If you’re not watching BBC 2’s gangster western Peaky Blinders, stop reading now and seek it out on iPlayer – there’s still one episode left so you have time to join the party. Peaky Blinders is the slow burning tale of a volatile, family led criminal gang, headed by calculating brother Tommy Shelby (Cillian Murphy), and their rise to power in post-World War I Birmingham. It does not sound glamorous and it isn’t, yet is all the more compelling for embracing the filthy side of what many considered to be the cusp of the ‘Roaring Twenties’. Not in Birmingham it wasn’t.
Thankfully Peaky Blinders had costume designer Stephanie Collie (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, The Look of Love) on board to recreate this era in, her own words, “a heightened way”. Peaky Blinders is not intended for school history lessons, it’s a ‘Hollywoodised’ vision of 1919 with a TV budget. The costumes you see are accurate, but more significantly they’re relatable to a contemporary audience. We have already published our guide to dressing like a Peaky Blinder (endorsed by Ms. Collie) because, by and large, this is a look anyone can put together and wear today. But back to the show itself, and how exactly did the men and women of Peaky Blinders come to life on screen? We had an exclusive chat with Ms. Collie to find out more:
Paul Anderson as Arthur Shelby. The Peaky Blinders gang were so named because of the razor blades sewn into the peaks of their bakerboy caps.
Clothes on Film: How did you undertake your research? Did you look at the real life Peaky Blinders gang?
Stephanie Collie: The real Peaky Blinders were about 20 years earlier, actually. The media released a lot of photos of the real gang to help promote the show. I think they looked really good; they were really stylish. Because we went 20 years later, I researched lots and lots of photographs – Getty Images have a great archive, very useful. There was also a book we loved called Crooks Like Us by Peter Doyle, which mainly focused on Australian convicts. That’s actually where the haircuts came from. The photographs gave us a feel but what we wanted to do was heighten that look, exaggerate it slightly. Normally, of course, a man would have always worn a tie with a stiff collar, but we thought with Cillian Murphy especially that we wouldn’t do that, to keep everything sort of paired down, plus he’s got that beautiful face – what else do you need?!
CoF: I did notice that Arthur Shelby (Jnr) always wears a bow-tie though. It drew me to him being the obvious leader of the gang.
SC: That was initially what we wanted you to think. You realise quite quickly though that Tommy is the power behind the throne.
CoF: You weren’t slavish about historical accuracy?
SC: No, because, at the end of the day, you want it to be entertaining. I mean, I would never want to use anything that’s historically wrong, but we heighten things to make them more relatable. So, trousers were quite short then, but we just thought we’d lift them a bit more. It’s not the end of the world if that’s not exactly how they were worn. Everything had to be sharp and smart for us. These men probably only had maybe one or two suits, which is how we worked as well. Cillian has literally only got one or two suits throughout, but hopefully you don’t even notice that because you’re engrossed in the story. The clothes are there to be part of the story, but you don’t want anyone to go “oh, wow!” when they see them. They can never be more important than what’s going on in the scene.
CoF: It was important that the clothes were relatable now, wasn’t it?
SC: Yes, exactly. What I like about this period is that really, it could almost be now. Most of the clothes seen wouldn’t look that out of place. You can go out now and buy stuff like that, and wear it like that. I’ve said this before, but fashion always repeats itself. Three-piece suits look good on everyone. High-waisted trousers are the best thing a man can ever wear.
CoF: Were the suits all especially made for the main cast?
SC: Yes. Cillian’s were all made by a great tailor called Keith Watson. He is amazing. I’ve been using him for years and years. He started off in the 60’s, working in Savile Row. This is where he learnt his trade; he’s a brilliant cutter. Cillian went to him to do all his fittings and they worked out perfectly. Cillian is a perfect model size too, so that was helpful. The best thing was how much the boys loved their clothes, and I think you get a feel of that by the way they walk; they have a swagger about them.
For some of the other cast, the suits were hired from a mixture of Angels and Cosprop – we found great stuff. We tailored in a lot of the trousers to give them a narrower look. We were lucky enough to find some of those big overcoats, but we had to have some of them made; Paul’s had to be made. The shirts were all hired. As per usual, we had very little money so had to decide where to spend it. Obviously the suits for Cillian were very important so the money went there.
