Period dramas offer delicious escapes, but no matter what era, period pieces need costumes that set the stage. “Mr. Selfridge,” airing on “Masterpiece Classic”?Sundays on PBS (check local listings), which unfolds in the first modern department store in 1909 England, places great emphasis on costumes.
“In Britain we don’t have as much money to make programs as in America,” James Keast, the series’ costume designer, tells Zap2it. “One of our skills is to make it look expensive. With that in mind, we are mostly filming in a shop where the colors will be black because that was the uniform of the day, and I would like to use some color.”
He created most of the costumes, but, “all of the trimmings, all of the bits of lace are original,” Keast says. He regularly haunts garage sales, charity sales and eBay. “I have a huge selection of these pieces, and if I see it, I buy it. I’m subsidizing a BBC production, and don’t charge them for it.”
“I thought ‘An American in London,’ ” Keast says of Selfridge (Jeremy Piven) outside his store. “He is dressed more British than the British. Every day he was very formal and walked around the shop and wore a morning coat. The real Selfridge did that every morning and had his watch and was really particular about everything.”
“She would look around her wardrobe and think, ‘This is my best theatrical costume arriving for my audience,’ Keast says of Zoe Tapper’s character, Ellen Love. “Half is original, and I found a bit of fabric that matches really well and made the skirt, and she looks like a naive young girl who put on her best outfit. An element looks quite theatrical, [another] looks quite sad, actually. She is trying too hard.”
Tapper recalls when her character, an actress, receives a vintage fur coat from Selfridge. “I had to whip it out and wrap it around myself,” she says. And Tapper says she was thinking, “Please don’t disintegrate!”
Lady Mae (Katherine Kelly) means business in her blue suit and hat, and Keast says this outfit represents “strength there for when she needs to feel she is in control. And what I have done is use that costume to give her that strength of character.”
This woman, who is rich and powerful, and Mrs. Selfridge wear elaborate hats, and “because it is television, a lot of it becomes head and shoulders,” Keast says, “and it has to be big to say money and position.”
As the show progresses, Tapper’s character becomes more sophisticated, and Mrs. Selfridge’s (Frances O’Connor) look becomes less cluttered. “This was to make her slightly romantic,” Keast says of the tan suit and white blouse.
And as viewers become caught up in the drama, Keast knows his creations are center stage. “I am aware the audience for this will be women on a Sunday evening,” he says.