Films, like the actors starring in them, must dress for success. A film’s look must be designed to establish a specific mood and setting. As the result of collaboration among writers, director, designers, and other artists who work behind the scenes, a film only succeeds if its characters appear to exist in a believable world, whether that world reflects a future apocalypse, modern Goths, or historic Persia or France. Zoë Howerska ensures that the actors wearing her costumes are appropriately fashionable for whatever the director has in mind.
Like many who work in the film industry, Howerska became fascinated with cinema at an early age and remains excited to go to work on set. Living in Bradford, England, now a UNESCO-designated City of Film, only helped her develop a deeper appreciation for the art of filmmaking. Indeed, Howerska credits her birthplace for giving her unique opportunities to learn about film, long before she attended the Newport Film School at the University of Newport in Wales. She notes that Bradford “has an excellent art house cinema where I went as a child to watch a wide variety of films, from Roman Polanski to George Melies. I always loved to make clothes and obsessed over the clothes in films.”
Her passion for cinematic fashion often led her to shop online for specific items she saw on screen. She remembers “searching everywhere for a triangular watch like the one Will Smith wears in Men in Black.” Before long, however, Howerska couldn’t settle for simply finding accessories she had seen in a film. She began teaching herself how to make favorite fashions. “As soon as the internet came along, I started finding out how to make more complicated things like corsets and Victorian bustles, but until the week I finished university, it never occurred to me that I could combine my passions.”
That epiphany changed Howerska’s career goals and lifestyle forever. Her self-taught experience provided the foundation for formal training to become a costume designer. She first worked for a local costume rental company. Once again, Howerska lived in the perfect place to take yet another step on a cinematic career path, an apprenticeship on a film. She explains, “In the UK, you can get into a specific technical or craft grade by getting a trainee placement on a film or TV show. You typically need about three [apprentice jobs] to get the experience and contacts you need to start getting other jobs.
“My first traineeship was on the British independent feature I Know You Know (2008). I worked with designer Sian Jenkins and dressed Robert Carlyle for seven weeks.” Along with a perk like working closely with these professionals came the reality of shooting on location in the dead of winter. “The film was shot in Bridgend [in south Wales]. It rained a lot, and I’ve never been so cold in my life!”
Nevertheless, Howerska’s perpetually sunny outlook shines through even her recollection of that bleak location shoot. “I feel genuinely blessed that was my first film. Because of the working conditions, it was truly a baptism of fire, and I knew if I couldn’t do the job, that would be the film to break me!” Nothing, it seems, can cause Howerska to break up with her first love, film fashion. Since that apprenticeship, she has developed designs for a wide range of cinematic projects.
Howerska was the costume supervisor on The Reverend, a new horror feature from writer/director/producer Neil Jones [Risen (2010), The Lost (2006)]. She also had the opportunity to stretch creatively. She designed a few challenging scenes, including one of Goths attending a cinema screening. Once again, the difficulty of location shooting was offset by the pleasure of working with a famous actor.
“The one day that really stands out was [when] Rutger Hauer was with us. We shot throughout the night in City Hall in Cardiff’s city center. Night shoots can be surreal at the best of times, but when you turn around and Rutger Hauer is standing there, it becomes a truly ‘pinch me’ situation! He also had a really specific request for a rose as a prop. I went back to my house and got him one from my garden, which he used for the whole scene!”
Although film has been a primary emphasis in Howerska’s career to date, her designs grace television, as well. An upcoming television movie, Tred Films’ Loserville, investigates child homelessness. Starring Alexandra Roach (soon to be seen as the young Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady) and Denise Welch (well known from ITV’s talk show Loose Women), Loserville features modern costumes tailored to each character.
“Most costumes for the film were broken down modern clothes, but Denise Welch’s scenes were set in 1999-2000, and I wanted the character to be a little bit in denial about her age and have a real thing for color clashes. Her whole wardrobe was [in shades of] lime green, pink, and bright blue. The director specifically asked me to also make a gypsy wedding dress for her, so I really had fun with that! It had pink lights in it and everything.”
How do costume designers know when something like pink lights is just what a character needs? Howerska explains that “the most challenging thing is striking a balance between who you see the character as, and what the director has visualized. This sometimes means going one step further than the director might have thought possible and really making sure he or she is one-hundred percent happy with the outcome.”
