Julie Harris: Costumier Royale

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By Melanie Williams (@BritFilmMelanie)

It was very sad to receive news of costume designer Julie Harris’s death in May 2015 but gratifying to see her receive many warm tributes (like this one from her friend Jo Botting) for her outstanding work in British film and television during a career that spanned six decades and covered everything from fur bikinis – she created Diana Dors’ infamous publicity-stealing two-piece for the 1955 Venice Film Festival – to Sherlock Holmes and the Muppets.

Harris did some of her most notable and enjoyable work in the 1960s, creating costumes for the Beatles’ first two films A Hard Day’s Night and Help! and winning an Oscar for her imaginative dressing of Julie Christie’s it girl in Darling. BFI Special Collections hold a number of her design sketches, including those for her iconic sixties assignments, and they are a joy to behold. The sketches for the swooning schoolgirls’ stylish uniforms for A Hard Day’s Night are among those preserved, and they can also be seen being surveyed by the Beatles themselves in a publicity photograph (George Harrison was sufficiently impressed even to marry one of the young women who would end up wearing it, Pattie Boyd).

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Interesting to note too that even for a black and white film such as Darling, Harris produced vibrantly colourful sketches, as with this image detailing what Julie Christie would wear for the film’s shoplifting scene – although it’s difficult to imagine someone being more obtrusive and less likely to get away with shoplifting than Christie in this eye-catching bright coral outfit. As has been noted by Christine Geraghty and others, Harris was very deft in combining sixties off-the-peg mod style (knee socks, mini-dresses, hairbands) with more glamorous high-end couture, creating a look that perfectly balanced the aspirational and the achievable. Frances Tempest’s fascinating interview with Harris explores the designer’s work on Darling in more depth.

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One of Harris’s own personal favourites was the messy Bond pastiche Casino Royale, a film she acknowledged to be ‘very bad’ in places but which granted her extraordinary lassitude in the creation of show-stopping costumes, especially for a range of Bond girls, among them Deborah Kerr and Ursula Andress. Casino Royale may have suffered from a surfeit of spectacle and a lack of plot but Harris was always very narrative-minded in her approach to costuming, adhering closely to her ‘dress plot’, as she discussed in an interview with Brian McFarlane, ‘showing how many characters there are, how many changes everybody has, and that there is for wardrobe to use for continuity… a sort of bible as to what each character wears in each scene.’

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On a completely different note from the kitsch chaos of Casino Royale, Harris was also very proud of her work on The Whisperers, ensuring that Dame Edith Evans looked authentically threadbare and downtrodden as befitted her character in the film. That film also began a long-standing alliance and friendship with Bryan Forbes and actress wife Nanette Newman that also bore fruit in the sixties in Forbes’s period comedy The Wrong Box and contemporary thriller Deadfall.

Able to navigate a huge range of genres and styles, and as confident in tackling period dress (in anything from Carry On Cleo to Goodbye Mr Chips) as she was in acting as an intermediary between modern fashion and film costume, Julie Harris will be rightfully remembered as one of those highly skilled professionals who played such a major role in creating the distinctive look of British cinema, and a key contributor in rendering the swinging sixties on screen.

Melanie.williams@uea.ac.uk

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