known each other all their lives and share the same background and in my opinion they needed to look like three guys who could hang out together.
I felt it was really important that they all looked charismatic and handsome in each their individual way, so ultimately they were not being stereotyped by what they wore but how they behaved.
To make their ‘look’ more contemporary they all wear pantaloons and riding boots with the exception at the Warleggan’s ball where they are in stockings and breeches.
All these decisions were part of a process involving the cast, I make the suggestions but at the end of the day it has to work for the actor. And finally it involves the director and the producer to make sure we are all on the same wavelength. It is a collaborative process getting a costume right for an actor.
Say yes to the dress Ross!
LAN: Demelza discovers a turquoise blue taffeta ball gown packed away in a trunk in Ross’s library that had belonged to his mother who had died in 1770. This dress plays an important role at a critical point in their relationship. What were your design choices and what did you hope to achieve with the final result?
MA: I guess you have read the book because the decision for the dramatization was to not be specific about the origin of the dress.
I always envisaged using the striking blue/green colour of oxidized copper in Nampara and the dress was the perfect opportunity.
Normally we have to avoid using silk taffeta due to the rustling sound it makes when one moves (which affects the sound recording) but ideal for this occasion.
The dress is a sack-back gown or robe à la française. The fastening was altered so it laced up at back rather than at the front, to simplify the action in front of the camera.
The frills, ribbons and flounces – the quintessence of rococo – were removed to simplify the look and the box pleats at the back were sewn up to enhance the waistline. The result was a simple shape without too many distracting frills.
The same simplicity was applied to the design of the golden silk satin gown Demelza wears at the Warleggan Ball. This was however based on an actual dress surviving from the 1780’s but looks quite like a 1950’s Ball gown.
Georgian-era ladies in their finery
LAN: Coco Channel said ‘Fashion changes, but style endures.’ What do you think of the styles of late Georgian England? What is their enduring legacy?
MA: I think the cut of both men’s and women’s clothes in late Georgian times is absolutely stunning, it is rich with wonderful inspiring details, made in exquisite plain fabrics or with delicate embroidery.
The cuts bear resemblance to clothes we are familiar with and that we associate with elegant looks as well as being very romantic.
LAN: I hope we will see more of your designs in season two of Poldark which begins filming in England in September. Can you share with us any of your other projects that you are working on soon?
MA: Sadly I am not doing season two but I will be looking forward to enjoying it with everyone else.
Many thanks for your time Marianne. Best wishes for your continued success, Laurel Ann
Marianne Agertoft has designed costumes for over fifty productions including feature films, television, short films, music videos, commercial and theatre. Her recent period dramas for the BBC include Poldark and Death Comes to Pemberley and contemporary drama Utopia. Marianne’s believes that, “Designing costumes is a collaborative process where you as a designer offer up ideas and then develop the feel and look of the character with the director and the actor.” She graduated with a BA (Hons) in Theatre Design from Central St. Martins College in London. Visit Marianne at her website for more information, videos and photos of her work.
Images courtesy of Mammoth Screen, Ltd. for Masterpiece PBS © 2015; text Marianne Agertoft © 2015, Austenprose.com