Thursday 14 December 2017

Wardrobe confidential... Allison Byrne on creating the costumes for Rebellion

At the theatre: From left, Charlie Murphy as Elizabeth, Ruth Bradley as Frances and Sarah Greene as May in Rebellion
At the theatre: From left, Charlie Murphy as Elizabeth, Ruth Bradley as Frances and Sarah Greene as May in Rebellion
Ruth Bradley as Frances and Barry Ward as Arthur in Rebellion
There were a lot more bells and whistles on military costumes: From left, Michael Ford as Harry, Paul Reid as Stephen and Andrew Simpson as George in Rebellion
Perdita Weeks as Vanessa in Rebellion

Allison Byrne is a costume designer from Dublin. She studied fashion design at NCAD and created costumes for theatres in Dublin before moving to London to work for Regent's Park Open Air Theatre. On returning to Ireland in the early 1990s, Allison entered the film industry as a trainee on productions like The Van. Her career highlights include Song for a Raggy Boy and Cracks starring Eva Green. Here, she tells Meadhbh McGrath about her work on Rebellion.

'I was interested in Rebellion because it was about personal histories, rather than another Michael Collins epic. It was people's stories within the big sweep of history, stories you can really identify with, and it's fascinating that it's women's stories.

"It's all very much a personal story for me too. I'm Dublin born and bred. My granddad was in the British army in World War I, and then he joined Michael Collins' gang and ended up being shot down in Cork. To do something that's all about your family history was really brilliant. My family are from Summerhill and Gardiner's Lane, and they were living in that poverty 120 years ago. That was the thing - everybody you met, from whatever part of the country, had a story about it.

"The research was ongoing for five months. I was terrified of offending anybody by getting stuff wrong, or that there would be glaring mistakes and people would just switch off. We researched online, in books, in the museums, in newspaper archives - we were everywhere! We spoke to people from Collins Barracks, Kilmainham Gaol, the Mater Hospital archive, the Red Cross… There were people coming out of the woodwork that you'd never even think of.

"We had to find this snapshot of Dublin city 100 years ago, and fit everybody into their niche. Each of the different styles is driven by the character's circumstances and their social background.

"The director really wanted the posh character, Vanessa, to come into grimy Dublin with all of its military drabness and to have this clean, ice maiden look about her. We had to show that she was a total fish out of water that people would never have seen before, and we wanted to express that with her white clothes and her paleness.

"Elizabeth, Frances and May are very modern women, but set in their proper place in society. I think that picture of them at the theatre works because you can see that there are different histories there, but you feel like there's some connection between them, and it captures the idea of modern women in a modern Ireland.

"There were letters to newspapers at the time that women were out in the street without hats - not that they had guns, but that they had no hats or gloves on! This was a kind of appalling savagery!

"A lot of the trims, feathers and jewellery are original, and we embellished the costumes with those, but it was really hard to find vintage dresses that would fit modern women. Women were a different shape 100 years ago; they would have been much tinier because they went into corsets really young, and they were really tight.

"This period is fascinating, because the older generation are still in those long-line corsets like the Gibson Girls, and the modern women are heading into a separate realm - think of the flappers and how loose and free those women were, it's the beginning of that idea.

"But that's the posh end - the women in the tenements would have been in 10-year-old clothes, struggling to keep them looking nice. The Dublin tenements were some of the most poverty-stricken in Europe, and we wanted to show that poverty and not shy away from it.

"Most of the costumes were hired from costume houses. We made a small amount of them, but we did a lot of altering and embellishing to make each costume look like it belonged to the person who wore it, so that everything felt real.

"There were a lot more bells and whistles on the military uniforms in real life, but because of budgetary concerns, we had to do simplified versions. The costume houses were really extraordinary, especially Angels in London. They were really hung up on regiments, campaign badges and ribbons, and pushed us to be historically accurate, as did the team at Collins Barracks. There are loads of reenactors who are really passionate - they've spent 20 years of their lives going through the minutiae of the costumes, sourcing them at auctions and on eBay, and they shared everything with us.

"I haven't worked so hard in a very long time, but every day you wanted to go in to work. The team I worked with were the best team I've ever worked with, they were lovely, and we had such fun. Nobody left in a huff! It was a really, really great experience."

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