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'I have Daniel Day Lewis' underpants framed in my house' - meet Ireland's costume designers

As a Limerick museum prepares to exhibit garments from some of our most famous movies, Yvonne Hogan talks to the women who made it their mission to salvage them from the scrapheap

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Veerle Dehaene at the Hunt Museum with the ‘Best Costume Goes To...’ exhibition. Photo: Don Moloney Photography

Veerle Dehaene at the Hunt Museum with the ‘Best Costume Goes To...’ exhibition. Photo: Don Moloney Photography

Don Moloney

Veerle Dehaene at the Hunt Museum with the ‘Best Costume Goes To...’ exhibition. Photo: Don Moloney Photography

What do My Left Foot (1990) and The Favourite (2018) have in common? Aside from their leading actors winning Oscars - Daniel Day-Lewis for playing Dublin author Christy Brown and Olivia Coleman for her comic turn as Queen Anne - both films feature in a new exhibition opening in Limerick's Hunt Museum this weekend.

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Colin Farrell, In Bruges

Colin Farrell, In Bruges

'Best Costume Goes To …' is the story of the Irish film and television industry told through costume, and includes such iconic items as the bowler hat worn by John Wayne in The Quiet Man, the peach suit worn by Brenda Fricker in My Left Foot (Fricker also won an Oscar in 1990 for best supporting actress for her role as Christy's mother), the Afghan coat worn by Day-Lewis playing Gerry Conlon in Jim Sheridan's masterpiece In The Name Of The Father, Liam Neeson's Free State Army uniform in Neil Jordan's Michael Collins, and an outfit worn by Cillian Murphy's character Kitten in what is perhaps Ireland's most visually arresting and under-rated film, Breakfast On Pluto.

The exhibition is a collaboration between the Hunt Museum and the Irish Costume Archive Project.

The latter is the brainchild of costume designer Eimer Ní Mhaoldmhnaigh and costume historian Veerle Dehaene, who set up the project upon the closure of the Costume Mill on Dublin's Capel St in 2018. The two met while doing an MA together and Dehaene had worked at the shop, which was owned by the legendary Irish costume designer Joan Bergin, and housed costumes from many classic Irish films including Michael Collins, Agnes Brown, and In The Name Of The Father. The shop was closing as the building had been sold and was slated for development as a hotel.

"We felt it was all going to be sold off or end up in a skip and we decided we really needed to build an archive of costumes from iconic Irish films, otherwise they will disappear overnight," says Ní Mhaoldmhnaigh.

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Colin Farrell’s costume from In Bruges

Colin Farrell’s costume from In Bruges

The archive currently has over 300 costumes, most of which are stored in Ardmore Studios. They count Neil Jordan, who is opening the exhibition, among their champions and are open to donations to ensure the protection of this important piece of history.

"We are trying to establish a proper archive where people who are interested in period clothing and costume can come and study the pieces and see how they are made and all of that. And we really want to exhibit."

There are plans for more exhibitions, with one currently slated for Russborough House, Blessington, Co Wicklow, this summer.

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Jacob Tremblay, Room

Jacob Tremblay, Room

"We try to theme each exhibition to the place. When we go to Russborough House, we will try and theme the costumes to the different rooms. Because Limerick is a Viking city, we have costumes from the TV show Vikings."

Jill Cousins, Director of The Hunt Museum, recognised the synergy when approached by the ICAP, along with Siún Ní Raghallaigh, CEO of Troy and Ardmore Studios, with the idea of the exhibition.

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Jacob Tremblay’s outfit from Room

Jacob Tremblay’s outfit from Room

"We are always looking to attract new audiences and this innovative new exhibition should do just that. It also has wonderful education opportunities linked to the textiles in our Sybil Connolly Collection and connects us more strongly with other Limerick culture organisations such as Troy Studios."

Ní Mhaoldmhnaigh is one of 11,000 people working, either directly or indirectly, in our audio-visual industry which, according to Screen Ireland - the body responsible for the industry - is now worth €692m. As one of Ireland's foremost costume designers, she has many of Ireland's best movies on her CV, including the aforementioned Breakfast On Pluto (2005).

"Breakfast On Pluto was brilliant," she says. "It was a real turning point for me as well. I had worked with Neil Jordan twice as assistant - on Michael Collins and The Butcher Boy - but it was my first time working as the costume designer.

"It was a costume-piece set in the 1970s. Cillian Murphy played a transvestite - he is very slight, very slim, and for him we made 90pc of the costumes. We hired a lot of costumes from costume houses in London and Rome, and we got quite a bit of stuff from RTE. RTE had a lot of stuff at the time. They have got rid of a lot of it now, but at the time it was in the basement. They didn't hire it out, but we told them what we were doing and they were really nice about it."

Her most recent movie was The Rhythm Section, (2020) a contemporary Dublin tale in which Hollywood star Blake Lively plays an assassin, and which also features in the exhibition. Was this very different than working on a period piece?

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Cillian Murphy, Breakfast On Pluto

Cillian Murphy, Breakfast On Pluto

"In a funny way, every film is the same and every film is different," says Ní Mhaoldmhnaigh. "There will be lots of conversations with the directors and the actors to decide the look for the film. For The Rhythm Section, we didn't want the character to be a sexy assassin, we wanted her to be more real, gritty, someone who wouldn't stand out.

" There is nothing random about film. Very little happens by accident. It is a long, slow process to get to where everyone is reading from the same page - where you get to the stage where you say Stephanie (Lively) would wear this or Stephanie would do that."

Her favourite project to date was the movie Brideshead Revisited (2008), but her favourite piece of costume comes from a movie she didn't work on - In The Name Of The Father, designed by Joan Bergin, who will give a lecture as part of the exhibition. And it is?

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Cillian Murphy’s costume from Breakfast On Pluto

Cillian Murphy’s costume from Breakfast On Pluto

"Daniel's underpants. They were costume underpants, because there is a scene where he is stopped in the street by the British soldiers and they want to search him, so he has to pull down his pants, and then he is wearing these very funny leopard print underpants. Joan gave them to me about 20 years ago."

And will they be on view as part of the exhibition?

"No." she laughs. "They are in a frame in the hallway of my house."

  • 'Best Costume Goes To...' runs from Saturday until April 4. For more see huntmuseum.com.

Irish Independent