Interview with Beth McCullagh: Costume Designer for 'Made in Dagenham'

This interview took place at Turl Street Kitchen on 12th February 2019. Made in Dagenham opened at the Playhouse the next day

Based on a true story, the play follows the 1968 strike at the Ford Dagenham plant as female workers walk out in protest against sexual discrimination, demanding equal pay. The strike was successful, leading to the 1970 Equal Pay Act. Throughout our conversation, Beth is threading needles, finding scissors, and stitching the cuff of a dark green, vintage blazer.

Beth McCullagh, Costume Designer for  Made in Dagenham .

Beth McCullagh, Costume Designer for Made in Dagenham.

TW: How did you start costume design?

BM: The costume design began at A-level. I did Art and Textiles, and nearly did Fine Art as a degree - I decided to do languages instead. I enjoyed using the machines, doing weird things with it, making things. Then when I got to Oxford, I wanted to see what costume design was like. I was a dresser for Sweet Charity last Hilary, where I met Amy Thompson - the producer of Made in Dagenham. She was looking for a Costume Designer for Brave New World last year, which I did, and she then asked me to work on Dagenham. It’s really exciting for me, because I really like period drama. You have to do the research. 

TW: Did you research the history of the 1968 strike?

BM: Yes. They are really quite mute colours – that’s more realistic. But something I noticed generally in shows is that ensemble members just blend. And when you’ve got lots of factory women together, they are all wearing the same thing. Hopefully you’ll see that I’ve tried to make the costumes bright and individual, especially for the five principle women. Each of their costumes reflects their personality. There is only one girl wearing trousers. It says something about her role as part of the friendship group. And there’s a character, Sandra, who says that ‘I would like my overalls to be designed by Mary Quant.’ Mary Quant championed the mini-skirt, so I’ve dressed her in a little white tennis skirt. When I saw that skirt, I thought I want Grace, the actress, to wear that.  

Grace Albery (playing Sandra Beaumont) in the white ‘Quant’ tennis skirt.

Grace Albery (playing Sandra Beaumont) in the white ‘Quant’ tennis skirt.

TW: Do the actors have an input in their costumes?

BM: People message me asking “Can I wear a wedding ring?”, or “Can I have some earrings?”, which is great. It helps me, because I can then find stuff to make their costumes feel more in character, but at the same time it’s a lot of running around! But in terms of the actual clothes they wear, no, not really. I tell them, “this is what you’re wearing.” It starts with the director [Miranda Mackay]. We then sit down and come up with ideas and designs together. I then go away to source and make the costumes, and then come back to the actors. 

TW: What does ‘making’ a costume actually involve?

BM: In terms of sourcing, it depends what it is. I get clothes from lots of places, like charity shops. I’m Northern Irish, and I know a lot of charity ships in Northern Island. I source clothes from them. I use vintage shops as well, for more of the standout pieces. But if there are costumes that have to be a very particular way, or if I’ve got a very particular idea, I’m not going to find it, so I make it. I cut and stitch it together. Occasionally I’ll buy a garment, like a dress that I like the material of, and then I alter it to make it fit. There is one particular dress. It’s supposed to be my Biba [the Sixties London fashion store]. It’s featured in the film, and when the play opened with Gemma Arterton they kept the same dress. I’ve made the same thing.

Maddy Page (playing Rita O’Grady), centre, wearing ‘that’ dress.

Maddy Page (playing Rita O’Grady), centre, wearing ‘that’ dress.

TW: Has the film been an influence?

BM: Yes and no. In terms of the dress, yes. Without that dress, it’s like The Phantom of the Opera without the mask. It’s become iconic for Dagenham. It’s even mentioned in the script. Multiple characters wear it. Lisa, who is the wife of Mr Hopkins – leader of the Ford Factory – is very stylish. She then lends the dress to Rita, who cares about getting skilled-grade pay, equal pay. This lending of the dress is a real symbol of solidarity between classes, between women.

TW: So fashion is integral to Made in Dagenham?

BM: Yes! There are multiple mentions of specific designers in the script, which is really fun because I could then research and ask, “What did these designers do?”. I went to the Victoria and Albert Museum to look at the original designs. They have an online archive, but it was really nice to see that in person. 

TW: How did seeing the clothes in person effect your designs? 

BM: You can go and feel them, handle the actual clothing, but I didn’t know at the time. I would have if I could, because that plays a huge part in trying to replicate something. You know what the fabric is like. But seeing it makes a huge difference. I would think, “I didn’t realise that’s the way the fabric would sit” or “I didn’t realise that that’s what that looked like.” It effected the fabrics I chose. Often, when you see something in an image, you think “I’ll just make that, I’ll just get the fabric”. But seeing the fabric they actually used can often help, because the garment has more integrity – it looks better. I source that fabric. 

Beth’s functional sketches.

Beth’s functional sketches.

TW: The show is expecting older audience members. Have older family members from that generation had an influence on your designs?

BM: Ah yes! My grandmother is a great seamstress, and she also did French at university, so I’m almost following in her footsteps. When I was making the red dress, she was a massive help to me. I took it to her house and we looked at it, figured out what to do. I was also quite worried about how I was going to get skirts for one of the scenes. They are all wearing white skirts and they’re different heights and shapes and sizes. One of the things I love is making costumes for real people, for different personalities. But I was worried how I was going to make them all. But my grandmother did it, and they arrived with the actress’s name pinned to them, and their waist-size and length. 

TW: Do you have a favourite costume, one you’ve enjoyed designing?

BM: The costumes for one scene, ‘This is America’, which is all a bit flashy and ridiculous. For the girls in the background, Miranda really wanted stars and stripes to be the theme. But it was really difficult to get anything. So I decided to buy white corsets and then put the American flag design on them. That took hours. My grandmother and my mum helped a lot with that. So that was a labour of love. The amount of hours I spent on those would make them the costumes I look at and feel most proud of. 

TW: The show has been described as ‘60s glam’, a ‘bright, bold, flashy production’. Is that mirrored in the costumes?

BM: It needs to be flashy, it needs to be bright, because these women have personalities. They are not unskilled workers that don’t matter. Each individual woman and her story matters. History matters. So that’s why it’s bright. But also, it’s a musical. So, combining the two together, this is an important story but at the same time it’s flashy. 

Made in Dagenham is produced by Four Seven Two Productions, and is running at the Oxford Playhouse from 13th-16th February 2019. 

Photography by Ben Darwent.

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