Interview: Alexandra Byrne On the Challenges and Lessons of Designing Costumes for ‘The Aeronauts’

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Alexandra Byrne has built a strong reputation in the industry for her vibrant, beautiful costume designs. She earned an Oscar nomination for one of her earliest films, “Hamlet” in 1996. She followed that up with additional nominations in “Elizabeth” and “Finding Neverland,” and won her first Academy Award for “Elizabeth: The Golden Age” in 2007.

Last year, Byrne was nominated again for Josie Rourke’s debut feature, “Mary Queen of Scots.” In addition, she has lent her talents to the MCU, designing costumes for “Thor,” “The Avengers,” and “Doctor Strange.”

This year, Byrne teamed up with director Tom Harper on “The Aeronauts,” the inspired-by-true-events story of a pilot and a scientist who attempt a record-breaking ascent in a gas balloon in Victorian London. I recently spoke with Alexandra Byrne about her work on the project, and some of the things she learned along the way.

“The Aeronauts”

Karen Peterson/Awards Circuit: The first question everyone keeps telling me to ask you is: Why were they not wearing gloves?

Alexandra Byrne: Well, there you go! Glashier (Eddie Redmayne) does not wear gloves because he has so many instruments to read and he needs to write. So he would not be able to do it with gloves. Amelia (Felicity Jones) actually does set off in gloves, and we do see her take the gloves off. What we’ve lost in the edit is the sequence where the gloves get bounced out of the basket and she loses them. But she does start the journey in gloves and we do see her taking the gloves off. So that’s all I can answer on that one. (laughs)

KP: Well that makes sense! Now that you say that, I do remember her taking gloves off.

AB: Yeah, she does. She takes them off going into the storm, when she has to do something. And there was a very clear point in the script — you know, we’re always subject to what happens in an edit — but there was a point in the script where her gloves, actually, we saw them bouncing when the balloon shoots down.

KP: Mystery solved!

AB: Yeah. They were very beautiful gloves. We researched them from a pair of Victorian shooting gloves and they were very beautiful. That’s all I can say.

KP: You did a lot of research, of course. You get to do a lot of research with your work. But what were some interesting things you found as you were studying this particular time period and this particular type of story?

AB: I think the most interesting thing was about a woman who wanted to be an adventurer in the period because 1860s, a Victorian woman had no independence if she got married. You had no financial independence. You were married, you were there to have children, full stop. And I looked at women explorers and mountaineers and I looked at their photographs and you look at them in these big crinoline skirts halfway up the mountain and you think, “How on Earth did you do that?”

And then, in reading their diaries, you realize actually what they describe is that they start off in the base camp in their big crinoline skirts, they go a certain way up the mountain, they take their petticoats and crinolines off and leave them behind a rock, climb the mountain, come back down, put them on and have the photograph taken as if it’s all very good. Because it’s a huge balance for these women between propriety and adventure, and between modesty and fame. If a woman was very wayward in her dress, she would have been laughed out of society and written off as being mad. So it’s how they achieve this independence and this sense of adventure without being ridiculed and charged with immodesty, really.

There’s a difference between the visual, which is the photograph, which was a posed special occasion event, and reading the diaries. And it’s not as if they write chapters about, “I’m going to wear this, I’m going to wear that.” You have to read a lot to wheedle out the information about how they adapted their clothing for this very physical life they were going to take on. And a lot of the explorers, they kind of embraced the trivial so as to subvert potential charges of immodesty. And I think that’s what Amelia is doing by taking on the guise of the circus performer to enable Glashier, for his journey not to be laughed at. If he’d gone up with a female pilot, they would have deemed his journey, his scientific investigation, as being ridiculous.

So I think it’s a very interesting story about how a woman manages to pursue the thing she loves doing without being outcast by society. And just reading those diaries was fascinating.

KP: For this, where she starts off in the costume and then once they get up into the balloon and go a certain height and she changes clothes, was that already in the script, or was that —

AB: It was in the script and I didn’t really understand it. I understood what it meant, but I didn’t understand her choices until I started to do the research. And once I understood that, then I could really take on the clothes and how they worked. So for example, the circus costume. We tried to make that as if it was an evening dress that she’d repurposed into being this circus performer dress so that the bodice is based on an evening dress and she has decorated and embellished and added to it.

