The masterpieces that adorn the walls of the National Museum Cardiff have been brought to life thanks to the work of a group of costume designers from Coleg y Cymoedd.
Hours of historical research and months of painstakingly detailed work by college leaners studying towards their BA (Hons) in Costume Construction for Stage and Screen have created near-exact interpretations of the clothing and garments featured in some of the Museum’s most famous works, including Renoir’s La Parisienne, better known as The Blue Lady.
The costumes are the result of three months of work at Coleg y Cymoedd’s Nantgarw campus, which culminated with the learners’ work being unveiled at the unique Fashion in Frame event at the National Museum Cardiff.
In addition to viewing one of Europe’s finest art collections, those attending the event had the rare opportunity to interact with some of the paintings’ subjects, as models wearing the six costumes created walked the room.
Not satisfied with creating costumes that simply looked the part, with support from Elen Philips, the Principal Curator Contemporary & Community History for St Fagans National Museum of History, and historian Professor Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones from Cardiff University, the Coleg y Cymoedd learners used period correct techniques to create every piece.
Following their studies at Coleg y Cymoedd, many of the learners will seek to put their skills into practice in careers creating costumes for the theatre, television and film screens.
Coleg y Cymoedd learner, Angela Emes, was tasked with recreating a piece worn by Clara Novello Davies in a portrait painted by Margaret Lindsay Williams in 1915. Following the Museum event, Angela said: “This was a really exciting project to work on. Many people on the course are planning careers in costume design for the theatre, tv and film, but constructing something that is historically accurate takes much more than making something that looks the part. You need to choose your techniques, fabric and models carefully. The goal was to make it look like the subject stepped out of the canvas, but we could only work from what we could see in the painting. Getting everything else correct took hours of research.
“I joined the college in my 60s and plan to work with local productions after I graduate. I was so grateful to be accepted onto the course and the college has kept us energised and inspired since we first joined the foundation degree. I’ve gained work experience with films studios, created costumes for drag queen events, it’s always something new and that’s thanks to our tutors. I know a lot of people on the course will be working with big theatre and film projects in the future.”
Attracted by the reputation on the Costume Construction course, Iona Duff moved to Wales from Cambridge specifically to study at Coleg y Cymoedd. Iona explained: “After I learned that many of the course graduates had secured careers working for tv, movie and theatre productions, I knew I needed to study here. Over the years I been able to work on some interesting projects, but this has been a really challenging one. I’ve wanted to try making a complicated Victorian dress, so I was excited to learn I’d be recreating the dress worn by The Blue Lady. As I researched the piece early in the planning stages the pressure increased, as I quickly realised this was one of the most famous paintings in Wales. The fact that I’d be cutting blue silk that cost over £20 a metre didn’t help either.
“I think the experience working on this piece is going to help me in the future. My dream is to go into making costumes for tv and film. When you’re making something that could be filmed up close and shown on a HD cinema screen, details count. This piece was hours on hours of work, but it was a brilliant opportunity.”
Speaking at the event, Caroline Thomas, the learners’ award leader from Coleg y Cymoedd’s School of Creative Industries, said: “Each of the learners have put their heart and soul into creating these costumes and it is incredibly exciting to see that work culminate with a live event at the National Museum Cardiff. You can’t underestimate the level of work that it takes to bring a piece of historic clothing captured in a painting to life. What you can see is just the surface. Each outfit has been constructed from ‘the skin up’ to be as accurate as possible. In some cases that includes cages, corsets and many layers of garments.
“Seeing the models walking alongside the artworks that inspired them was amazing and the costume parade in front of the Museum’s beautiful Williams-Wynn organ, just makes it clear that these talented learners have fantastic industry careers ahead of them.”