For Dublin native Consolata Boyle, designing the costumes for the fact-based “Philomena” — her seventh collaboration with director Stephen Frears — took on special significance. Certainly it’s a powerful story about a mother’s search for her long-lost son, amid the appalling revelation of forced adoptions in Ireland. But its greatest artistic appeal came from the witty “Odd Couple” pairing of Judi Dench and Steve Coogan.
“It’s a very brave film,” Boyle contends. “There are moments of real lightheartedness and laughter and that propels the story along and reveals things about both characters during the search for her son. They reveal their inner selves through the meeting of opposites.”
And Boyle was able to convey the tone of their relationship through wardrobe: a delicate balancing act between Dench’s playful Philomena and Coogan’s uptight Martin Sixsmith. “I think we all felt very strongly to keep the costumes as simple as possible and that they must not distract from the dynamic of the story,” Boyle adds. “Philomena’s strength and wisdom and grace under pressure needed to be always there. On the surface, in her simplicity, she seems naive but isn’t. He’s not a conventional character but is vain and opinionated. That was why choices were made in the quietness of the costumes.”
Boyle enjoyed meeting the real Philomena and discovered that she had an appreciation for lovely clothes. The costume designer created a sense of comfort without being too busy. “Some of the colors are dark to give a strong silhouette so there is a beautiful definition that Judi carries off,” Boyle continues. “It is simplicity and strength. The coats were single breasted, almost sculptural. Because of the effortless, comedic banter throughout, I didn’t want anything to distract from that.”
While the flashbacks reveal glimpses of more colorful costumes, the girls would hand over their civilian clothes and be given plain uniforms in the convent. “It was very important to get colors and fabrics right. There was lots of research and we used many sources for late ’50s. The way the young mothers were allowed to be with their toddlers for a few hours a day made it doubly cruel when they were taken away from them and put up for adoption, mostly in America.”
Boyle also enjoyed chatting with the real Sixsmith, the well-educated former journalist and civil servant, who aids Philomena in her search for her son, which takes them from Ireland to Washington, D.C.
“It was important to get the tightness about him and then the slow relaxation and realization what had actually happened on that journey and how she opened him up to a different point of view. He wears chinos and jeans and dresses slightly more formally when visiting the nuns: lovely linens, wools, and tweeds; overcoats and rain gear for the trip to Washington.”
It was all informed by talking to people, discussing choices, and in the end creating a coherent sartorial journey in which Philomena and Sixsmith discover a greater sense of self-worth.