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Fiona Ralph chats to the costume designer of Burton and Taylor about recreating Elizabeth Taylor’s iconic wardrobe and inimitable style.
Susannah Buxton can't talk highly enough of working with Helena Bonham Carter and Dominic West, stars of the BBC's Burton and Taylor, which screens this Sunday on the Rialto channel. The film recreates the tumultuous later years of the relationship between Elizabeth Taylor and two-time ex-husband Richard Burton, who came together in 1983 to star in a stage production of Noel Coward's Private Lives, which coincidentally - and much to audiences' delight - details a similarly stormy divorcee relationship.
"It was almost like an acting masterclass, I thought they were both marvellous," Buxton says of the stars, effusing over Bonham Carter in particular. "She is amazing. She's completely full of this positive energy, which makes the designer stuff so exciting I think. She's with you all the way. She's perfectly excited and as interested as you are in the whole thing."
With such a fantastic script, Buxton adds, it was easy for herself and the cast and crew to pull it off. "Everybody loved the project, and when a team comes together like that, it works really well. Everybody has their input, which is a lovely way to work. It doesn't always happen, but when it does, it's exciting."
Filmed in under a month with a tight budget and just a month for sourcing, Buxton had to be creative when dressing the two leads. She mostly sourced vintage suits for West, apart from one which was made to lend Burton's silhouette to West, but sourced only a few vintage pieces for Bonham Carter - including an amazing black and white 60s kaftan and a real mink coat from a furrier in Primrose Hill.
Mostly, she had Bonham Carter's costumes made by freelance tailors and the costume house she worked with for Downton Abbey (Buxton designed costumes for the first two series of the hit show), seeking to give Bonham Carter's Taylor her own spin, toning her look down subtly so as not to distract from the acting.
"I didn't want to replicate Elizabeth Taylor's clothes of the time, although there was a lot of photographic reference. Except I did actually try to replicate two significant outfits that were very well known."
These were recreated from photos and small amounts of footage, and included Taylor's 50th birthday look, and a blue sequinned gown worn in her first appearance on stage in Private Lives - "It seemed important to not change that," she says.
"It is a drama and we wanted to reflect the glamour of Elizabeth and the impact that she had when she walked into a room, which apparently was significant at any age, and I think Helena has that ability as well. She's a very big personality, and she's very, very positive, and she added her own personality to what she'd understood of Elizabeth so they sort of merged, I think. I tried to design the clothes to complement what Helena was doing with the part."
She also had two of Taylor's most famous pieces of jewellery copied; borrowing and hiring two other iconic pieces - one a fabulous Cartier bracelet, and another, an exact replica of a pair of diamond earrings from Taylor's collection which had been used in an early James Bond film.
"Helena didn't wear as much jewellery as Elizabeth was wearing, partly because we couldn't hope to emulate it and, in a way, both Helena and I were worried it would be a big distraction from the part if she wore as much jewellery as Elizabeth did." Plus there was the obvious limitation, that "even with a huge budget we couldn't have got close to conveying the reality of Elizabeth Taylor's jewellery collection!" she laughs.
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