And then the flight suit. Again, it’s about the practicality. Women were starting to wear riding habits at the time, which would be tailored by a gentleman’s tailor. So the buttons crossed over the other way from women’s clothes and they actually went to a gentleman’s tailor to have them made. I used some of that information, I looked at Victorian bathing suits. They had no leisurewear of the period. There was no real athletic wear. So again, it becomes about understanding the period and then finding out the practical requirements of the costume and trying to blend them all into a coherent world.

And to achieve that, we built some prototype costumes for Felicity and Eddie to rehearse in. Again, that was useful, because watching how Amelia stands on the balloon ring and holds the ropes in the crook of her elbow, you know that that’s going to get friction burns and we’ll put some leather in there. It was very useful having the rehearsal to know how to develop these clothes.

KP: Is that something you normally get to do?

AB: Wherever you can when there’s a rehearsal period, you try to have some element of clothing. Whether it’s a corset or a long skirt or whatever people are going to be wearing, or a top hat, so that the actors can begin to use and live in the clothes. And certainly where it’s an action film you’ll try to have some practical elements so that we can all learn from it. The more you learn, the better the solution is going to be.

KP: You get to play with so many fun styles and different types of clothes in “The Aeronauts.”

AB: Yeah. Also one of the real joys I had on this film was the use of color. Because I knew that we’d have some amazing skyscapes and the clarity of light. And I wanted the clothes to match that kind of energy, but still be true to the period. Because I think a lot of people, you know, you look at Victorian photographs and they’re all faded sepia or monochrome. And so finding that sense of color by going to museums and researching the real clothes and buying pieces at vintage stores. The fabric is shot and not strong enough to be used, but you can look inside the seam allowance where no light of day has been seen on the fabric to see what the true colors would have been before it faded. It was very exciting to play with the color.

KP: They’re such beautiful and vibrant and fun colors.

AB: Yeah. The budget on this film was really quite tight, which means all the departments, we need to collaborate, we need to make decisions because you can’t cover all bases. But I think everybody really bought into the sense of adventure of this story and we were a very close knit crew. It was a good experience.

KP: What about things like the oilskins that she wears and the suit that he’s wearing when they go through the storm. What sorts of materials did you use so that things wouldn’t get wrecked with all the water?

AB: They did. Obviously you have repeats and you have stunt doubles and you have different levels. You need to build on the amount of damage and weathering that’s happening through their journey, so you have to have suits all at different stages of weather damage.

Glashier was just wearing ordinary, true-to-period wool. Because when he went up in the balloon, he didn’t take his oilskins and he didn’t really anticipate what was going to happen. He was just so focused on the scientific exploration that he didn’t address anything else. Amelia, obviously, has been in a balloon before, and we see the flashback when she’s with her husband Pierre, and she’s in what I call the mark 1 flight suit. So she’s learned things about that flight suit that she had to throw overboard and start to make a new one. So she’s put what she learned into the new suit. And in the 1860s they were beginning to rubber coat fabric to make it waterproof, but it was very harsh to wear and sweaty, it didn’t have ventilation. It was not easy. So we thought she would have gone much more for the waxed cotton as a form of waterproofing.

But, again, they didn’t have the technology to waterproof and seal the seams like we do now. So I thought that in the storm the seams would leak and you’d get water leaking in there, which is where the frost and the ice would begin to form when they got very cold.

We did a lot of testing of paint finishes and the stages of weathering and frosting and abrasion on all the suits.

KP: What about her shoes, too? I was curious about that because she’s practical enough to put on pants, but she still wears boots that have a heel on them. What’s the background on the shoes?

AB: That was all part of her circus look. And I think if you can climb and do a circus performance in the boots then you’re fine in a balloon. And Amelia — Felicity — was fine in them. It seemed quite important that she, for the sake of changing in the balloon, she’s going to just change her clothes and keep her boots on if they fit and they’re comfortable. And that was the heel a woman would wear day to day. So that’s what her foot was used to and we decided to keep in those boots.

KP: You got to have some fun with other costumes, too. There’s a lot of flashback scenes and getting to know who they were before this trip.

AB: Yeah, and again that was a balance in terms of making sure those scenes weren’t visually distracting, that they supported the journey in the balloon. And I think that was about color and clarity within those worlds.

KP: What were some of the things you looked at as you were designing her dresses, her sister’s dress, some of the suits for the men?

