From circus-girl flash to flight-suit practicality, ‘Aeronauts’ costumes radiate energy
Academy Award-winning designer Alexandra Byrne’s sartorial touch enlivens the mid-19th century London story of daredevil balloon pilot Amelia Wren (Felicity Jones), who teams up with pioneering meteorologist James Glaisher (Eddie Redmayne) as they fly higher than anyone in history up to that point.
And though the film’s two main stars remain in one costume look in one location for a significant portion of the movie (high up inside their balloon) “the story itself attracted me,” Byrne says. “The fact they flew only 5,000 feet below where we fly airplanes today with no equipment at all — it’s quite astounding.”
“I love using and playing with color — I think it’s one of the biggest tools we have as stylists in terms of guiding the audience without them realizing they’re being guided sometimes,” Byrne adds. And with “The Aeronauts,” she found a palette and landscape she knew she could bring to life in a creative way. “It’s funny — in the modern, digital world we’re still needle-and-thread. It’s a very labor-intensive world, though truly satisfying.”
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Your “Aeronauts” costumes are so different in scope and style than what you created for “Mary Queen of Scots” and your Marvel films. They’re a bit more down-to-earth, if you will. Was that freeing?
I always go into each project thinking of the story and how can the clothes help tell the story, not necessarily, “I really want to do something different.” That being said, I could sense here an amazing world of color, clarity and landscape, and I wanted to bring that kind of energy and excitement into the clothes versus the traditional, a bit down-beaten Victorian thing. I wanted them very much to be clothes as opposed to costume, but yet with real energy.
As you developed the costumes, did you create digital mood boards or physical mood boards, or did you create both?
Oh, God, I’m really old-fashioned. I’ve always done boards. Back in the day, research was solitary, and images were hard-found. Libraries, archives, hauling books to the photocopy machines and paying money for all the color copies — when now the internet has literally everything at your fingertips and you’re inundated. It’s an astounding difference.
But I still like to do my mood boards the old-school, literal cut-and-paste way: You can prioritize the endless images to narrow down your world. I always copy the boards and put them up in the workroom, so the people cutting and dyeing or stitching or whatever, they’re living surrounded by the world referenced by you. It’s the part of the process I really enjoy.
I assume the actors and their costume fittings take a lot more time and care with a film as physical as this one?
The joy of this film was Eddie and Felicity were both around early on, and that’s a big input into the design process. From the start, you get an actor’s thoughts on character, you see the way they wear clothes, you understand their specific coloring, their scale and proportion, and so you start to feed in all these factors. And because this story is so physical, we were able to make multiple prototypes, and Felicity was able to rehearse in them so we could see how the costumes behaved and then developed them with her.
The opening scene with Amelia’s beautiful white and emerald colored circus outfit: How did it evolve, and why was it a circus outfit?
The idea was Amelia had an old evening dress that she repurposed into her circus girl costume. A bit home-made, a bit ad-hoc, but I wanted it to have a kind of energy and spontaneity to it.
As to why, I learned how adventurous women worked the system back then. I hoarded photos of 19th century women mountaineers — with their big crinoline skirts climbing on the mountains! But when I read their diaries, I understood how these adventurous women operated in a man’s world. They’d leave base camp and at a certain height remove the skirts, hide them behind a rock and climbed the mountain and then put them on when they came down. This is how to navigate your freedom without the loss of your propriety.
It’s exactly what Amelia did: She trivialized her role in the flight journey — she became a circus performer, the entertainment — and then when they got up into the air, she changed her clothes and took on her real role.
Still, I imagine there weren’t many photos of women in flight suits in mid-19th century England. How did you develop hers?
That’s it, so we had to make it up — but we pinned a lot of it to the clothes of the period. Women’s riding habits were made by gentlemen’s tailors, so we decided to follow that line, and we used notions of men’s period tailing. We looked at a lot of Victorian swimwear: modesty but with freedom of the body. We literally evolved a new world.
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Amelia’s widow’s weeds were exceptionally lovely; were those original?
We made them. There’s an incredible lace called blonde lace made from silk thread, and it’s amazing under candlelight. It just glows. If you find it, you buy it, because it’s so hard to find. We lucked out and just about pieced the dress all together. I got some lace from dealers in England, some I had in stock. You hoard the precious pieces.
What can you tell us about Amelia’s adorable dog, Posey?
We did a lot of fittings with Posey [laughs]. She wasn’t just being held, but she needed to run and have the parachute drag behind her. We did coat fittings, harness fittings, parachute fittings. It was really, really great fun.
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