In Memoriam          


Julie Harris
Costume designer who worked on A Hard Day's Night, Darling and Casino Royale

 

Julie Harris

Despite having designed costumes for British films since 1947, Julie Harris, who has died aged 94, came into her own in the swinging 60s, reflecting the fashion revolution of the decade. This was most evident in two Beatles features, A Hard Day's Night (1964) and Help! (1965), both directed by Richard Lester, and John Schlesinger's Darling (1965) for which Harris won an Academy Award. In the latter, Julie Christie's Chelsea outfits – mini-skirts, headscarves, caps and knee socks – stood out. Later in the film, when Christie, in the role of the beautiful, bored, young model, marries an Italian prince, she changes to expensive, elegant gowns. "It was just another contemporary film," Harris recalled. "I had no idea that it would become such an iconic portrayal of the time. When the film opened in Britain, nobody took much notice. It didn't get any nominations for any awards at all, because to the home audience it was just everyday life. It was America that went mad for it, they loved it. I think they fell in love with the whole swinging London image."

Born in London, only daughter of Harry, a businessman, and Rose, Harris was privately educated in London and at a boarding school in Maidenhead, Berkshire. She studied at Chelsea Art School and was working for a high-society dressmaker when the second world war began. Her arm was seriously injured in the bombing of the Café de Paris in the West End in 1941, but she joined the ATS when she recovered. On being demobbed, she got a job as a design assistant at Gainsborough studios, working with the studio's top designer Elizabeth Haffenden, from whom she learned the basics of film costume design. Her first solo credit came with Holiday Camp (1947), a vivid depiction of postwar working-class people at play. In the 1950s, the rather dour period of British pictures, Harris, while under contract to J Arthur Rank, enlivened and brought style to many a production. Harris was inspired by the elegance of the stars of Hollywood's Golden Age, but she realised that, back then, "there was a marked difference between film fashions and street fashions that doesn't exist today".

When she came to design clothes for Bette Davis (Another Man's Poison, 1951), including a diaphanous chiffon nightdress, Joan Crawford (The Story of Esther Costello, 1957), and Lauren Bacall (North West Frontier, 1960), she managed to strike a balance between what people wore in reality and the Hollywood glamour the stars were used to.

She often had to cope with performers who were not happy to wear what she designed for them. For example, Melina Mercouri refused to wear high-waisted dresses on Joseph Losey's The Gypsy and the Gentleman (1958), set in the Regency era, preferring a shape that she believed to be more flattering to her figure. "I had to make some adjustments, though some of her outfits ended up far too modern looking."

On The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw (1958), a producer asked Harris to raise Jayne Mansfield's plunging neckline to a more modest level. But when the star saw that the bar-room girls in the film had more revealing costumes, she objected strongly. Harris had to adjust all their necklines to be higher than Mansfield's.

In 1955, when a group of Rank stars went to the Venice film festival to publicise British films, Harris designed the notorious "mink" bikini that was worn by Diana Dors in a gondola. Actually, unbeknown to the newspapers that splashed photos of Dors over its pages, the bikini was made from rabbit fur.

Harris designed for a whole range of films throughout her career, although she complained that "people only notice the costumes in period films", not realising how much detail goes into contemporary clothes, always with the personality of the character in mind.

"You do sketches first when you do period films. People think that the sketches are quite pretty and they like that and that's how it's got to be. But with modern clothes it's different because the director can look at them and might say: 'Oh, my wife wouldn't like that.' They all think they know about modern clothes," Harris commented. "I think I was the person who first got the Beatles out of their collarless jackets into proper shirts and ties in Hard Day's Night."

As colour films became more prevalent, Harris was able to experiment with a range of fabrics of different shades. She had particular fun with the bizarre costumes in Casino Royale (1967), the spy spoof with a multitude of James Bonds. She was also costume designer on Roger Moore's first Bond movie, Live and Let Die (1973), and worked on Alfred Hitchcock's penultimate film, Frenzy (1972).

Her personal favourite was Bryan Forbes's The Slipper and the Rose (1976), a retelling of the Cinderella story, which contained an array of gorgeous ballgowns. She had won a Bafta for her Victorian costumes in Forbes's The Wrong Box 10 years previously. The last feature film on which Harris got solo credit was Dracula (1979), in which she was responsible for the elegant, silk-pleated batwing cloak worn by Frank Langella in the title role. She was one of the team of designers on The Great Muppet Caper (1981).

On her retirement in 1991, after working on television, which included two Sherlock Holmes TV movies, The Sign of Four and The Hound of the Baskervilles (both 1983), and the mini-series A Perfect Hero (1991), she became a successful oil painter.

Ronald BERGAN
http://www.theguardian.com/film/costume-and-culture/2015/may/31/julie-harris



 

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