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In conversation with costume designer Pam Downe

In conversation with costume designer Pam Downe

If there’s one thing that will never ceaze to fascinate it’s the historical drama, the thirst for discovery of ancient times, the passion for stunning dresses and armours, tormented loves and of course, the immersive, cinematic experience in the life of legendary queens and kings. 

We had the pleasure to interview costume designer Pam Downe for LATEST. She’s the creator of the wonderful costumes of season 2 of The Spanish Princess, the historical drama centred on Queen Catherine of Aragon, the first wife of King Henry VIII, here in Italy available for viewing on Starz Play from October 11.

courtesy of Starz

The television series is a production of Starz and the sequel of The White Queen and The White Princess. These historical drama are the screen adaptations of English historical novelist Philippa Gregorys books inspired by the story of the Plantagenet line and the Tudors, namely The White QueenThe Red QueenThe Kingmaker’s Daughter (all of which were adapted for screen in The White Queen series), The White Princess and The Constant Princess

The Spanish Princess, created by Emma Frost, sees starring actress Charlotte Hope as Catherine and actor Ruairi O’Connor as a young Henry VIII.  The entire saga has fascinated many viewers passionate about the history of dress and so here we are speaking with Pam Downe about the making of these breath-taking costumes, from which we can perceive how really the shapes, forms and colours give life and depth to a character. We also spoke about her main inspirations and challenges of designing particular pieces of clothing, the intricate and interesting techniques applied on textiles, and the making of such magnificent, regal atmospheres. 

You worked on the costumes for season 2 of “The Spanish Princess”. Was it difficult to adapt or to start over from the first season’s project? Where did you get the inspiration to depict those crucial years of English history? 

In season 2 we decided to show Catherine and Henry as more mature than in season 1, the costume shapes are more defined, and this is particularly apparent with Catherine and her ladies in waiting where there are less elements to their outfits which helps to create a sleeker, more confident look. With Henry, I made a conscious effort to create a wider, squarer silhouette than before, so he takes up more space which helps give him the appearance that he is better able to command the room. For inspiration I used many references, starting with paintings, drawings and woodcuts from the period. I also read a lot of texts that were written about the English court at the time. 

Historical fashion books proved to be essential and it was necessary to cross reference many publications, this is a difficult period to research as it tends to fall between other periods that are better researched such as Medieval, early Italian renaissance and later Tudor, hence the need to refer to many sources. For textiles I found furnishing textiles at the V&A museum to be particularly interesting.

Were you influenced by different cultures and textile traditions while working on this project? Given that Catherine of Aragon came from Spain, how much of Spanish influence is involved in the costumes? Did you have to highlight a differentiation from the English ones?

When Catherine first comes to the English court to marry Arthur, she brought with her the Spanish farthingale which is comprehensively covered in season 1. In season 2 she is finally Queen and she is trying to ingratiate herself into the English court, hence I played down any obvious difference between Spanish and English dress. Having said that I intentionally kept some remnants of Spanish influence, for instance I sourced some beautiful Moorish tile prints from the 16th century which my textile designer then turned into stencils to be used for some of both Catherine and Lina’s dresses. Also, there is a rust dress Catherine wears early on in episodes 1 and 2 which has a skirt printed with gold hoops, the idea being these will echo the structural hoops of the farthingale worn in the first season.

What are the textiles and prints you used more? The result is so wonderful that makes you dream about wearing all of the dresses on display! 

One of my favourite aspect of this project was creating the textiles, there are only so many silhouettes you can create for this period whereas the way you can decorate these shapes is endless! The fabric I most used was velvet, in all its many forms be it cotton, silk, viscose or a combination of each. Velvet was worn heavily in the 16th century and was particularly prominent in the English court, it is also a good surface to print on. My textile printer Sarah came up with this ingenious way to puff out the inks to give the prints a 3D look that gave the impression that the fabrics had been embroidered (for a fraction of the price that any embroidery would have cost!). Another way I increased the embellishments of the prints was to sew in individual beads and pearls, this was only done to the centre section of the dresses, those areas the camera were more likely to see as it is a very time consuming. 

As some may know, season one of this historical drama was a preparation for what would happen next. Catherine of Aragon finally marries King Henry VIII and their reign has just begun. The queen is not a young princess anymore and she has to deal with the first obstacles threatening her reign and her marriage. Did you underline this transformation in the costumes too? How did you emphasize this change? 

