The Last Letter From Your Lover and Downton Abbey: Behind the scenes with costume designer Anna Robbins

WHAT I want to know, I tell costume designer Anna Robbins, is that when you’re on a film set, working closely with actors to make them look as good as possible and maybe conceal what needs to be concealed, do you ever think there is an element of the therapist about your job?

Some 400 plus miles away in London and on the other end of a Zoom call, Robbins begins to laugh. “There is definitely an element of being able to read situations,” she answers. “It’s my job and it’s my team’s job to work day-in-day-out with the cast. We work in highly-pressurised environments and we work to strict time deadlines. So, it can be quite a stressful job. I think our job is to create positive energy which translates absolutely onto the set and into scenes … So yeah,” she says, smiling again, “our jobs are multifaceted.”

Very diplomatically put, you might say. But maybe diplomacy is just one of the many talents a good costume designer needs in her quiver. Talk to Robbins and you get a real sense of how key a role the job is in any self-respecting TV or film shoot.

“You’re always right in it or you should be,” she points out. “You’re working alongside the director and the production designer so that you can look at sets and interiors and know what your costumes are going to be set against. You don’t put someone in yellow against yellow … Unless you want to. There are all these decisions that need to be made.

“You are working with a DP [director of photography] so you know how your colours are going to translate on camera into the grade. So, you are looking at the lighting and how that’s going to behave with your costume.

“You work really closely with the hair and make-up department because our departments come together completely when it comes to creating this one look. If you design a hat the hair has got to work with the hat.

“And then you build a very close relationship with cast as well. They’re the people embodying these characters and bringing these characters to life and if I’ve done my job correctly then I will help them in that process.”

HeraldScotland: Felicity Jones in The Last Letter From Your Felicity Jones in The Last Letter From Your

For an example of what all this means in practice you could do much worse than look at Robbins’s contribution to the new film The Last Letter From Your Lover. Based on a novel by Jojo Moyes, it’s a romantic melodrama set in both the 1960s and the present day, and stars Shailene Woodley and Felicity Jones. Jones plays Ellie Haworth, a 21st-century journalist who uncovers love letters from the 1960s exchanged between a married English woman called Jennifer Stirling (Woodley) and a foreign correspondent Anthony O’Hare (played by Callum Turner) and attempts to work out what happened between them.

The film is a sumptuous mixture of vintage Dior and Courreges, bespoke men’s tailoring and contemporary clothes that subtly echo the 1960s clothing. It’s a wish list of beautiful ties.

And then there are Jennifer’s gloves. “I love a glove,” Robbins admits.

“I don’t think I’ve done a job where there are two different periods within one film.” The challenge was to make sure “you didn’t feel that you were in two different films,” Robbins explains.

“What I wanted to do with Jennifer and Ellie is have them linked. So, they were connected to each other through their clothing. That was through palette and little textiles like a houndstooth weave on a fabric that went from one scene into the next on both women. Little things like that.”

HeraldScotland: Robbins's sketches for clothing for Jennifer, left, and EllieRobbins’s sketches for clothing for Jennifer, left, and Ellie

It’s also a perfect example of how costume equals character. “I used the 1960s in the contemporary section as well and had little nods to the sixties. We had a pair of little court shoes on Elie that just worked so well with this little houndstooth dress that she wore. The side of the sixties that Jennifer isn’t a part of existing within this modern free, liberal woman working able to just be herself and see who she wants to see.

“While Jennifer is constrained within her world. She is the 1960s you don’t see so much, that has still one foot in the 1950s.

“She’s constrained by her class and her relationship and the world she inhabits. She’s definitely held back, but you get little inklings of how she might be if she had more freedom.”

When it comes to costume design, Robbins always starts with original clothes, “because, I think, it really anchors the piece into that time. It makes it feel really authentic.

“And then you start getting good at the construction, seeing how these things were put together; the tiny little details of seams and shoulders and bust points that makes it feel sixties.

HeraldScotland: Woodley and Turner in The Last Letter From Your LoverWoodley and Turner in The Last Letter From Your Lover

“So, we shopped a lot for original pieces. We’ve got Dior, Balenciaga, Courreges, Lanvin in there. And then a lot of bespoke makes which means you can control the palette and fabric and texture. A lot of our men’s suiting is bespoke as well just to get the right cut and fit and tone for the piece. But there are a lot of original accessories for menswear.

