Stripes on Film part 1 - choosing the fabric

Stripes in Sleepy Hollow, dir. Tim Burton 1999. Costumes by Colleen Atwood.

Hey Guys,

   As I've mentioned before many times, I loved working on Stop/Eject. It was challenging and knackering, but ultimately rewarding, and everyone involved loved the outcome of the film. And speaking of Stop/Eject, it's not only got a swanky new-look website out, but two new glowing reviews - one in Unsung Films (who supported us before with their review of Ashes) and one in the London Film Review.

   So when Neil Oseman was appointed director of a new film, I was delighted when he asked me to be a part of the crew. As Costume Designer, it's a slightly lower-down-the-ladder role than with S/E (on which I was Producer and Production Designer), but that's something I was glad of, due to my workload with Night Owls, and the fact that I'm juggling a part time job these days.

  And in this case, the Costume Designer has a particularly important part to play. A Cautionary Tale (written by Steve Deery and produced by Night Owls co-producer Sophia Ramcharan) is a ghostly little fantasy piece which flicks through various decades, so I need to be able to portray different historical periods within the film. However, due to Neil's stylistic sensibilities, we're not exactly going for 100% historical accuracy...

   The film revolves around a near-Edwardian lady called Amelia, who is described in the script as wearing a 'plain grey dress'. As all costumers sigh at the idea of 'plain', I sent Neil thirteen different concept sketches of this dress, with small editions such as trim, fancy hems, sashes and contrast fabric inserts to make it more interesting whilst still being simple. And Neil - with his love of steampunk - ended up picking the one I'd drawn in a black-and-grey striped fabric.

Tim Burton's love affair with stripes.
   Although stripes were fairly popular throughout history, with examples often found from the 18th and 19th century, they had died a bit of a death by the early 20th century, where dress shapes got much simpler. So using a striped fabric, like I said, would not be accurate to the period, but would look very striking and - dare I say it - a little bit Gothic. And, as long as the rest of the costumes, the art direction and the cinematography were slightly exaggerated too, then it would all be part of the same world, and not stand out too much. That's how Tim Burton repeatedly 'got away' with using stripe-adorned characters in his whimsical films, many of which were period pieces.

   The other problem with using a fabric that wasn't historically accurate, was buying the fabric itself. Ideally we were looking for a thick cotton, a linen, or a very thin wool to create a day dress from 1903. The main point was that it had to be woven, or at least look like it hadn't been made on a computerised machine. But if we're looking for a non-historical print, then finding it on a historical type of fabric is not possible - at least, not on a micro-budget film without the ability to have fabric made from scratch.

An example of 'marray' (sp) on my friend Fred
   The third problem with using stripes on film is a little thing called 'marray' (sp). Basically, to cut a long, technical lecture short, with some cameras, stripey fabrics (and certain striped objects like radiators) can make the image go a bit funny, resulting in dancing, wibbly shapes over the stripey portion of the frame. This is particularly noticeable with lo-tec cameras (if you watch an episode of The Office, which is starting to look a bit dated, then you can see this effect on any scene with blinds over the windows) but can also be a result of cameras with higher senses - for example, the Canon 5D is more sensitive to this problem than the Canon 600D. 

   It's not just a problem with stripes, either. Fabrics with fine but different coloured grains and prints can effect it, as can checked fabrics such as tweed. It's useful for costumers to know which cameras they're working with before they start designing costumes, as it can limit what they use. If you're lucky enough to film with 35mm (as Tim Burton surely did) or high-end cameras such as the Black Magic... then that, my fellow costumers, is what we call freedom!

   Anyway, to avoid making Neil's film look 'wibbly', I made sure to get a few small samples of stripey fabric, and filmed these on my 650D to see how they behaved (although I should point out, at this point we didn't know what A Cautionary Tale would be shot on). I managed to find a couple of woven linens, which were moe typical of the time period, but the stripes were too fine, and were a high marray (sp) risk. Ideally we wanted to get stripes which were as thick as possible, to lessen the risk, and to enhance the 'Gothic' look. 

Tea-staining the jersey fabric
   The larger stripes, as previously mentioned, only came on modern fabrics - most regularly found on stretch jersey, which is a cheap manufactured fabric often seen in H&M or Primark (or The Great Gatsby - shame on you, Catherine Martin!). I tried ageing the jersey sample in the usual fashion, by tea-staining it and then scraping it down with a sandpaper block (as this would have to be done with the chosen fabric anyway), and this made the fabric look not only thicker, but also slightly more woven.

   Here is my initial camera test with the fabric samples:

False Advertising!
Better Advertising!
   As mentioned in the above video, there was another problem with the jersey fabric I'd ordered, and that was false advertising. I tried to get the widest stripes I could find, and according to the picture the seller used - see right - I was ordering stripes of around one inch wide, and evenly spaced. When it arrived, the striped were only about a centimetre wide, and evenly spaced. The mannequin they used must've been a small, jewellery one. And so comes my second 'shame on you' of this blog post!

  But I found another seller who sold wide-striped stretch jersey and ordered some of that, resulting in a second camera test (below. Sorry about the dodgy lighting and sleepy mumblings - it was first thing in the morning!).

   In the end, when Neil hired a DOP for A Cautionary Tale (Alex Nevill) they discussed the use of a striped fabric on camera, and decided it wasn't going to be a worry. But Neil recommended I still went for the largest-striped fabric, which meant going for the modern stretch jersey, and that's the fabric I ended up making a 1902 day dress from. Which isn't something I ever expected to do!

   A Cautionary Tale shoots at the end of this coming week. Neil's already done some blog posts about it if you want more information. Once the film is in the can and some images have been released from it, I'll do the second half of my 'stripes on film' blog posts, and tell you about the issues that came about with assembling this dress from stretchy, stripey fabric pieces.



  1. very interesting, good job and thanks for sharing such a good blog.

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    1. Thank you for your kind words. I'm glad you enjoyed the post!


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