Thursday, 8 August 2013

'The Mill' - Textiles with a Story

Recently, there have been quite a few costume dramas aired on TV. Despite the obvious most popular choice being the splendour of medieval royalty in 'The White Queen' on BBC, I have to be honest and say I didn't really enjoy it. I have, instead, fallen in love with Channel 4's brilliant new mini-series, 'The Mill', which from my point of view, deserves much more credit and attention for its beautifully telling costumes (designed by Joanna Eatwell).

'The Mill' is set in 1833 and tells the story of Quarry Bank Mill in Cheshire, from the perspective of the working class. The narrative is based on true events preserved in the incredibly in-depth records at the real-life Quarry Bank Mill and brings to light the turmoil experienced by both mill-owners and workers during the development of the British textile industry through the Industrial Revolution, at a time where unpaid child labour was relied upon, but its immoral nature increasingly questioned.

In a production dealing with the cotton mills of Britain and the textile industry world-wide, it is fitting that the costumes play a vital role in the telling of this story. Of course, costume design is all about that - it is there to convey character and drive the narrative visually - which is why I think that Joanna Eatwell's design work here is so successful. The broken down cotton dresses of the mill-workers are so delicate and fragile, all in uniform tones of cold blue and grey, while the typically 1830s attire of the Greg family, the business owners and profiteers, is bold both in shape and fabric setting them vastly apart from their 'employees'. Despite the rips and wear we see at first glance, all of the costumes in this production have an undeniable beauty - they are beautiful in their fabrics, their details, breaking down and textures, and most importantly, beautiful in their telling of the real, human stories behind textile production in the early 19th Century.

The mill workers' clothes are primarily uniforms, but with what looks like years of wear, each outfit has become unique. Starting off as one style (similar to the uniform of the Foundling Hospital) the coarse cotton jackets worn by the boys as young as nine have become fitted to each individual body, with rips, fraying and faded colour communicating the kind of work they do - crawling under machinery over rough wooden floors, as well as repetitive manual work. The breaking down of these costumes is incredible - no button hole has been missed, no cuff left untouched. Every surface looks powdered with the dust that saturated the cotton mills (and made them so dangerously flammable) highlighting the set in creases and dirt on each worker's costume. With such extensive craft work comes believability, a sense of truth, and a totally immersive world.

The sadness and destitution the impoverished workers faced is visible from the opening frame. A colour scheme of faded, dusty greys, blues and browns infiltrates every part of the mill - from the bricks of the mill building to the thin and worn coat of Charlie the Overseer. Despite a restricted palette, the costumes are wonderfully detailed. The female workers' costumes for example, are made up of layer upon layer of thin cotton and linen fabrics and fraying knitted shawls wrapped and tied and tucked, each in a different shade of blue grey, each with a different pattern, maybe a stripe, or varying weaves. Wonderful lighting and cinematography allow all these various subtle textures to be seen by catching them in light streaming into the workrooms through small windows. These textures do not just provide a depth to the fabrics on camera, they provide depth to a character. From these mismatched items that seem almost scavenged, we can see the true desperation and poverty of these women.
In contrast to the rugged and distressed costumes of the workers, the Greg family wardrobe is smart, fashionable and clean-cut. They are dressed in the shapes iconic to the 1830s, which to me instantly linked this story to the well known Dickensian classics set in the same era such as Great Expectations, which have equally sombre themes. The men's three pieces suits are trimmed with velvet in rich wine tones and deep, notably un-dusty, colours that illustrate their wealth and relatively leisurely lifestyle as part of the growing merchant class.
Mrs Greg's costumes are typically 1830s in silhouette - dropped shoulders and huge puffed sleeves, with a heightened waistline. Her introduction into the narrative  and our understanding of her character are facilitated by her costume. Switching suddenly from one shot of shapeless rag dresses to a close-up of a strongly corseted bodice and huge solid puff sleeves sitting unnaturally low on the arm is shocking and unsettling. Such a voluminous and bold shape is in such contrast to the basic tunics of the working women that a statement of Mrs Greg's wealth, status and freedom is impossible to miss.
On one hand, the extravagant silhouette of her costumes can represent Mrs Greg's strong-willed, passionate and confident personality. Her role as a respected spokesperson and moral campaigner against slavery is supported by the fact that simply put, she takes up a lot more space than her male counterparts. On screen, it is hard to ignore her flamboyant dress, and therefore, it is hard to ignore her. However, it is also important that Mrs Greg is constrained and hidden by her costume. She wears a bonnet which tightly frames and shields her face. Her high neckline and tight bodice characterised by its sloping shoulders, are all restrictive. These billowing shapes almost engulf her, just as the accusations of fellows petitioners do, or the dismissal of her opinions by her businessmen family members.
Her character is a complex one, as are her costumes, which are my favourite of the collection. It is true that this period of dress is not often seen in film or television, and I feel that it has been wonderfully recreated in this series. With such a bold silhouette and lustrous silk fabrics being opposite to those worn by the workers, it is difficult to tie the social groups together as part of the same world. By using intricate lace berthas, Eatwell creates a continuous aesthetic of delicate, natural, cotton detail. An example shown below is beautifully hand embroidered, lightly gathered and heavily textured with lace.  Dusty off-white in colour, this piece of textile echoes the fibrous dust of the Mill and weaves together the world of the wealthy with that of the poor, reminding us of the seemingly unstoppable cycle that the workers are stuck in: we hear about the Greg cotton plantation in Dominica, we see the creation of yarn at the Mill, and the finished product worn on the overseers, and benefiters, of the whole process. It is the subtle signs that textiles can provide that are the driving force of storytelling in 'The Mill'.

The costume designer for this series is Joanna Eatwell, who began her career in theatre and pop promos moving to TV and most recently designing the BBC costume drama, 'The Paradise'. Although I enjoyed 'The Paradise', I wasn't so much a fan of the sets or costumes- I much prefer this project and find it a lot more successful - I'm really looking forward to seeing what Joanna Eatwell does next!
I highly recommend you watch 'The Mill' - catch it on Channel 4, Sundays at 9pm, or on 4OD.
(Image credit: Channel 4)

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