“The tailoring is amazing. I work with a tailor Chris Kerr and he’s just fantastic at getting whatever decade it is I’m after, whatever year I’m after.

“I love menswear as much as womenswear. It’s a fantastic thing to design.”

Time to pull back and make a proper introduction. Anna, if you would be so kind …

“My name is Anna Robbins. I’m 43. I think I’m a Gemini. I was born in Stirling, grew up in Crieff. I lived in Edinburgh for a long time. I lived in Glasgow for a bit and then I’ve ended up in London.”

And right now, she’s quarantining there, having just returned from the south of France where she’s been working on something called Downton Abbey. Maybe you have heard of it. There’s a second film in the offing.

Robbins originally trained to be a lawyer at Edinburgh University but then switched to Edinburgh College of Art where she fell in love with costume design. After cutting her teeth on no-budget shorts Robbins has spent the past 10 years working in television on series such as The Bletchley Circle and The Halcyon, as well as the odd Scottish film including Sunshine on Leith and Wild Rose. But it’s her involvement in Downton that stands out.

She joined the production team for the fifth series of the ITV show. “It was like stepping out under a very bright spotlight. There was a lot of focus on the costumes, and I felt a huge amount of pressure to get it right,” Robbins says.

“And I wanted to make it my own. It was moving through the 1920s at a decent enough pace that I was able to come in and mark that and then make it mine in that transition through to the second half of the twenties. So, creatively, it was incredibly satisfying.

“I’ve always described it as a relay race and you’re passing the baton from one person to another, and it should be seamless. It should be really smooth. The audience shouldn’t be confused or jolted out of their experience within the show. I had to make sure that it was a smooth transition but also that I was able to make my mark through the characters and move them forward.”

Forward into the cinema ultimately, which raises the quality control even higher. “It’s got to be almost museum quality because you see everything, whereas television can be a bit more forgiving.”

She thinks about this for a moment and then comes up with a caveat. “But then you’re adding in HD, so, actually, nothing is forgiving anymore, and your job just gets harder.

“You’re going to get more full-length shots in films. You can really think about your shoes and the whole outfit and how it comes together in these beautiful shots where you get the impact of everything you designed. In television you might get that a bit less. You put your money on screen where you know it’s going to count.

“So going from television on Downton to the big screen was a huge challenge to just make it feel more cinematic. Which is what I wanted to do with Last Letter as well.”

Which is the more more difficult, working with no budget or working with a big budget?

“I think when you are working with small budgets you constantly think all your problems will be solved when you have a bigger budget and then when you have a bigger budget you’ve just got different problems to solve.

“Some of my fondest memories are on short films where I had absolutely next to nothing. We had to come up with everything in such a creative way and it’s all hands on deck and it’s really stressful. But the results are just the most rewarding thing.

“Then when you’ve got a bit more money, you’re able to commission beadwork and actually utilise the crafts I love so much and keep those crafts alive.”

HeraldScotland: Anna RobbinsAnna Robbins

Ask her which contemporaries she admires in the field of costume design, and she talks about Michael O’Connor who worked on the film Ammonite and Tulip Fever and the legendary Sandy Powell, best known for her work with Derek Jarman, Martin Scorsese and Todd Haynes.

“I tend to like designers who design in a way that I don’t. You’re always looking at the things people can do that you don’t do yourself. That might be the use of colour like Sandy Powell’s exaggerated use of palette which I think can be glorious but it’s not something that I do.”

As for the future, well, she’d love to go there in her work. “I’ve always looked back in time. I’ve never looked forward. So, I guess that’s a frontier that I’m yet to tackle. And it would excite me because I constantly work with looking at the rules, etiquette and conventions of dress and what the dress meant at the time and how we view what that dress means with a modern perspective.

“And I think all of those rules would get thrown forward and still exist. It’s not that the future doesn’t have these rules. It’s that we don’t know how these rules are going to play out yet. That’s quite exciting.”

If anyone wants to make the great Scottish sci-fi film, give Anna Robbins a call.

The Last Letter From Your Lover is in cinemas now

The Herald Scotland

The Herald Scotland

The Herald is a Scottish broadsheet newspaper founded in 1783. The Herald is the longest running national newspaper in the world and is the eighth oldest daily paper in the world. The title was simplified from The Glasgow Herald in 1992