Costume designer Lindy Hemming created Wonder Woman’s outfit for the feminist-y hit film Wonder Woman, starring Gal Gadot. She clothed Christian Bale’s Batman for the Dark Knight trilogy. Heath Ledger’s Joker and Tom Hardy’s Bane found their threads in her studio. As did Daniel Craig for Casino Royale, his debut as James Bond.
Clothing design is bundled up with fashion design in the collective consciousness, for good and evil. Lindy Hemming came to costumes via drama school: RADA. Her first step was in production but she looked at the costume department and decided she could do better and switched courses. Her career built, one potato two potato: Royal Shakespeare Company and Royal National Theatre to a little film called Four Weddings and a Funeral. Her work, she says, is less about style and more about communicating character to audience in the flash of a frame.
Oscar-winner Lindy, who turns 70 in 2018, was up for a chat thanks to DC Exhibition: Dawn of Super Heroes, which is at London’s O2 / former Dome (itself the location of at least one of her films), following a stint in Paris. On display are props and rarities, clown masks and the Batbike from The Dark Knight, plus all Lindy’s superhero costumes from the first paragraph. Superman and Batman were the original comicbook caped crusaders, so the expo packs in lots of story on that dynamic duo in their variously illustrated and live action guises. Christopher Reeve’s 1978 Superman costume (not one of Lindy’s) has iconic resonance, as does the Heath Ledger Joker get-up. Is it the tragedy that befell these actors, or the enduring glow of genius performance fused with super-powered costume?
Superheroes and supervillains on film can lapse into ugly looks and ugly actions. Cowls off to Lindy that her designs and the films in which they appear have beautiful aesthetics. Engaged and engaging, Lindy tells a story about Heath Ledger first trying on his Joker costume. He picked up a pair of fabric shears – massive scissors – and twirled them on a finger. The look in his eye, the expression on his face: his Joker came to life at the tailor’s. Why so serious, indeed.
DISORDER: Is costume design the same as fashion design?
LINDY: I don’t feel that it’s fashion; I feel that it’s clothes. Clothes and fashion sometimes coincide but they’re not the same discipline. Because fashion you’re producing things to sell in the end. You maybe having an artistic moment but you’re actually producing new and interesting things to sell, the way we’re producing new and interesting films to sell. But the actual process of what you do is not the same. The aim is different. But we’re all designers. And designers are people who can’t help boss you about and make things, and [who] like fabrics and textiles. We’re all that person.
Psychological insight seems a big part of your work?
That is the difference between what you’re doing in fashion and what you’re doing in costume design. Because in costume design you’re trying to create the character with the actor and with the director and the script. So you’ll input all sorts of information visually that will help people understand the character and help the actor feel like the character. Whereas fashion you’re trying to make a whole visual thing to walk the catwalk or be in the newspapers that people want just by looking at it. And that’s a different reasoning.
How did you begin?
I studied stage management. And I only did that cos somebody said to me, there’s this job you might like and you’re really bossy and you enjoy organizing people and perhaps can become a stage manager. It was the key to get in. I owe that to the people who said it to me, cos I didn’t know there was such a thing. I had no idea about that world at all. It’s very difficult [today]. When we were going to college and looking for jobs it was a different world to what it is now. And we didn’t pay for our educations and we had grants and whatever, so we were able to make free-er choices in what we did. And perhaps we were able to change – you know I embarked on one thing and changed to another.
How has design changed during your career?
Costume design is much more technical [than in the past]. We are trying to keep ahead of the times, and we’re trying to produce things that are believable to people in this era. And trying to produce things that respect superheroes. [At the start of my career] it was more [maverick British director] Mike Leigh, bit of Shakespeare, Four Weddings and a Funeral. Grew from very small domestic and went through from there. I just like to take [jobs] as they come to me. I’m not much of a comic-knowledgeable person. When something jumps out at you, it makes you want to design it. When I was first in the theatre I did do some really quite interesting plays. You don’t have any idea [what comes next]; you only hope to get another job.
Any advice on starting in costume design today?
Go to the theatre a lot. Don't worry about studying a course that’s very specific. But maybe do art or textiles, or you could go and work in Selfridges and work on selling clothes to people, and watching how people behave. I don’t mean Selfridges specifically… Two of my best assistants have been working in shops, selling. You know those awful personal [shopping] departments that there are, where they deal with people and somebody comes to them and they have to sell to them and help them to buy things. You need to study human beings and you need to study the world and life and how people are, how they behave. Study that, and study it constantly, cos that’s what I do. And then when you come to do a costume for anything at all, the smallest or the biggest film, you use all those images and put them into the creation of the costume.
Is costume design more about people than, say, fabrics?
Your job as a costume designer is observing people and dealing with people. And of course they’re actors but they’re just people, and so you should learn that [skill] as well as trying to remember to draw. Read what’s going on in the world and absorb. Look at conflicts. Look at people doing their shopping. Because all the time you’re taking in the visual information to use later. It’s not one path to become a costume designer. You have to really, really want to.
Where do costumes fit into the creation of a film?
The process begins with the script, and next is the director and their interpretation of the script. Then the costume designer and the production designer usually join at the same time – and you usually discuss what the director’s aims and intentions are to bring to the film, over and above what you read on the page. Everything starts on the page. Everything has to be drawn before it can be produced. Or written before it can be acted.
Are you surprised by the finished work?
Even though you really imagine everything with your drawings and choosing the fabrics, once the actors are moving and saying the lines, the atmosphere of the scene, the production design, the lighting – once all that happens, all at once, it’s a fabulous moment.
Are there unexpected difficulties in creating costumes – for instance the clown masks worn by the Joker and his gang for The Dark Knight?
You cannot use an existing clown face. There have to be so many points of difference. The clown faces are in a library, a bank of clown faces. Which are painted on an egg and put into this library. And once they’ve been done they cannot be repeated, they belong to the clown that came up with them. Everyone talks about copyright but that’s just the maddest copyright ever.
How do you feel about Cosplay, people dressing up in costumes you’ve originated?
They’re fantastic. I think the Cosplayers’ ingenuity is unbelievable. And they should keep on doing it. It’s a real compliment when you read somewhere that the Joker was the most Cosplayed. They work so hard and they ring you up or ring up the people who made the costume and try to find out the exact fabrics that things are made from. It’s a compliment to all us costume designers.
DC Exhibition: Dawn of Super Heroes is at the O2 from February 23, 2018 until September 9, 2018.