Cillian Murphy, with Paul Anderson, Joe Cole as John Shelby and Helen McCrory as Aunt Polly. Stephanie Collie believes that men “can’t go wrong with a tweed suit”.
CoF: Joe Cole looks so fantastic in that look.
SC: (laughs) I know! If he’d had that cap any more swung around he’d have it on backwards.
CoF: How would you describe the Peaky Blinders look for those wanting to recreate it?
SC: It’s all about wearing a good suit with confidence and not being afraid to be individual, to add little touches. For the Peaky Blinders, the clothes were about them showing their worth. They would go without to have that fantastic suit because for them it is all about status. It shows where they stand in their neighbourhood.
CoF: There are a lot of crowd scenes in the show. How much do you worry about keeping the silhouette accurate even though it’s often only glimpsed?
SC: I do worry, actually. I want the supporting artists to look just as good. It’s easy to just concentrate solely on the principals, and background gets slightly ignored, as though not as important. I was driving my costume girls mad. I kept saying “the trousers have to be short”, because it’s hard when you’ve got people of different sizes wearing the same trousers – you have to keep moving them up, then down, up, then down…
Sam Neil as Inspector Campbell and Annabelle Wallis as Grace Burgess. Wallis’ costumes were all specially made based on actual period designs.
CoF: Looking at the female costumes, it’s actually a similar era to the first series of Downton Abbey. But this is not Downton Abbey, is it?
SC: No, that it ain’t. We made a lot of stuff for the women, Annabelle Wallis especially. Her green suit in episode one worked out really well. When they’re telling you about the set design, when they’re making them, they’re not dressed and not painted, so you can only visualise…only later on you realise how dark they actually are.
CoF: Why was the suit green? Because of the Irish connection?
SC: No. Well, maybe, subconsciously. Annabelle tried the suit and we loved it, and I just thought it would look great in green. We basically just copied the suit in a different colour. The red suit was also copied from another. The original was a dark brown colour and it didn’t look great. I think it’s better to have something original to recreate rather than trying to design your own 1920s outfit. I would always use original designs when I can. The red dress that Annabelle wears at the races was also a copy of an original dress. It was actually blue but we knew we wanted it red for that scene – she was the scarlet woman.
CoF: Ada (Sophie Rundle) doesn’t live well, necessarily, but does have splashes of luxury in her clothing.
SC: The fur coat she wears was amazing; everybody wanted it. They would all come into the costume truck and try it on, and stroke it lovingly. That was an original from the era. A lot of stuff from that time is so delicate that you can’t use it, but this coat was in such good condition.
CoF: How did you keep it in such good condition? The show is so wet and muddy all the time.
SC: We were just very lucky. Thank goodness she didn’t fall over! The wedding dress as well, I was worrying about constantly, and those beautiful silk stockings by the mud. The worst was when we did the gypsy wedding – the mud was unbelievable. You can’t really see it because it was so dark, but having to clear it all off the next day was crazy.
Aunt Polly. Has more than one use for a hat pin.
CoF: My favourite female costumes are for Aunt Polly (Helen McCrory)…
SC: We saw her hat and the hat pin and just loved them. We wanted a slightly mannish quality to her. She was the one running everything when the boys were at war. She’s been usurped really, I suppose. Her look is from slightly earlier – Edwardian. With this period, everyone’s not suddenly “oh, it’s all 20’s – let’s suddenly be flappers”. The dresses were actually quite long, which I prefer. I loved dressing Helen. She loves fashion and loves clothes, so was really interested in everything. She has a navy pinstripe suit that was another recreation from an original. There were a lot of makes…wow, I don’t know how I was able to afford them all!
CoF: Tell us about Aunt Polly’s handbag attached to her belt (seen in the final episode).
SC: I’m not actually sure where we saw that. I liked the idea of her wearing the belt over the suit, and then after we were looking at handbags and I thought she would always be fiddling about with it. I was looking at Cosprop and all their bags and I saw it and thought “ooh, that would be interesting.” Helen loved it.
CoF: Peaky Blinders has already been commissioned for a second series. Any ideas for season two?
SC: I must say when we were shooting it everyone was thinking about it. I’d love to work on it again. We were talking and it would be slightly different. It would be a few years later, maybe even base Tommy somewhere different, just to see that change.
With thanks to Stephanie Collie.
Peaky Blinders concludes on 17th October on BBC 2 at 9.00 PM.
© 2013 – 2014, Lord Christopher Laverty.