Meet Grace Snell - Costume Designer

Meet Grace Snell - Costume Designer

F: What is your background? 

G: I moved to London to study at University of the Arts as I wanted to be a painter or sculptor. When some of my sculptures became installations on the body, it was suggested to me to research costume degrees. My Nanny was a machinist in 1960s & 70s making sheepskin coats, famously worn by Del Boy in Only Fools & Horses, so I’ve always been encouraged to sew. With the current economical climate we are in, I pursued a degree where I could learn a skill. So my actual degree is in Costume Making. Realising I loved styling and design too, I started doing some work experience on the side with stylists and assisting costume designers in the industry.

“Learn to Sew”

— Grace Snell

F: After graduation….what next? 

G: Working in theatre, music videos, commercials and short films. When I did music videos, I designed them all and turnover would be quite quick. Unique ideas. And then through the music videos I started building up my experience. With music videos budgets are quite limited and are a good way to start in the industry as you are forced to start thinking outside the box and also teaches you to manage a budget - which in my experience education does not really prepare you for. 

F: How does the journey from “the script to wearing the dress” work? 

G: I think everyone’s way of working is different. I will read the script, jot down some ideas, leave it and let it digest and then I will get back to it. Some directors have visuals. For example when I went on board to work with Billie Piper’s latest film “Rare Beasts”, Billie had already put together some mood boards and visually she knew some styling starting points for her characters and film. So we worked together from that. 

F: How do you get inspired? 

G: I have a wide range of reference books from Indian artist, Nalini Malani, Photographers like Jim Naughten and Phyllis Galembo, right through to the essential costume pattern cutting books of Janet Arnold and Cabrera Meyers. I find that going window shopping in charity shops & designer shops is a great starting point, I respond very well to actual garments rather than looking on the internet.

F: Any recent experience, where you have struggled to come up with an idea? 

G: I normally have too many ideas! However, one of the characters in Billie Piper’s film “Rare Beasts”, did not come to us immediately only around the third fitting. I enjoyed this challenge though, as long as you do not panic in this process and have good communications with the Director and Actor then you are fine. Some characters come up quicker and others might take longer.

F: Can you elaborate more on the relationship between the character and finding the adequate costume for her/him. 

G: I am fascinated by the philosophy of why we wear clothes. Some people are really loyal and have their uniform. Some people are very adaptable. You might have a new friend or partner and start getting inspired by what they are wearing and your taste changes. And you might also buy random items from shops. If for example, somewhere in the script, the character is going through a particular exciting change, they might want to wear something extravagant / different, to what they would normally wear. I think what is really important, is to fully understand the character.

F: How does fashion relate into Costume Designing?

G: Fashion is timeless. Trends are harder to pinpoint, trends recycle for example every 30 years . Trends can become a problem if you are designing a high-end contemporary drama and you know the latest season of a high-end designer is out and you dress the character with that. The production would then come out in six-months down the line, and by then that costume is now last season. In that situation, I would pick a timeless costume instead. You have to almost imagine what the fashion would be like when the production comes out - almost like fashion forecasting and seeing where the trends are going. 

F: Have you been lucky with your fashion forecasting skills? 

G: Because I'm so immersed within the industry you really do start to notice patterns. You have to keep your eyes open and stay informed. Social media is now a really good way of researching the emerging trends.

F: Characters should be believable. How can you achieve that with costumes? 

G: You always have to put the character first and really get into their head. The first fitting is always great fun to discover the character with the actor. The costume should not overshadow the story. In contemporary design If you walk away from a film not really remembering the costumes, a good job has been done by the designer. There are exceptions of course but as a general rule of thumb the costume should not distract from the dialogue when its on camera.

F: Are there any costumes that you would like to design?

G: I guess there is more room for interesting & visionary design in contemporary and utopian future films. You aren't limited by history books and the definite past. However, in my opinion a period film where the costumes do still push the tradition is Yorgos Lanthimos’ film “The Favourite”, with costume design by Sandy Powell.


F: What are your experiences as a woman, working as Costume Designer, in this industry? 

G: Traditionally, costume and make-up, has always been more heavily women dominated. I would say that the ratio of male and female costumes designers is about even, but I would like to encourage more men in my department as assistants, buyers and standbys. A lot of men, feel they don't know how to get into these other roles.

“I would like to encourage more men in my department”
— Grace Snell

F: Do you have any advice, for any women/men, who are looking at stepping into this career?

G: So many people want to be in this industry, which is fantastic and we should definitely encourage more people to work in this industry,  but it’s learning a skill. Learning how to iron properly. How to wash clothes properly. Learn to sew. Hand sew and machine sew. In clothing maintenance, this is fundamental. I think anyone who is looking at stepping up, needs to be ready to do clothes maintenance too and learning these basic skills - not just trends, fashion and networking. Practical skills are the most important thing. Watch films, even in mute, and watch how the clothes move and how the fabrics work and see if the clothes can tell a story, even without sound. 

“If I have a disagreement, I would never shy away from speaking my opinion”
— Grace Snell
Photo by Nic Roques

Photo by Nic Roques

Grace in her workshop. Photo by Nic Roques

Grace in her workshop. Photo by Nic Roques

Photo by Nic Roques.

Photo by Nic Roques.

Costumes designed by Grace Snell for Tilda Swinton and daughter Honor Swinton Byrne for the TV Series “The Souvenir” (2019). Photo by Nic Roques.

Costumes designed by Grace Snell for Tilda Swinton and daughter Honor Swinton Byrne for the TV Series “The Souvenir” (2019). Photo by Nic Roques.

Grace’s studio. Photo by Nic Roques.

Grace’s studio. Photo by Nic Roques.

Honor Swinton Byrne’s costume. Photo by Nic Roques.

Honor Swinton Byrne’s costume. Photo by Nic Roques.

Women in Film after Brexit

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