As touched on above Catherine’s outfits change in season two to reflect her growing maturity and her new royal status. There is a distinct arc to Catherine’s wardrobe throughout this series that changes dramatically as she moves through her story, her outfits start to reflect the effect life events impact on her. In the early episodes she has a lightness, she is in love, rich, part of a popular glamorous couple and she has a male heir, life is good. It is here that I used joyful colours, reds, yellows, golds and oranges. I use velvets but also lighter silks and lots of prints and embellishments. As the story moves on and her difficulties with pregnancies start to consume her, I start to bleed out the colours, using dusty pinks, pale greens and ivory but keeping the shapes similar to before.

Towards the end of her journey and as she matures further and fully embraces her Catholicism her silhouette simplifies, and she moves into deep dark colours until she eventually ends up in black.

The Spanish Princess 2 Promoshoot – courtesy of celebmafia

The show’s disclaimer states that some details may have been added or altered for dramatic reasons. From the trailer we can clearly grasp a scene in which Catherine wears an armour. Even if there are some indications of women fighting alongside men in several periods of history, we do not have many illustrations of armours in 16th century womenswear. Coming to this armour, we can see it’s specifically designed for pregnancy which might seem ahistorical but really empowering when it comes to defining her strong character. What was the project behind it? Did you enjoy working on it?

The pregnancy armour was a challenge as I have never designed anything like it before, however I did relish the chance to be working in another material other than velvet or silk!

We knew Catherine did go to Flodden, but she didn’t fight so we pushed the boat out here for dramatic effect and to help emphasise her bravery, strength and wilfulness but also her loyalty to Henry. I did a lot of research on armour of the period and worked with an armour maker who had a fountain of knowledge of his own. Together we came up with the arm and leg pieces based on original designs which were then scaled down for Charlotte (who is tiny). However, the belly section was completely made up and involved a pretty complex set of stages starting with forming a mould of the pregnancy bump that Charlotte wore for all her pregnancy outfits. She had to literally stand stock still wearing it while wet moulding plaster was poured over her and then had to be left to set. The idea for the lattice effect on the belly was to give the impression of further protection of her unborn child, it was like a portcullis (heavy metal grating) that you find on entrance to castles to protect them from invaders. I had many conversations with the show runners about the armour and together we decided to make the belly section gold as this was the most precious part to protect.

Is there a difference in terms of approach when it comes to menswear design? At that time, menswear was colourful and richly embellished similarly to that of womenswear, but did you find any obstacles in terms of design or a difference in the process?

The menswear had an equal amount of embellishment as the women’s wear and in fact Henry’s costume story arc was such that his costumes become more ornate as time moves on. Just as Catherine’s costumes become simpler his become fussier. His desperation that he has no male heir deepens as the story progresses and he starts to compensate with public displays of wealth which become outward symbols of his virility. Henry’s look was not straightforward and did take a few attempts to get right, we did several toiles for Ruairi to sort out a shape that worked. The square neckline that was fashionable for men during this period really didn’t suit him and made him look young and vulnerable, so I cheated the look and raised his neckline which helped to give him more gravity. I also decided that his friends and special advisors in the Privy council would have followed Henry’s fashion, so they also donned this look. 

In terms of process I would say that the seamstresses had a pretty hard time dealing with the weight of the menswear, in particular the surcoats, many of which included large amounts of heavy velvet, just trying to manoeuvre their way around these was a challenge.

courtesy of Starz

Not to give many spoilers, but since many know how the real story went, and since a first look of Anne Boleyn was given even in season one when she was approximately 8 years old, will we get to see her grown up in this season? We also know from history she spent quite some time at the French court, will this be a detail accentuated also in her costumes?

I can’t say too much here but Anne Boleyn does appear at court however you aren’t aware she is there so I dressed her, for the most part, in a very unassuming way so she wouldn’t stand out as different.

Do you have a favourite costume among the ones you designed for this season? 

I had different favourite dresses throughout the (long) shoot, however looking back I’d say one of the first dresses and the last dress I designed are the ones I look most fondly on now. The first one is the red and gold silk dress that Catherine wears when Ferdinand visits court and the last is the black velvet dress she wears at the very end. These 2 dresses top and tail her costume journey. I also quite like the armour…

On the cover a shot by Jason Bell


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