STREET PHOTOGRAPHY, VINTAGE FINDS & ORIGINAL ‘80s FABRICS: THE STORY BEHIND THE COSTUME IN ‘IT’S A SIN’
Breaking hearts and records, It’s A Sin is the five-part drama people can’t stop talking about. Set in the 1980s as the AIDS epidemic hits, the story charts the loves and losses felt by a group of young gay men and their friends — AKA the Pink Palace crew (La!) — at a time when everything changed. Here, costume designer Ian Fulcher reveals some of the photographs and footage that inspired the show’s looks, and how he used vintage clothes and authentic fabrics to tell a very real story.
Starting from day dot with the research process, anything too obvious or clichéd never landed a pin on the moodboard. “I knew straight away that I didn’t want to make obvious choices,” begins Fulcher. “When you mention the ‘80s, it’s so easy to think of ra-ra skirts and scrunchies because that’s what you instantly remember, but for this show it was all about creating real, believable characters that you can still identify with now.” So instead of tearing pages from Smash Hits, he looked at on-street captures and Tish Murtha’s book Youth Unemployment – a photographic dossier that documented the hardship that the North East of England faced during the Thatcher era. Murtha actually started taking these shots in 1979, which coincides with It’s A Sin’s timeline. “The beginning of the script is set in 1981, so a lot of the clothes would have links to the late ‘70s – flares, for example”, says Fulcher. “Gregory’s character (played by David Carlyle) was always wearing his flares because he simply didn’t have the money to go shopping.” Other cues came from Gay Life, a docuseries that was broadcast late on Sunday nights in the early ‘80s. “It’s amazing!” enthuses Fulcher, “this really bright typography flashes up as it starts to document London’s social scene. They even filmed in Heaven and I couldn’t believe that the DJs were wearing knitted waistcoats inside the club! It was a great visual reference.”
With the research box well and truly ticked, it was time to start sourcing the perfect fabrics, clothes and accessories for each character. Fulcher did so mindfully, with a real focus on secondhand pieces and repurposed materials. “Nothing was really new. I would say around 80% of it was vintage and 20% was hired”, he shares, revealing that he bought stuff from eBay, Beyond Retro and Rokit. “We were filming in Manchester and we ended up finding four amazing shops. One of them was an Oxfam which had beautiful vintage stuff from the ‘50s onwards and there was an emporium in Stockport filled with secondhand clothing, furniture and jewellery.”
The suiting in the show – notably worn by Ritchie (Olly Alexander) while he’s performing, Colin (Callum Scott Howells), Arthur (Stephen Fry) and Henry (Neil Patrick Harris) – was made using original ‘80s fabrics; “we created from what was already there forty years ago”, Fulcher says. The lab coats worn by the doctors in the AIDS clinic were also originals that arrived in packaging complete with a ‘1982 certified’ stamp.
Delving further into the suiting and its influences, the costume designer explains that writer-creator Russell T Davies really wanted to present a very old world tailoring environment, so he chose a rich, deep-brown palette for Neil Patrick Harris’ character – though this ‘uniform’ was not without meaning or flamboyance. “When Colin arrives on Savile Row, he’s only just becoming part of the group, so he’s still blending in and almost conforming. But Henry has been there for a while. He knows his style and he knows himself as a gay man. That’s why I wanted to kick it up with more sartorial choices like a lush paisley tie and pocket square.” Henry’s square was far from an uninspired white hanky; never messy or crumpled, it was artfully folded to reveal that bit more about his character. The final touch was a glinting gold tie pin that looked effervescent on camera: “I chose it to create a bit more spark and a bit more sparkle.”
Two other looks that really shone on screen were Jill (Lydia Baxter) and Ritchie’s stage costumes. “They just looked so glossy”, remarks Fulcher. Jill’s outfit for that scene (an androgynous shirt-and-heels combo) made a marked change from the clothing we’d seen her in up until that point. “Jill is almost the matriarch of the group and so that’s why I put a lot of knitwear and mohair into her wardrobe. For a viewer, there’s something really comforting about seeing soft, tactile fabrics that you want to cuddle. It adds to her warmth, which you almost want to envelop yourself in.”
We’ve covered favourite looks but what about a favourite person to outfit? “Roscoe’s character just oozes coolness, but also Omari Douglas as an actor is so incredible to dress”, says Fulcher, revealing that he enjoyed pushing a more playful look for the scene in which the line “I’ll be staying at 23 Piss Off Avenue, London, W Fuck!” is so brilliantly delivered. Another considered choice for Roscoe was that he actually wears the same necklace all the way through the series. It’s a silver metal choker to begin with, which was layered with a studded leather choker when he was dressing up. “As he’s getting older, he’s becoming more comfortable within his own skin and aware of himself, so we removed the safety pin at the back and made it into a slightly longer necklace.” Not only did this anchor his character and create continuity, it also echoes how we tend to hold onto our jewellery for a really long time.
This idea of keepsakes leads us nicely onto the topic of sustainability. “I think people are becoming more aware of clothing that’s of a certain quality and really lasts. Maybe we’ll revert back to 50 years ago when you would buy one jumper and really look after it”, Fulcher hopes. “You wouldn’t throw it away because it wasn’t ‘fashionable’ any more.” Is there any crossover between fashion’s shift towards sustainability and the world of TV? “Even when I’m designing a show, I like to curate a capsule wardrobe for the character that’s interchangeable, rather than having loads of different shirts. It’s unnecessary. What’s more important is to have a style, not lots of throwaway clothes.”
As for the future, reducing waste by recycling what we already have is something Fulcher would like to see a lot more of, “I heard about a brand turning an old jumper into a scarf, so you’ve still got those textures and colours that you’re familiar with. I love that. I think it’s fantastic.”
© Channel 4