Sunday, May 20, 1990

"Creating a costumes drama"

Designer Tom Rand tells Julia Robson how he created the outfits for Jennifer Ehle's role as Tracy Lord in the Old Vic's production of 'The Philadelphia Story'

Anyone who appreciates exquisite clothes will find the Old Vic's adaptation of the 1940 film The Philadelphia Story unmissable.

Despite the play being set in 1939, many of the bell-sleeved jackets, Schiaparelli-inspired puffball skirts and neat little tailored suits with buttons the size of beer mats look suspiciously like next season's new tailoring.

The Prada shoes and vintage handbags (bought from Portobello Road market) wouldn't look out of place in this month's Vogue. Even the programme and poster is by David Downton, the hottest name in fashion illustration.

From the moment actress Jennifer Ehle flutters on stage in a cream two-piece trouser suit with tangerine sash, as the spoilt heiress Tracy Lord, you can expect the sort of gasps and applause normally reserved for a couture show.

There are similarities. Ehle's five outfits were first made in a toile, then fabric, in the style of leading Parisian haute couture houses. Each of the play's 40 outfits has been made from scratch using couture fabrics, by an army of dressmakers, milliners, wigmakers and tailors across London.

It didn't take Kevin Spacey, the Old Vic's artistic director - who plays C K Dexter Haven, the role made famous by Cary Grant - long to realise that the true star of The Philadelphia Story is the costume designer.

When Katharine Hepburn bought the film rights to Philip Barry's play, she appointed Adrian, MGM's legendary costumier, to create the clothes, long before she hand-picked her starry cast.

The man behind the latest Philadelphia frocks is Tom Rand, who gave me a sneak preview of his designs prior to tonight 's opening night.

Rand's cinematic CV is impressive. He designed the dark-green velvet cloak worn by Meryl Streep in Karel Reisz's film The French Lieutenant's Woman. "And to think," he says, "they wanted her to wear a military coat!"

He has dressed Hollywood's biggest stars, from Elizabeth Taylor - "She insisted on wearing her own 18th-century diamonds" - to James Mason. "He arrived at the Dorchester on the Sunday, we had him at the tailors on Monday, and he was on set by Thursday." He has worked with Franco Zeffirelli, Ridley Scott and GĂ©rard Depardieu on his first venture as a director, Un Pont Entre Deux Rives. "One of the hardest tasks I've ever had was to make Carole Bouquet, one of the most stylish women in the world, look ordinary."

When it comes to actresses who know how to work a period dress, Jennifer Ehle, perhaps still best known for her role opposite Colin Firth in Pride and Prejudice, takes some beating.

"The brilliant thing about Tom," she says, "is that he not only creates amazing clothes which are flattering, which we all love him for, but also thinks about how they will make you feel. I've been longing to see everyone in their costumes. Each character has his or her own costume vocabulary - yet the clothes look very real.

"Tracy Lord is a particularly delicious part and her clothes are her identity. Tom has created a red wig for me, and there's lots of references in the play to my nickname, 'Red'. I also get to wear a pair of silver and gold brocade Prada shoes with four-inch heels. It's no secret I'm not averse to wearing a little vintage, so I love all my outfits in the show. I can't think when I've ever been quite so comfortable before."

Backstage at the Old Vic, Rand explains: "When the director, Jerry Zaks, and I initially met to discuss The Philadelphia Story, I suggested our approach should incorporate some of the glamour of an MGM film of the period.

"This play is about fabulously wealthy people from a certain class, which had to be reflected in the clothes. You couldn't have Tracy Lord limping out in a baggy wedding dress from the usual costume-hire depots."

As well as the feisty, super-stylish Lord women, there is sassy photographer Liz Imbrie, played by Lauren Ward. "I based her clothes on a picture of Carole Lombard, although she's really more of an Eve Arden-type character, always with a cigarette.

"We also spent a long time searching for the right Prince of Wales check for the reporter Macaulay Connor, played by D W Moffett.

It had to be loud enough to make an impact but not say Guys and Dolls.

"I made a mental note to put any reference to the Katharine Hepburn movie, or to the 1950s musical High Society, which starred Grace Kelly, to the back of my mind."

"No one can compete with Hepburn or Adrian. But I'd like to think my designs are a homage to Adrian. To be compared to him would be the greatest compliment."

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