AB: I looked at photographs, I looked at dresses and pieces in the London Museum, the Brighton Museum, the V&A. You need to look at as many things as possible. Because the thing that always surprises me about period in women’s dressing is how lightweight they are. I think there’s a real tendency to overbuild them and for them to get heavy. And the silks were like tissue paper. They were very, very lightweight.

KP: Which costume were you the most excited about?

AB: I suppose the circus costume just because of the sense of fun and the slightly homemade quality and improvised quality of it. I liked the sense of Amelia that came through that costume.

KP: It’s really fun and going into what this film is, you don’t really expect that introduction.

AB: No, I don’t think you do! (laughs)

KP: Which were the most challenging? 

AB: I think the challenge was tracking the weather damage and the deterioration of their flight suits… There’s always that funny crossover between actor and stunts, the difference of sizes, and things that always come up that weren’t quite anticipated. So you’ve got to cover with something else and re-adapt something. You start off with a very linear, methodical numbering system on all your repeats and then well into the shoot you look at it and you’ve got this ridiculous coding of all the trousers and jackets and belts and different things, but it meant that my team were all talking this very strange, annotated language of belt sizes and trousers, 13/C with D additions or something so that we knew we had the right costume. It’s always a challenge to get that right and to make sure you have enough without over making and spending too much money, but also filling what you need.

KP: You talked about the gloves that vanished in editing. Were there any costumes you designed that didn’t make it to the final production, or did everything make it in?

AB: I think everything did. That’s one of the things that happens when you’re focusing on two people. There are going to be some editing jumps or whatever casualties happen. No, I think it’s all there. I think we used everything, yeah.

KP: They’re such beautiful costumes. Did you have a favorite? Was it the circus outfit?

AB: I liked the circus one, but I liked the strength of color. Because Amelia is a widow and she was in half mourning because it’s within two years of her husband’s death. So the sense of how she wore mourning. The fact that she was in black at the ball and the purple going to the royal society. It’s finding a language of clothes that wasn’t a uniform but it was still true to her. I enjoyed that.

KP: Overall, what was something you gained by working on this film?

AB: I loved the affirmation of everything you gain by every project you work on. The way your knowledge feeds in and overlaps and you feel enabled. There were definitely things from Marvel films that I used in this film, in terms of movement and behavior of costumes. And it’s just that sense of ability to be able to tackle things, from things you didn’t think you knew. If that makes sense!

KP: What are some of the things you’ve used on previous films that you were able to bring with you into this?

AB: It’s not so much a specific thing. It’s more an approach and the methodology and an understanding of requirements of other departments and how things need to work and behave. It’s mainly practical, but through having practical knowledge, you’re then enabled to make artistic choices knowing that your practical knowledge is sound.

KP: You’ve worked in period films, sci fi, action. Is there anything you haven’t done yet that you hope to?

AB: Yes and no. (laughs) Lots of things I want to do. I can’t say specifically what it is, but I love the challenge of using clothes to help tell the story. The fact that one can do that without it flashing in neon letters is what I find really exciting.

KP: So many actors, when I ask them when they really start to feel like the character they’re playing, every one of them says it’s when they put on the costume. For you, what is that relationship like with the actors, on this set or any film?

AB: It’s really, really important. I start by reading the script and then talking to the director. And then that’s all words and I move into making mood boards so we have visuals to discuss. And sometimes I draw, sometimes I don’t, I just leave it at the mood boards. I love the collaboration. Actors will look at the mood board and see something completely different in there and it’s the amazing kind of collaboration with not only actors, with hair and makeup, with all departments. I bring a certain look, other people bring things. The actor brings their take, their physicality, the scale, their coloring, how they wear clothes. And the combined effect is this huge recipe that no one person could achieve on their own. So it becomes this very exciting, organic process. And within that process, you also have to be able to go, “No, I’ve got it wrong. I’ve made a mistake. We need to pull back and go this way.”

But I love the collaboration. Very often at the end of the film, I look at some of the costumes and I’m rather amazed at what we’ve achieved because I know that I couldn’t have achieved that on my own. And yet, the journey to achieve that has taken so much collaboration and so much talent from other people that it’s very exciting to be the person steering that and to ultimately deliver a real person.

Awards Circuit would like to thank Alexandra Byrne for speaking with us.

“The Aeronauts” is distributed by Amazon Studios and is now in theaters.