Hollywood Style: Costumes of 'The King's Speech'

Helena Bonham Carter
Laurie Sparham/The Weinstein Company

During The King’s Speech, Helena Bonham Carter was also filming the final Harry Potter installments.

How designer Jenny Beavan re-created royal-worthy costumes on a near-pauper budget

With a resume boasting more than 50 films, eight Oscar nominations and one Oscar win, it’s no surprise costume designer Jenny Beavan was director Tom Hooper’s go-to choice for his period drama The King’s Speech. The film, starring Colin Firth as stuttering monarch King George VI and Helena Bonham Carter as his steadfast wife, Queen Elizabeth II, is set in 1930s, pre-war England.

Whether spending her Saturday afternoons devouring racks of 19th century gowns at Cosprop -- the famed costume shop in her native London -- or fitting Jude Law into a slightly binding tweed suit for next year’s Sherlock Holmes sequel, Beavan is one of the film industry’s most inspired, and fastest-working, designers. “We had five-and-a-half weeks to prep for filming The King’s Speech, and all my time was spent wrangling clothes,” she says.

The designer, who got her start in 1978 with Merchant Ivory’s Hullabaloo Over Georgie and Bonnie’s Pictures, doesn’t believe in sketching to help map out her design.

“Drawings are irrelevant,” Beavan says. “It’s two-dimensional and has nothing to do with body language.”

Her first order of business for King’s Speech was research: digging up old photos and poring over newsreel coverage of the royal family. However, for the less-documented character of the eccentric Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) -- the speech therapist who helped the king overcome his stutter -- Beavan had a “breakthrough” when Logue’s grandson opened the family archives.

“There was a set of photographs of the Logue family in London,” she says. “It gave us real insight into Lionel Logue and his wife, Myrtle.”

But the biggest challenge for Beavan -- who won her Oscar for 1986’s A Room With a View -- was typical of independent films: making do with a “ridiculously small budget.”

For example, the ornate, ceremonial uniform Firth wears when George VI ascends the throne would normally take about three months and $32,000 to make.

Instead, Beavan -- whose costuming budget for the film, after some negotiations,  landed around $290,000-- rented Firth’s uniform from Angels the Costumier, a London shop, and hit the streets to find suitable adornments. “The naval epaulets we found in a vintage market,” she says.

Working on a film that tells the story of historical personages, especially those with a rich photographic history, adds a layer of responsibility for the filmmakers and designers.

“People have fond memories of these figures, particularly the Queen Mother since she died just a short while ago,” Beavan says.

So the filmmakers focused less on trying to transform Firth and Bonham Carter into exact likenesses of their characters, instead choosing costuming that would allow them to capture the spirit of the royal couple.

For Bonham Carter -- who was draped in PETA-unfriendly furs (luckily, all vintage) -- it was about perfecting the dramatic angle at which the destined-to-be-Queen Mum wore her hats. To symbolize Firth’s maturity as a monarch, Beavan transitioned him from a single-breasted sport coat to a double-breasted coat.

Hooper, who attended many of the fittings, attributes Beavan’s “tremendous eye” for costuming and colors as one of the key elements in developing the tone of the film.

“The reason Helena looks like the Queen Mother is in no small part a result of Jenny’s work,” he says. “She made Colin’s suits from the original materials and worked out a way to fit him so that he would lose some confidence in the way he stands.”

Indeed, Beavan paid attention to every last detail: “In the very last scene, Helena wears this silver-colored dress. When we found it, it was a rather odd shade of turquoise, so we rinsed it through, and it came out this marvelous color. It was perfect for the Queen Mother.”

Regardless of financial constraints and limited time, Beavan managed to create a wardrobe worthy of royalty that visually enriches the story of the reluctant leader. “I don’t think I’ve ever made a film where I have enough money,” she says. “But we do our best.”

-- Additional reporting by Ray Bennett