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Yvonne Blake: “We must work hard and face challenges, even difficult ones, because we do not learn by taking the easiest way”

Yvonne Blake (Manchester, 1940) is one of the costume design greats. She has worked in popular films like <i>Fahrenheit 451</i>, <i>Jesus Christ Superstar</i>, <i>Robin and Marian</i> and <i>Superman</i>.

Yvonne Blake (Manchester, 1940) is one of the costume design greats. She has worked in popular films like Fahrenheit 451, Jesus Christ Superstar, Robin and Marian and Superman.

Throughout her career, Blake has received prestigious awards, for instance an Oscar, four Goya prizes and the Spanish National Cinematography Award.

Throughout her career, Blake has received prestigious awards, for instance an Oscar, four Goya prizes and the Spanish National Cinematography Award.

Blake visited UB within the exhibition &ldquo;L’experiència màgica del cinema&rdquo;, hosted by the Historic Building of the University.

Blake visited UB within the exhibition “L’experiència màgica del cinema”, hosted by the Historic Building of the University.

“I am 73 years old but I want to continue being active”.

“I am 73 years old but I want to continue being active”.



Yvonne Blake (Manchester, 1940) is one of the costume design greats. She studied at the Regional College of Art & Design in Manchester and she began her career at the costumier Bermans & Nathans, which collaborates with the popular horror films production company Hammer. She has work in more than fifty films directed by François Truffaut, Richard Donner, Paul Verhoeven and Milos Forman, as well as some Spanish directors such as Gonzalo Suárez and Vicente Aranda. Throughout her career, she has dressed stars such as Marlon Brando, Audrey Hepburn, Ava Gardner, Robert De Niro, Sean Connery and Elisabeth Taylor. In 1971, she won an Oscar for Nicholas and Alexandra, by Franklin J. Schaffner; five years later, she was shortlisted for The Four Musketeers, by Richard Lester. In addition, she was nominated four times for the British Academy of Film and Television Awards —one of them for Jesus Christ Superstar— and twice for Emmy Awards. She also won four Goya prizes for Rowing with the Wind, Canción de cuna, Carmen and The Bridge of San Luis Rey. The latest awards she has received are the Gold Medal of Work Merit in 2011 and the Spanish National Cinematography Award in 2012.

On 21 November, Yvonnne Blake visited the University of Barcelona and participated in a round table talk about cinema, which was included in the activities organised within the exhibition “L’experiència mágica del cinema”, located at the Historic Building of the University. On that occasion, she was appointed patroness of the Fundació Aula de Cinema Col·lecció Josep M. Queraltó.


Throughout your career, you have received prestigious awards, for instance an Oscar and four Goya prizes. Recently, you were conferred the Spanish National Cinematography Award 2012 for “turning costumes into one of the most important elements in many films”. What did the prize mean for you?

It gave me a big thrill. Even if I was not born here, I have live for more years in Spain than in my home country. Therefore, being honoured with this national award was really important for me. It makes me feel really appreciated in Spain. Besides, it was a big surprise. I could not believe it. I do not work for winning awards; I never hope for them, but when they come, it is wonderful. 


So far, you are the only women of a film crew who has received this award.

Yes, I am so proud of it. I consider that, to some extent, I opened a door for other women, for instance film editors, camera directors, etc. This is what I most appreciate of the award: its meaning for other women. Our work in cinema is as good as the one carried out by men; we are as talented as men. However, we have always been less honoured than them. Personally, I have never suffered for being a woman, but I know that there are women directors and producers who suffer it: they earn less money and they have fewer opportunities to direct a film than men. Their work is not taken seriously. It is a continuous fight against inequality.


Let’s go back to your beginnings. Your career began at the costumier Bermans & Nathans, which collaborated with Hammer Films, popular for titles such as Dracula, The Mummy and Frankenstein. What are you memories of that experience?

I started my career at such a young age. When I was 16 I got a grant to study Fine Arts in Manchester. Two year later, I got bored and I decided to move to London carrying my portfolio under my arm. At that moment, I got a job at Bermans. At first, I assisted Cynthia Tingey, the designer who worked at Bermans creating costumes for film stars. Later, she got married with a multimillionaire and she devoted less time to work: she spent more time travelling with her husband, so she gave me those jobs that she considered less interesting. So I began to work in some movies for Hammer Films, creating cast costumes. I worked on the costume of The Shadow of the Cat and The terror of the Thongs, among other films. I also made some costumes for Margaret Rutherford, a popular British actress who acted in some English comedies.

