Yvonne Blake, 'Superman' Costume Designer, Dies at 78

Yvonne Blake - H 2018
Courtesy of Enrique Cidoncha/Spanish Film Academy

The British-born costume designer won an Oscar for her work on the 1971 historical drama 'Nicholas and Alexandra.'

Yvonne Blake, designer of the iconic costumes for the 1978 box-office hit Superman, has died. She was 78.

Blake died Tuesday in Madrid, a spokesperson for the Spanish Film Academy told The Hollywood Reporter. She had been the academy's president since October 2016 but suffered a stroke in January.

She shared an Academy Award with Antonio Castillo for the three-hour-plus 1971 costume drama Nicholas and Alexandra, directed by Franklin J. Schaffner. "I suppose all one can say is that if it wasn't for the Russian Revolution, I wouldn't be here," Blake said when accepting her award.

Her work could also be seen in Norman Jewison's Jesus Christ Superstar (1973); Robin and Marian (1976), starring Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn; the 1976 war film The Eagle Has Landed, and Milos Forman's Goya's Ghost (2006).

But her most recognizable work was on Richard Donner's Superman, for which she adapted the comic book design of the superhero costume for the cinema screen. In her original design sketch made before Christopher Reeve was cast in the leading role, Blake's annotations read: "Leotard in shimmering blue two-way stretch fabric worn over false muscles & harness for flying. Capes to be made in various flowing fashion for resting. Boots in glove leather or elastic with small heel. ‘S’ motif in red & gold on breast & again in all gold on back of cape. Gold metal belt with ‘S’ buckle."

For Blake, the focus was on making a practical costume for Reeve to wear while balancing its authenticity to her audience. "It was a question of reproducing what looked like a pretty silly costume into one that could be worn by an actor that would look attractive and believable to Superman fans," she said. "It was important that the tights and shorts did not look like ballet dancers', so the problem of lumps and bumps was solved by wearing a plastic protection shield normally used by boxers."

The film was co-produced by Ilya and Alexander Salkind, with whom Blake had earlier worked on The Four Musketeers: Milady's Revenge (1974). 

In a presentation to the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in 2013, Blake spoke about the difficulties in designing the iconic costume. "I started prepping long before there was a director or an actor," she said. "I worked solely with the production designer, director of photography and the special effects director. These were then innovators on special effects on a grand scale. Now it seems very familiar, but in those days, pre-digital, we were like Christopher Columbus discovering the New World. A voyage into unknown territory. "

Blake began working in front of blue and green screens, testing out different shades of turquoise Lycra for the flying scenes. "If the Lycra was either too green or too blue, Superman would disappear, and all we would see are his shorts, his boots and his cape." She settled on material sourced from a factory in Austria.

For Marlon Brando's glowy Jor-El costume, she aimed for a look that reflected strong light and energy. "I looked everywhere for the right material. In desperation, I consulted the director of photography, who suggested a material called 3M; it's what cinema screens are made of."

The only drawback to the material was that it turned black when touched by bare, sweaty hands, so crewmembers had to wear white cotton gloves.

Not surprisingly, Blake returned for Richard Lester's Superman II (1980).

Born in 1940 in Manchester, England, Blake did duty as an assistant costume designer and art director on Francois Truffaut's Fahrenheit 451 (1966) and as costume coordinator on the Elizabeth Taylor thriller Night Watch (1973).

Her telefilm work included Onassis: The Richest Man in the World (1988), Casanova (1987), Crime of the Century (1996) and James Dean (2001). During her career, she won four Goya Awards (Spanish Oscars) and received four BAFTA nominations and two Emmy noms.

Said current Spanish Film Academy president Mariano Barroso in a statement: "I met Yvonne when she called me to accompany her in the presidency of the institution. I witnessed her enormous generosity, her passion and her dedication, and at her age, she chose to work for all of us. She took the Academy in difficult times, and her work has been decisive for the new stage of modernization that we are experiencing."