“Also, actors obviously have a part to play in [costume] creation, because some spend months preparing [for a role] and creating backstories. Sometimes something like the color of shoelaces, or the way they are tied, can have a massive impact on actors and the way they construct their character on set. Ironically, [on film] you’ll probably only get a brief glimpse of those shoelaces, unless there’s a specific shot of feet running or walking, but that aspect [of costume design] is still there, and I believe it does come across on screen through an actor’s performance.”
Although a costume designer may have a specific look in mind, the director has the final word. Some directors take a hands-on approach to every aspect of design, but others let designers have much more control. From her experience, Howerska knows that the designer’s role “generally depends on the director’s individual way of working. Some directors want to be at every fitting, to speak with the actor at every stage of the evolution of the costume and really impress their style on it. Others will completely leave you to it, happy to receive an email with some pictures until you’ve completed the design process.”
Howerska wants to clear up a misconception about costume design: “I think it’s definitely misunderstood how much control a designer has over the character itself.” That doesn’t mean that designers don’t have a lasting impact on a character’s creation. She adds, “When people ask me [about the costume designer’s influence on character], I always think about Mary Zophres,” the designer well known for her work with the Coen brothers on such films as Fargo and The Big Lebowski, as well as the more recent Cowboys and Aliens, True Grit, and Iron Man 2. “The way she works means that every piece of clothing has a backstory. I think this adds so much character on screen, and her designs have helped fill in a large portion of the way we think of characters.”
Zoë Howerska’s design for a zombified Marie Antoinette
Helping to create that special look for a character is a big part of movie magic. Howerska designed a “zombie Marie Antoinette” costume for a client. The concept drawing, resulting in a mixture of 18th century style and zombie chic, is one of her current favorites. Still, with so many recent designs in so many film genres, choosing only one “favorite” is impossible. Others near the top of her list include period costumes from the BBC’s documentary series about ancient Persia and a science fiction film whose characters live far in the future.
The BBC documentary required historic accuracy for 600 BC, “so all the fabrics were handmade, and everything was hand sewn.” Looking forward several centuries, Howerska enjoyed sci-fi thriller Casimir Effect because of her freedom to create a complete look for the film’s characters. There she had “a blank canvas to start with, and as a fan of sci-fi, I really wanted to make my mark and create something that was a bit different looking. Creating costumes for a hologram in the far future was a challenge, but I absolutely loved it.”
Fashion Forward: A Future in Costume Design
“When I began, I wanted to work in film because I had some integral and intangible connection to clothing and how clothes present us, how people read us. I never realized, however, that [this career]—to dress people and see my designs on a big screen—could be addictive. Sitting in that cinema, seeing my ideas, something I often feel is entirely individual and personal, on the screen, impossibly large, is a massive adrenaline rush.”
As with any career, Howerska admits that her job has lows as well as high points. “A lot of days on set can be stressful, for the smallest or most massive reasons. Sometimes things don’t go my way, and sometimes people make my job difficult. Seeing that my hard work paid off and that the kernel of an idea has come through on screen, however, makes it all worthwhile and always leaves me sitting there, thinking about what I can do next.”
What’s next for this British designer? First up is the new Jean-Claude Van Damme film, UFO, an opportunity that has Howerska beaming with excitement. In the next few years she would like to continue “to move into larger budget productions and work on more international projects. The work I’ve done with people from the US and Germany has left me wanting to work more and more in those countries.” The UK has been good to her so far, though, and she realizes that “we have a wealth of stories to tell, and I want to contribute to that wealth any way I can.”
Instead of envisioning just where she’d like to be in the next five years, Howerska is willing to go where the work takes her. “Five years ago I couldn’t have possibly imagined the amazing directors, actors, and producers I’ve worked with. I certainly didn’t think I’d have this many people I could call good friends with whom I’ve been lucky to work.” With such a variety of projects under her belt, Zoë Howerska’s success in the film industry seems sewn up. She clearly knows how to put her (and characters’) best foot forward, and if her past success is any indication, that foot will be incredibly well shod.
Zoë Howerska working on set. Photo (partial) by Andrew Chainey