To work at Bermans was the most wonderful education I could receive. Besides designing and working together with Cynthia Tingey, who was a really good costume designer, I also assisted the great Cicel Beaton —he was working on the costume of My Fair Lady in Covent Garden. I learnt a lot during the four years I worked at Bermans. Then I was offered the chance to work in the TV series Richard the Lionheart. These years were really interesting. It is a shame that this type of learning does not exist anymore.


Your debut as costume designer in the big screen happened in 1966, when you were only 22 years old; you dressed Sofía Loren in the film Judith. The Italian actress is only one of the great stars you have worked with: Elizabeth Taylor, Audrey Hepburn, Sean Connery, Marlon Brando and Ava Gardner sported your designs. Who impressed you most?

I think that the one who impressed me most was Marlon Brando. He was such a great star, but when you knew him, he was so normal, so humble, so adorable and generous, that he astonished me. I remember the first time he came to try on the costume, made by Bermans. He did not want to look at himself at the mirror; he only asked me if I liked it. I said him yes and then he affirmed: “Then I love it”. His modesty really impressed me. We also laughed a lot. I remember that he explained me his severe difficulties in remembering the dialogues; he said that he had to read them on a teleprompter, write them on his hand or even on the forehead of the actress who was in front of him. He made me laugh.


You worked together with Marlon Brando in the film Superman (1978), by Richard Donner. In fact, you created the popular costume of Superman that we all have in our minds. How was this experience?

Superman’s costume was created for the comic and I could not change it. It was not allowed. So I try to make a costume as attractive as possible for the actor and as correct as possible for Superman fans. I was not particularly a fan; but I had to reproduce a costume that did not seem ridiculous, it had to be credible and manly, and not similar to the one worn by ballet dancers. I try to hide seams as much as possible. To get it, we used touch fastener, a quite new material at that moment, and Lycra. In fact, we use one of the first Lycra in the market. It was an innovative and interesting period. We felt quite excited about doing things that we consider completely new. Now, these things are really easy, but at that pre-digital age, they were completely new.


What did Superman mean for you career?

For me it was another film. Now, it has become a myth, a classic movie. However, at that time, I did not have any idea of what was going to happen.


You have devoted more than five decades to cinema and you have worked with great directors. From François Truffaut in Fahrenheit 451 to The Three Musketeers byRichard Lester, including Nicholas and Alexandra by Franklin J. Schaffner, which led you to win an Oscar. Among all the works you have done, which one makes you feel more proud of?

I think that, concerning the costume, my best work is Goya's Ghosts (2006) because the result was really realistic. It is also quite a recent film. In my opinion, our work improves as we get older; we feel more secure as we have a better control of our work. When I was young, I felt so insecure. I continue being insecure, but it is a different matter. Now, I organise myself in a different way and I enjoy it more. I particularly enjoyed that film; working with Milos Forman was a great pleasure; he is a great director. Probably, this is the work I feel most proud of. I sometimes watch films I made forty years ago and I consider them old-fashioned, for example Nicholas and Alexandra (1971). I don’t like it: I don’t like the costume; I don’t like the scenery…


But, you won an Oscar for this film…

I know, but it isn’t my best work at all.


Can you describe your creative process? Where do you look for inspiration?

Normally, it is always the same: I receive a script and decide whether it interests me or not; I read it several times; I hold meetings with the director to analyse characters; I look for works of reference. If it is a period movie, I look for inspiration in museums; I also have many books of art at home. For instance, I frequently visit the Prado Museum or the Costume Museum, in Madrid, and I always carry with me a little notebook to note down interesting things, uncommon things I find in period costumes. I always look for something new, slightly different, if possible. On the contrary, to design costumes for characters that live in our age is much more difficult, and I enjoy it less. It is much easier to make a period film than one set in current times.


Are you working on anything now?

I have just collaborated in two short-films to help young directors. I also have a couple of possible projects for next year, although they have not get the go-ahead yet, and the possibility to make a small, but interesting, theatre production off Broadway. Moreover, last year I worked in a quite ambitious musical theatre production entitled The Last Horseman, which was premiered in Madrid, and it will be probably premiered in London. I am 73 years old but I want to continue being active.


You have reached the top of your profession. What piece of advice do you give to new generations?

I recommend them to be enthusiastic and work hard. If you make an effort, you get jobs. We must work hard and face challenges, even difficult ones, because we do not learn by taking the easiest way. To look, to use our eyes, is also an important thing. To watch many films, to visit museums, exhibitions,etc.: any visual input can draw inspiration. It is important to know how to look and then use what you have seen.



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