Exclusive Q&A: Jane Clive gives a fascinating insight into the world of costume design and learning the craft

From studying fashion to the West End, followed by a far reaching career in film – spanning movies such as Sleepy Hollow, Planet of the Apes, Maleficent and Jackie Chan – costume designer Jane Clive is not only a living legend, she’s one of our tutors! 

In this exclusive interview with us she reveals a fascinating insight into her world of the costume department – the importance of investing time to learn hands-on skills, team work, designing Angelina Jolie’s villain costume and compliments from Bernardo Bertolucci!

Could you give an overview of your career to date and your transition from studying to film?
I studied Fashion and Textiles at college, learning how to design, cut patterns, make garments and print textiles. It was during this time that my love of theatre and theatre costume took hold, and I realised that the fashion world didn’t involve the type of creativity that I sought. When I left college, I moved to London and started working – first as a costume maker for a variety of freelance studios, and also for the English National Opera.
I think my first lucky break was joining the costume painting and dyeing department at the Royal Opera House. I had been seeing how the use of colour, texture and print could transform a garment into something magical. From printing butterfly wings, painting ballet tights, spattering fairy tutus to spraying the sides of costumes to make fat opera singers look thinner, it was a whole new creative world.
This led to me setting up my own costume painting studio, where I continued to work on ballet costumes, but also many West End shows and musicals, such as Cats and Phantom of the Opera.
It was during this time that designers started to come to me with film projects, which included Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V and Frankenstein, Bertolucci’s Sheltering Sky and Little Buddha, and Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow and Planet of the Apes.
In the past, costume breakdown was deemed just a matter of making clothes dirty, but good costume painting for film requires more nuance and believability, with the camera being able to move in so close.
These projects took me away on location more and more, until film work completely took over. I was lucky to work with great designers such as Jim Acheson, Colleen Atwood, and Phyllis Dalton, all Oscar winners, and inspirational to work with. It was through these collaborations, that I decided to move away from costume painting and take on more of a design role
Since then I have been lucky enough to work on a wide variety of projects, including Polanski’s Oliver Twist, Snow White and the Huntsman and Maleficent. Oh, and not forgetting two Jackie Chan movies along the way !

What has been your proudest moment in your career?
There have been many but I will always remember Bernardo Bertolucci saying that my work reminded him of the paintings of Veronese when I met him on the set of the film Little Buddha. I had created the colours and printed textile drapes which formed the basis of all the ancient Indian costumes. He was such an inspirational director that it was an exciting moment for me.
More recently, I had the challenge of designing the costumes for Angelina Jolie on the film Maleficent. The iconic villain Maleficent had only ever been portrayed in Disney’s cartoon Sleeping Beauty (1959), so it truly was a challenge to create something new, while still paying homage to the original. It was a difficult journey but so exciting when it all came together.

Have things changed in your field in the film industry in recent times?
Yes. Film production is becoming increasingly inventive. Digital production and high definition means that attention to detail is more and more important. The demand for innovative costume design and skilled practitioners has never been so high, and with time restraints – so demanding.

How important do you think it is to keep learning these skills?
Very important. There is no costume department without highly skilled artists and craftspeople. Costume production is a collaboration between the designer and the cutters, makers, textile artists, shoe makers, milliners, sculptors, jewellers, among others. All these skills are essential, and cannot be learnt overnight. Now that the digital world has made so many things so instantly accessible, it is easy to forget the importance of investing time in learning real hands-on skills.

Are there any particular skills that are becoming thin on the ground for any reason?
I don’t know about thin on the ground, but with so many productions coming here seeking the very best costume teams, it is crucial that new talent is nurtured. I think that really top rate cutters and costume painters are always very much in demand.

What do you love about your job the most?
Collaborating with the highly talented people who work so hard to design and create what we see on the screen, both within the costume department and also with other creative teams such as the props and art department, and then seeing the successful finished product.

In your opinion, what’s the biggest thing that participants get out of your courses?
I hope that people will come away not only with hands-on skills, but also an understanding about the bigger picture, and the importance about the collaborative nature of working in the film industry.

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