Laura Connor talks to Bafta award-winning costume designer Amy Roberts about her new exhibition and period drama.
From Jane Eyre to Bleak House, the costume drama is ever a big budget ratings winner. Amy Roberts has carved a niche in the industry, as demonstrated by the exhibition at the Brontë Parsonage Museum which shows her work on ITV’s Wuthering Heights.
The Bafta-winner told MUSE that the new adaptation will feel more “like a western”, with “the wildness and rugged terrain of Yorkshire” acting as the haunting backdrop of the set. With period dramas as ubiquitous as they are, it is difficult to fathom exactly where any vein of originality emerges. Has the traditional image of whistling winds and uncontrollable spirits that preoccupies Wuthering Height’s reputation just been compounded by its recreation as a quasi-Western?
At a time when television dominates the novel, it seems that adaptations are never really for lovers of literature, but rather for the television addict desperate for a fusion of superficial passion and death in a short, satisfying shot. TV needs to add something more to the mix.
Perhaps the question of innovation is answered by the modern dynamic that is inevitably introduced when every new drama is produced. “Every historical period production I have ever done will involve a meeting with the producers who without fail will want a modern take on things. I like that, after all you are designing a production not creating a historically correct piece for a museum,” says Roberts. Inspiration for historical costumes seems sternly rooted in the modern day. Roberts continues, “as a designer I think you should be looking at fashion, street and high end, to inform your work in a contemporary way.”
A further source of improvisation is rooted in the actors themselves. Robert emphasises that the actor’s imput is “vital” for they “after all are being that character”.
Although a modern perspective may prevent audience alienation, Roberts maintains that the themes of the novel remain prominent, and are well-reflected in her designs: “The cultural differences between the two houses was very important.” Roberts sought to emphasise the “delicacy” and “more refined look” of Edgar against the “slightly overdone dandyism of Hindley and his blowsy wife Frances.”
Roberts’ costumes certainly display elements of Cathy Earnshaw’s hardy recklessness, shown by the strong, berry colours, woollen jackets and stout boots that she wears in the first part of the adaptation, when living with Heathcliff at Wuthering Heights. Roberts sees her designs as representing a “wild” and “free” Cathy, until her enforced stay at Thrushcross Grange: “Here I dressed her in pale colours, dainty shoes, her hair is brushed and neat.” Remaining faithful to the literary elements of the book seems paramount to the development of her designs. She adds that Cathy’s “yearning and need for Heathcliff and that life is always there and so I kept elements of her real self by using violently coloured shawls with the delicate dresses.” She sought to emphasise the “pale, dainty elegance of Isabella against Cathy’s bolder look.”
The most challenging transition to display may not be Cathy’s, however, but Heathcliff’s. Just how difficult was it for Roberts to retain Heathcliff’s sinister and unruly nature when he is dressed as a gentleman? Roberts explains that an outfit may be gentlemanly in texture and colour but that Heathcliff “differs from the other characters: the shirt neck [is] often undone, the clothes creased and mud splattered… [he’s] not a man over interested in his appearance.”
From viewing Roberts’ exhibition- the adaption itself is to be aired in the new year – it’s easy to see the balance of historical and literary considerations she’s achieved, with “green figured silk riding coat over acid yellow cotton voile” ensembles as illustrating exactly what Roberts sees as Cathy’s “real self”.
Incorporated amongst the exquisite quaintness of the Brontë parsonage, these outfits present the new adaptation as both Brontë fan-friendly and appealing to a modern television audience. With Roberts admitting that she doesn’t look at any previous adaptations for inspiration, ITV may just have created a production which, unlike Heathcliff, isn’t necessary, but a visual delight nevertheless.
The Exhibition is on display throughout the year at the Brontë Parsonage Museum Haworth.