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May Routh, the fashion illustrator turned renowned costume designer who brought iconic looks to such films as The Man Who Fell to Earth, My Favorite Year and Being There, has died. She was 87.
Routh died peacefully June 1 at her home in Los Angeles, set decorator and family spokesperson Bryony Foster told The Hollywood Reporter.
Routh also did several projects with director John Frankenheimer, starting with the acclaimed 1996 Civil War-set Andersonville and followed by another TNT miniseries, 1997’s George Wallace, starring Gary Sinise as the Alabama governor, and the big-screen action thrillers Ronin (1998) and Reindeer Games (2000).
Routh received Emmy nominations for her work on Andersonville and the 1991 CBS telefilm Lucy & Desi: Before the Laughter, starring Frances Fisher and Maurice Benard.
“I designed [one] costume [used early in the film] that was made of this strange fabric, it was like a woven plastic that was about a half-inch thick,” she recalled. “It was a gray substance, and I thought that would be very good because [Bowie’s character] was somebody who was weightless and could hurt himself bumping into things.” The costume had to be glued together, it couldn’t be sewn, she said.
Routh devised another costume for Bowie that was made out of lace and tubes to reflect that Newton was incredibly dependent on water on his native planet.
On Hal Ashby’s Being There (1979), Routh designed the well-tailored 1920s clothes of an English gentleman that Peter Sellers’ Chance had inherited.
In a 2019 interview, she noted that she got the job as costume designer when Ann Roth turned down the opportunity to collaborate with the temperamental actor, who refused to work if he saw the color purple or green anywhere on the set. She said she rarely spoke to Sellers during production, warned that she would have gotten fired if she did.
Ida May Routh was born in India on July 12, 1934. She grew up in Jabalpur, attended boarding school in England and graduated from St. Martin’s School of Art in London before beginning a career as model and fashion illustrator.
Routh’s drawings regularly appeared in such high-end magazines as Vogue and Elle, but in the late 1960s, publishers turned to photography to illustrate their fashion pieces and “work dried out because everything was photography,” she said in a recent interview for the Costume Designers Guild’s Legacy video series.
She entered the film business as an assistant to costume designer Anthony Mendelson on Oh! What a Lovely War (1969) with the help of Brian Duffy, a former boyfriend who was producing the Richard Attenborough film, then served as an illustrator for Yvonne Blake on Richard Lester’s The Three Musketeers (1973) and The Four Musketeers (1974).
When she arrived to work in the States on The Man Who Fell to Earth, she said she “was quite surprised that most costume designers here didn’t draw, they had somebody else do their drawings. I would sit there and actually draw what I imagined the costumes would look like.”
In the 1980s, she said, the trend increased to buying costumes rather than making them from scratch.
In 2018, she said working with Peter O’Toole on Richard Benjamin’s My Favorite Year (1982) “was quite tricky” and that she designed the mermaid’s costume for Daryl Hannah in Splash (1984) to resemble a dolphin’s skin — more smooth, fewer scales — per instructions from director Ron Howard.
Routh first met English production designer Brian Eatwell on The Three Musketeers, and he became her second husband in 1983. They also worked together on The Man Who Fell to Earth and other films including Marty Feldman’s The Last Remake of Beau Geste (1977) and Michael Schultz’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978) before his death in 2007.
Her résumé also included First Family (1980), Ghost Story (1981), Caddyshack II (1988), Newsies (1992) and her final credit, the 2004 CBS telefilm Helter Skelter, starring Jeremy Davies as Charles Manson. After working with the Bee Gees on Sgt. Pepper, she designed colorful costumes for several of their tours.
A member of the Costume Designers Guild and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Routh also was a teacher at Woodbury University in Burbank and mentored design students. (She said she taught Freddie Mercury in art school and later worked with him on the 1982 Queen music video “Body Language” that was banned by MTV because of nudity.)
Survivors include her stepdaughters, Joanna (also a costume designer) and Stephanie (a garden designer), and their children, Otis, Finton, Otto and Florence.
A memorial is scheduled for 11:30 a.m. on Wednesday at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. Guests are invited to raise a glass to Routh afterward at the Woman’s Club of Hollywood at 1749 N. La Brea Ave.
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